A Now that babies are put to sleep on their backs to reduce the risk of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS), infants are spending less time on their stomachs (the prone position) than they did in the past. While the "Back to Sleep" campaign has been successful in dramatically reducing SIDS deaths, the change to back sleeping has been linked to a flattening of infants' heads, as well as a temporary delay in reaching motor milestones such as rolling and crawling. These conditions can usually be prevented if babies do not lie on their backs exclusively during the day.
The term "tummy time" refers to placing a baby on her stomach when she's awake and being observed. (These sessions should always be supervised in case your baby falls asleep in the prone position, a risk factor for SIDS.) Think of it this way: back to sleep and tummy to play. Several 5- to 10-minute periods a day of tummy time will help your baby with balance and strengthen the upper body muscles that are later used for sitting and crawling or creeping.
Tummy time also helps prevent the flattening of the back of the head that can cause plagiocephaly, an asymmetrical head shape. The problem is usually only cosmetic, but in severe cases, it can lead to changes in the neck muscles and head tilting. Front or back carriers that keep pressure off the back of the head can help, as can alternating the position of your baby's head (facing right or left) when you put her to sleep.
Although tummy time sounds easy enough, many babies protest soon after being placed on their stomachs because they have to work hard in this position to keep their heads up, and they have limited movement of their arms and legs.
Rest assured that babies do not suffer any dire consequences if you provide less than ideal tummy time. Although it can help a baby achieve certain motor milestones sooner, this "accelerated" development is not permanent, and normal babies eventually learn to sit, stand, and walk. In the meantime, the following suggestions may help your baby learn to enjoy being on her stomach.
Begin tummy time early (when your baby is a newborn) so she can become more comfortable in the prone position. Try leaning back in a recliner and laying your baby on your chest for brief periods of one to two minutes. (Avoid the tummy position right after feedings if it seems to make your baby uncomfortable.)
Offer distractions as your baby gets older. Special gadgets are not necessary, though many parents find that the new "tummy time" toys -- including colorful play mats, plastic mirrors, and light-up games -- help babies who become bored when on their stomachs. You can also get down on the floor with your child face-to-face to encourage her. Keep the experience positive, and don't enforce tummy time if she doesn't like it.
Educate caregivers to provide regular supervised tummy time when your baby is awake, and remind them never to leave her unattended in this position.