LEXINGTON, Ky. (July 9, 2014) -- Many parents and parents-to-be are aware of the “back to sleep” recommendation made by the American Academy of Pediatrics, which advises that infants sleep on their backs. Making sure your baby sleeps on his or her back significantly reduces the chance of sudden infant death (SIDS). However, when infants are awake and being watched, they should spend time on their bellies, starting from the first few days of life.
Many infants today spend far too many of their waking hours on their backs or in sitting devices such as car seats, swings, and carriers. Too much time spent on their backs and in devices has led to increases in head and neck deformities in infants and delayed motor development. Infants need to be on the floor on their bellies learning to move and explore their environment.
Infants should be encouraged to lift up their heads and look around while on their bellies. As their motor skills develop, teach infants to reach for objects and prop up on their elbows or hands during "tummy time," which helps to build strong back and neck muscles important for later activities such as sitting, crawling, walking, and talking.
If infants don’t have tummy time during their first few weeks of life, they might dislike being on their tummies. Parents can get on the floor lying on their backs and place the infant on their bellies, so they are tummy-to-tummy and face-to-face. Infants love that time looking at the parent’s face and don’t seem to mind being on the tummy as much.
Parents can try that several times a day for a few minutes and then progress to both parent and infant on their tummies face-to-face on the floor. That gets the infant accustomed to a firm surface, while still looking at the loving parent who (if not accustomed to being on the floor) is probably making some interesting faces! Eventually the infant will not mind being on his or her tummy if there are fun, appropriate objects placed at eye-level. Of course, the floor must be baby-safe: all small objects, which they might get in their mouths, must be removed.
Ultimately, infants will learn to roll from their tummies and soon crawl and creep around the house, exercising their independence and learning about their environment. Crawling and creeping are important motor skills that should be encouraged long before walking. Remember: for infants, it's back to sleep and tummy time to play.
Susan Effgen, PT, PhD, FAPTA, is a professor at the University of Kentucky College of Health Sciences, Division of Physical Therapy.
This column appeared in the July 5, 2014 edition of the Lexington Herald-Leader