Tending to Tummy Time Troubles & Going Back to Sleep

Back-sleeping and tummy time are common phrases in today’s parenting lexicon. Yet that hasn’t always been the case.

The Back to Sleep Campaign – primarily responsible for the switch to back-sleeping babies and related recommendations for tummy time while awake — was launched in the mid-1990s to educate parents, caregivers and health care providers about ways to reduce the risk for Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS).

At the time, this represented a big parenting shift. Before this public education campaign, parents had little reason to think twice about putting babies to sleep on their bellies. Generations of parents routinely did so. But with compelling evidence to support the Back to Sleep campaign’s primary message — that placing babies to sleep on their backs reduces the risk for SIDS (sometimes referred to as “crib death”) – great progress was made in helping babies sleep safer.

Just how much progress? It is estimated that since the campaign started, the percentage of infants place on their backs increased dramatically while at the same time, overall SIDS rates decreased by more than half.  As far as public health campaigns go, the Back to Sleep campaign is a hands-down success, and the benefits of raising back-sleeping babies and creating safe sleep environments are as clear as ever.

What isn’t always so clear, however, is how parents and caregivers should go about compensating for all this additional time that babies spend sleeping on their backs. By compensating, I mean tummy time. Encouraging back-sleeping babies to spend awake time on their bellies can help stave off the dreaded “positional plagiocephaly,” more understandably referred to as a flat head.

This all might sound fairly straightforward, but I am routinely asked about, interviewed on, and pressed on the subject of tummy time (and the challenges it seems to pose). How much time should babies spend on their tummies? What can one do to encourage tummy time? Is there a certain position babies should be put in? What if they don’t like it?

My first child was born right around the time that the Back to Sleep Campaign was really taking hold. As a pediatrician-in-training, I was well aware of the recommendations, and my daughter didn’t seem to have any problem following them as she established herself as a very good back sleeper. The problem was that I was far more comfortable with the recommendation for her to spend plenty of time on her tummy while awake than she was. Every time I put her on her belly, she’d squawk, cry, push off with her feet, and convince most everyone around her that she was in great distress. I managed to convince myself that her tummy time displays weren’t truly those of a distressed child, so she did get in a sufficient amount of tummy time. I find, though, many parents find tummy time troubling.

Try the following tummy time tips and tricks to help take the pressure off of you as well as your baby!

  • Tummy timing: The key here is quite simple. Just remember back while sleeping and tummy while awake. Despite what you may have been led to believe, there are actually very few rules about how much time a baby needs to spend on his tummy. There’s no need to set a timer, mark your calendar or otherwise formalize what essentially boils down to a simple concept. Just make sure your baby sleeps on his back, and then I commit to trying to make tummy time your baby’s default for hours when he’s awake.
  • Make tummy time a habit. I’m well aware that this may sound like stating the obvious, but it has been my experience – both in dealing with parents and with child care providers – that laying a baby down on her back seems to be somewhat of a force of habit. That’s great if you’re talking about a baby who’s going to sleep. But if it’s on the floor or a playmat, for example, it can take a conscious  effort to switch to the routine of placing an awake baby on her tummy.
  • Understand the benefits. There’s no magic to tummy time. Simply put, until they  learn to roll, sit and crawl, babies generally spend an impressive amount of their time laying down. If all of this down time is spent with pressure being put on the same spot(s) on the back of their skull while it’s still somewhat soft and not fully formed, it’s bound to make an impression. Tummy time not only takes the pressure off, but also allows babies the ability to strengthen their head and neck muscles.
  • Tummy time entertainment. Not all babies need to be entertained in order to be coaxed into spending time on their tummies. Some are perfectly content to lay there and look around. Feel free, however, to help your baby enjoy this new view of the world by placing toys in front of him, help him prop himself up a bit on his elbows, and even lay down facing him so you can look at, talk to, and even sing face-to-face.
  • Tummy time dissenters. If your baby is a tummy time squawker, as mine was, then don’t be discouraged. Make sure you ask yourself whether your baby’s squawks truly count as cries of distress or rather of effort. While my daughter’s cries certainly had my mother-in-law distressed, in reality my squawking little newborn really wasn’t truly upset, she managed to keep her perfect little round head and build up her tolerance for tummy time while all the while mastering the skill of scooting long before she could even roll, and I have some impressive baby videos to prove it.

Originally posted on Omaha World Herald’s Live Well Nebraska