Rolling is one of baby’s first significant motor milestones. Hello, mobility!
Not only is rolling the first step in developing postural control (important for later development of fine motor skills such as handwriting), it is also important because it engages a part of the brain responsible for making the left and right sides of the body “talk” to and coordinate with each other (important for reading, writing, and developing higher motor skills). Cool, huh…or am I the only nerd in the room?
Some babies are ready to roll from the get-go, while others take their time. On average, babies tend to first roll from tummy to back between 2-5 months, from back to side between 4-5.5 months, and from back to tummy between 5.5-7.5 months. Regardless of whether babies take the fast or slow road to rolling, their bodies begin preparing to roll wayyyyyy before they ever flip themselves over that very first time. And, guess what? YOU get to be a part of that preparation! This post contains affiliate links for your convenience (see full disclosure here).
Here are 10 tips for helping babies learn how to roll:
1. Set down and pick up baby while shifting his weight to the side in a rolling motion. You can start this one as soon as baby is born and — guess what? — it’s super easy to incorporate into your daily routine. You can do this with every diaper change and sleep session which means, for a newborn, it can add up to 20 or more times a day. That’s a lot of practice!
Here’s how you do it: Sit baby on his bottom and roll him over to the side while setting him down. He will automatically try to keep his head from falling out of line with his body (a reflex with which babies are born), strengthening the muscles on the sides of his neck. This move also allows him to practice pushing against the floor with the arm on the way down. Simply reverse this motion when it’s time to pick baby up. Be sure to practice rolling baby to both sides throughout the day…we don’t want a baby who only moves to one side! Check out the photos below or watch a short video demonstrating this maneuver by clicking here.
2. Minimize time spent in baby equipment. This includes baby swings, bouncer chairs, play saucers/jumpers and, yes, even car seats (though car seats should ALWAYS be used while baby is in a vehicle). The only way babies develop new motor skills is through experience, practice, and trial & error, so for every minute they are in baby equipment, that’s a minute of lost experience. Don’t get me wrong, baby equipment is super helpful for busy caregivers and fussy babies, and it makes for great photo ops for that adorable baby scrapbook you’ll never get around to completing. I have a post on this very topic (baby equipment, not hopeless photos…we all know that scrapbook will never happen). We just don’t want babies spending the majority of their waking (and sleeping) hours confined to spaces and equipment preventing them from practicing their new and exciting motor skills.
3. Allow baby plenty of tummy time during the day. All of a baby’s major motor skills develop from the tummy time position, which is why it’s so important for babies to practice being on their tummy. Time spent on the tummy helps babies strengthen their neck and back muscles necessary for arching against gravity and, eventually, rolling. In general, babies fully lift their head off the floor during tummy time by 2 months, hold their chest off the floor during tummy time between 2-4 months, and bear weight on their hands while on their tummy between 4-6 months. I know, the majority of young babies hate tummy time with a burning passion. You’d scream too if you were stuck with your face on the floor! If this is the case for the baby in your life, you’re in luck! Check out my post to learn some super handy tips for making tummy time less miserable by clicking here.
Once your baby is comfortable on his tummy and can push his chest off the floor, you may notice that he will start to rock his body side to side. This means he’s on his way to initiating his new skill of rolling! It may be hours or weeks until he finally topples over for the first time, but the fact that he is practicing shifting his weight side to side is HUGE! For some babies who have trouble learning how to roll, this weight shifting thing is key.
Sometimes babies seem to get “stuck” in that pushed up position and just can’t seem to figure out (or are uncomfortable with) shifting their weight side to side. You can help with this by guiding him in some slow, gentle side-to-side motions while he’s pushed up as you sing a song like Row, Row, Row Your Boat or The Wheels on the Bus and then help him shift his weight to the side just enough that he is able to finish the roll himself at the end of the song or verse. You can also help your baby shift his weight side to side on an exercise ball (learn more about that here) as he practices this skill in preparation for rolling. Just be sure to be super duper careful, move slowly, keep your hands on his mid-section at all times, and keep him on top of the ball (not coming down the side of the ball) so it doesn’t slip out from under you/him.
4. Allow baby to play on her back while helping her move through “rounded” positions. Playtime on the back is just as important as tummy time, especially when baby has the opportunity to move into and out of a rounded or “tucked” position. We want babies to develop a good balance of extension (that “arching” position, learned in tummy time) and flexion (that “tucked” position, learned in playtime on the back) as they grow and learn new motor skills; we don’t want one position overpowering the other. This rounded position is easy to achieve because most young babies prefer to be on their back, plus it allows caregivers to easily interact with and entertain them. Playtime on the back can take place on any flat surface — even in your lap — as you sing, read, talk, or help baby nibble on her toes while providing flexion in baby’s knees, hips, and/or trunk.
