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Baby Steps: Tummy Time Tips

Q. People keep telling me that "tummy time" is vital for development, but when I put my 6-month-old on her stomach, she just screams and cries. How can I help her stay there? Is this important enough to submit her to such misery?

A. "Tummy time" is a concept that has taken on increased importance since the "back to sleep" campaign to prevent sudden infant death syndrome began a few years ago. As concerned parents started putting their infants to sleep on their back, pediatricians noticed that babies had fewer opportunities to spend time on their tummy, since most babies wake up in the position in which they fall asleep. In response, the American Academy of Pediatrics has recommended that babies spend some time on their tummy when they are awake, with an adult close by, so that they have an opportunity to strengthen the upper-body muscles that are used for sitting, crawling, and pulling up to stand.

Research indicates that babies who spend extra time on their tummy do actually achieve certain motor milestones, such as those mentioned above, earlier than babies who don't. Yet even those babies who spend almost no time on their stomach attain these milestones within a reasonable amount of time, so not having tummy time does not result in any real delays in development. In addition, babies who have extra tummy time start walking at around the same age as babies who don't, further suggesting that any differences between these two groups don't last.

Don't worry if your daughter resists a daily quota of tummy time. Many young babies don't like it because it is very limiting as far as what it allows them to see and do. When your daughter is on her back, she can wave her arms and legs, twist her torso, and see all around her. But when she is on her stomach, she has to work very hard to keep her head up, can use only her arms for support, and is unable to move her legs much.

One way that you can make it more pleasant for her is by putting her on her tummy on the floor or bed and then lying on your stomach so that you're face to face with her. Get close and be a little silly -- she might be entertained (and may lean her head on yours for support). You can also offer her a little unbreakable mirror in which to admire herself when she looks down, or play a musical mobile to encourage her to pull her head up.

As your daughter's neck gets stronger, tummy time should become more comfortable for her. But if she remains unhappy when you put her down, skip it. Babyhood is not a race. If she crawls four weeks later than her peers, it doesn't matter now and it certainly won't matter later (college applications generally don't ask about the timing of major motor skills). It is more important that your baby is happy and you are responsive to her signals than that she achieves milestones at a rapid clip.

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