Simple Ideas with Profound Impact
We are often asked, “What is the most important thing that I can do for my child’s brain?” The answer may surprise you. Put your child in the prone position, which is to say, on his tummy! That’s it. No fancy, expensive toys or equipment. No mommy/baby classes. No iPads. All you need is a comfortable surface and the time to be with your baby. This one practice will do more for your child’s brain than anything else you can do. Put him on his tummy! Pretty simple, right?
So, let’s dive right in and talk about tummy time. Parents are sometimes aware that giving their child tummy time is a good idea but they are almost never told how to do it or why it’s important. It is one of the reasons that most parents avoid it like the plague. And, unfortunately, many children are paying a price for that.
Tummy time is one of the most important developmental opportunities you can give your baby but it has to be done right. We’ll start with why it’s important and then talk about how to do it.
Why do Tummy Time
Did you know that when you place your baby on her tummy (prone position) you are not only developing her muscles but you are also developing your baby’s brain? The development of the function of mobility begins with time spent in the prone position, tummy time.
We define mobility as follows – the function we use to transport ourselves from point A to point B. The key word in that definition is transport. Mobility is useless as a function, it serves no purpose, unless it is directed towards something. That something is transportation. Developing good mobility is not complicated, but it is extremely important. Why?
All forms of mobility, including tummy crawling:
- Facilitate brain organization
- Increase production of myelin
- Increase production of BDNF (brain-derived neurotrophic factor) – a protein produced in the brain during physical activity. Neuroscientists call it “Miracle-Gro for the brain” because of the proliferation of new neurons and dendrites produced whenever it is found in high concentrations.
- Develop the senses of vision, hearing and tactile ability
- Increase muscle strength
- Improve coordination and balance
- Improve posture
- Develop breathing
Mobility is key to brain organization because the brain works as a holistic system. Everything affects everything else. Primitive brain structures are connected to higher level brain structures. As in any system, it is important that each component of the system functions well for the entire system to function well.
This concept is important to mobility’s role in brain organization because the only time that human beings use all functions simultaneously is when we are moving. Every time we use an ability, we are using and developing our brain. When we move, we use vision to see where we are going. We use hearing and receive information about our position in space by way of the inner ear. We feel our arms and legs moving through our tactile sense. We use our hands when we crawl and creep. So mobility is, in a very real sense, the glue that holds all other functions together.
There are many ways a baby can learn to move but not all of them foster good brain development and brain organization. Keep in mind that we human beings are designed to start moving for transportation on our tummies and not on our backs or our bottoms! The natural progression that all babies should experience is to begin by crawling on their tummies, then to progress to creeping on their hands and knees, then to stand and cruise (often holding onto furniture), and finally, the grand prizes of walking and running.
So, what are the best practices to make tummy time enjoyable and successful for your baby and you? We’re so glad you asked!
How to do Tummy Time
When to start?
Provided your baby is healthy, begin right from birth. Why? Because when done correctly, babies who are placed on their tummies right from birth learn to enjoy tummy time. You want your baby to enjoy tummy time. Your baby should enjoy tummy time.
In the below video of my granddaughter, she is already having a tummy time session at 3 days of age . You’ll see that even at only a few days of age she is already comfortable on her tummy.
If you have not started tummy time from birth, no worries. The beautiful thing about the human brain is that we can always make up for missed opportunity. The first step is to recognize the importance of the opportunity. Begin now and follow the steps below.
Always be with your baby when doing tummy time! When placing your baby on her tummy, always be with her so you can see her face, she can see yours, and you can pick her up as soon as necessary. If you have your baby on a mat on the floor, lay down on the floor next to her. Doing this will reassure your baby that you are always there for her no matter where she is or what position she is in. That will make her happy. And if she’s happy, you’ll be happy.
For now, aside from being clean and comfortable, the type of surface on which you place your baby is not very important. What is important is that you want to make sure there is nothing around the baby (sheets, blankets, clothing, etc.) that she can pull onto her face, thus potentially affecting her ability to breathe. So, a comfortable mattress covered with a clean sheet works just fine.
When it comes to tummy time and learning to move, remember that less is more. You want your baby to be dressed appropriately for the ambient temperature in the room. So, if the temperature is warm perhaps barefoot with just a t-shirt and a diaper will work just fine. If the temperature is on the cooler side perhaps you will want to dress your baby in a onesie or pajamas with her feet covered. Do what you think is right for the temperature. The one thing you do want to pay attention to is that the clothing should not in any way interfere with your baby’s ability to move her arms and/or legs. Provided she can move freely, you and she are in good shape.
The below video is of my grandson doing tummy time at one week of age. It’s a good illustration of all of the previous points – always being present, a comfortable surface, and appropriate dress. And, there’s a great little bonus towards the end.
In our last blog post about the second law of brain development, we talked about the importance of using the correct frequency, intensity, and duration for whatever activity we are doing with a child. For a child with an immature brain (either because of chronological age, brain-injury, or lack of development), the frequency of any activity should always be high. Whatever it is, you want to do it often.
So, you want to use high frequency. You should place your baby on her tummy at every opportunity – many times throughout the day whenever she is awake. Logical exceptions to this are when nursing or bottle feeding, changing her diaper, or just spending time snuggling. A good way to get in the habit is to roll your little one over onto her tummy after every diaper change.
Going back to our post on the second law of brain development, when dealing with a child with an immature brain (either because of chronological age, brain-injury, or lack of development), the duration of any activity should always be kept short.
So, you want to use short duration. Your baby may fuss a bit at first and that’s alright. Pick her up as soon as she begins to cry or complain too much. Talk to her, kiss her, and as soon as she is happy again place her back on her tummy. The sessions might begin with just a few seconds, but if you do it frequently enough your baby will be comfortable on her tummy. Stay attuned to your baby and if she is getting tired and fussy, stop. Eventually, you will know the right duration. As your baby gets more and more comfortable, develops good head control and gets stronger, the duration should increase.
Since we are all born with a genetic imperative to move, most babies need very little motivation. But motivation never hurts. In the beginning use brightly colored toys, bright contrasting pictures, toys that play music and/or have bright lights. Place them just out of your baby’s reach. Move them slowly from one side to the other.
This is a good time to talk and sing to your baby. Have a conversation with her. Tell her how much you love her, how proud you are of her efforts. She wants to hear your voice! All children love music. Tummy time is a good time for you to sing to her. This will have the additional benefit of getting you in the habit of talking to your child and talking to her is the first step to developing understanding.
One more video of my granddaughter, this time at just shy of 6 months of age and already beginning to crawl for transportation. This clip shows nicely how by paying attention to all of the points in this post a child can be well on the road to independent mobility within a few months.
As you can see, creating good mobility really requires only three things:
- placing your child in the correct (i.e. functional) position
- providing an environment that makes movement safe and easy
- giving your child ample opportunity to move
It’s that simple!