5. Allow baby to play on his side. You can use toys, mirrors, books, or the most exciting toy — your face! — to engage him in the side lying position. He may need help staying on his side when he’s younger, and this can easily be done with your hand, foot, or a rolled up receiving blanket wedged behind his back. As he becomes more comfortable on his side, place desired toys or objects just out of his reach. He will begin to cross his top leg over to the floor aaaaand…wa-la!…this is how he will initiate the roll to his tummy!
6. Allow baby to spend roughly equal amounts of time on all four sides of the body: tummy, back, left side, right side. This gives baby’s body exposure to all positions involved in rolling as she strengthens her neck, trunk, and arms. It’s also good for preventing the formation of flat spots on the back of her head which, if you ask me, is incentive enough to mix things up throughout the day. Try to vary baby’s position about every 15-20 minutes.
7. Encourage baby to play at (and cross) his midline. Movement is performed in relation to the invisible line down the center of our bodies, and the ability to roll is dependent on a baby’s ability to come to (and cross) that midline. The great thing is, our center moves with us wherever we go, so midline play can be done lying on the back or the side. Babies generally develop the ability to play with their hands in midline between 1-3.5 months (while on their back), and are able to look with their head in midline in this position between 4-5 months.
8. Encourage baby to separate movements of upper and lower body. Newborn babies are wired to keep their body in one line, so they’ll do a “log roll” if you try to roll them over. The “segmental roll” typically develops between 4-5 months, as they are able to twist and separate the movements of the upper and lower body while initiating the roll with their hips. Once baby is comfortable playing at midline in the rounded position mentioned earlier, you can go ahead and move her back and forth through these twisting positions to the rhythm of your favorite children’s song (Row, Row, Row Your Boat has won critical acclaim in our household). Start with both legs moving together, then progress to helping baby grab one foot with the opposite hand. Pause for a second after each twist in order to give baby’s body a chance to register the movement, then proceed and let the good times roll!
9. Carry baby in a “tucked”, face down, or sideways position. Who knew rolling could develop from being carried? This tip was inspired by child development specialist Laura Sobell (learn more about Laura and her amazing work at calmbaby.com). You can carry baby around the house this way or, better yet, you can DANCE WITH YOUR BABY! Turn on some music, get in front of a mirror for baby’s viewing pleasure, and move her through space in all of these positions as you bounce and sing and smile. You’d be surprised how much babies love this one! Be sure to STOP every 30 seconds or so to take a 10-second break in order to give baby’s nervous system a chance to fully process and adjust to the movements (their system will sort of “tune out” the movements if you keep going long enough).
10. Wear your young baby in a carrier that keeps her legs in a frog-like position, rather than separating her legs into a straddle position. These carriers encourage engagement at the midline which, as noted previously, is important in the development of rolling. Such baby carriers include the over-the-shoulder Maya Wrap as well as more symmetrical carriers such as the Moby Wrap (read my review of Moby Wraps here), Baby K’tan Baby Carrier, and Ergo Baby Carrier. All of these carriers allow your young baby to be carried in a frog-like position.
So there you have it! Ten ways to help babies learn how to roll. Don’t go overboard with this stuff. We’re not training babies for the Infant Olympics! Start with the basics, have fun, and let the baby be your guide. Share this information with people you know who may find it useful…the more who know about it, the better for our babies.
Want even more tips related to rolling?
The wonderful Starfish Therapies has put together this short video and post about how to encourage your baby to roll from back to tummy, plus this general post about encouraging rolling, and another post called “My Child Isn’t Rolling Over: Should I Be Concerned?”
And Pediatric OT Anne Zachry has a really helpful book called Retro Baby which is filled with tips and activities to help your baby develop skills such as rolling, sitting, and crawling. You can read my review of Retro Baby by clicking here, or you can just head straight to Amazon to see it for yourself.
Alright, time to get rolling!
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In addition to being mama to two sweet little boys and wife to a crazy awesome husband, Christie is a Registered & Licensed Occupational Therapist (OTR/L). She holds a B.A. in Psychology with a Minor in Education from the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA...Go Bruins!), and an M.A. in Occupational Therapy from the University of Southern California (USC OT). She has experience working as a pediatric OT in early intervention (birth to 3), clinic-based, and school-based settings. Her mission with MamaOT.com is to encourage, educate, and empower those who care for children. Christie loves that she gets to PLAY when she goes to work, is hopelessly addicted to Kettle Corn, and is known for being able to turn virtually anything into a therapeutic tool or activity, from empty food containers to laundry and everything in between. Learn more about Christie and what inspired her to become an OT.
Occupational therapy (OT) is a holistic profession that helps people across the lifespan participate in the things they want and need to do through the therapeutic use of everyday activities, also known as “occupations”. Some OTs help people diagnosed with disability, injury, or disease. Others help prevent disability, injury, or disease. Because of occupational therapy, people of all ages are able to say, "I can!" no matter what their struggle. Isn't that amazing?!
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