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!
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’m currently writing 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 between 2-4 months, and bear weight on their hands while in prone 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 earlier post to learn seven tips for making tummy time less miserable by clicking here.
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 position. We want babies to develop a good balance of extension (learned in tummy time) and flexion (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, or talk 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, he will begin to cross his top leg over to the floor…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) midline. All movement is performed in relation to the center of our bodies, and the ability to roll is dependent on a baby’s ability to come to (and cross) that invisible line in the middle of his body. 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 dissociate 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? 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 baby in a carrier that keeps her legs together or 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 various over-the-shoulder slings and commercial brands such as Moby Wrap or Baby K’tan.
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.
Time to get rolling!
Developmental milestones referenced from HELP Strands, a curriculum-based developmental assessment used in pediatric therapy for ages 0-3.