By Melissa Carter
For months after Fidelia Algarve gave birth to her now 14-month-old daughter, Zara, the last thing she thought she’d be stressed about became a constant concern. “Whenever I opened a magazine or went to the pediatrician, all I heard over and over was “Are you doing tummy time?” says the Vancouver mom of one. “And when I’d mention to my mother how much Zara hated it, she’d just say how silly and stressful we make baby raising these days.” SIDS reduction measures have reduced the average time babies spend on their bellies, but is it something we need to obsess over? “Absolutely not,” says Dr. Henry Ukpeh, associate professor of clinical pediatrics at the University of British Columbia. “The most natural thing in early infancy is that babies spend a lot of time on their backs, because that is the feeding position and early development has a lot of visual inputs. Tummy time should never be stressed or forced.” Here’s how you can safely work it into your day together, without any tears.
“Many babies cry because we start tummy time too early! Before head control, it’s an unnatural position, the opposite of the flexed fetal position they’ve been in for all their lives,” says Dr. Ukpeh. “Putting them on their tummies pushes stomach contents into their chest, the equivalent of heartburn.” Singing and talking with your baby while she is on your or your partner’s chest is enough to start with, especially if you’re lying on your back. That’s exactly what Cathy Coulthard, professor and coordinator of the early childhood programs at Sheridan College in Oakville and Brampton, Ont., recommends. “Mutual tummy time encourages a reciprocal communication style,” she says. “This naturally occurring play time is extremely beneficial both for neck muscle control and relationship building.”
There’s no reason to rush faster development in a healthy child, says Dr. Ukpeh. “Wait until your baby begins to control his head and neck and always stop at the first sign of discomfort.” During your baby’s most alert and playful time, spend a few moments lying down beside him. “The best toy to focus on at this stage is a human face,” says Coulthard. “When my children were little, I liked to place them on their tummy on my crouched legs, and making eye contact, I lay on my back with my legs curled up to my tummy and pretended they were “flying’ as I raised my legs up and down above my chest. I could look directly into their faces and they went up and down.” Lying on the ground beside or under your baby allows her to focus on your facial expressions. Be sure to change your position so she isn’t always looking in the same direction for each exchange.
“When your baby is able to lift his head and chest almost vertical to a flat surface is the best stage for tummy time,” says Dr. Ukpeh. “Your baby is now mature enough and enjoys it because holding up her heavy head is not such a chore. She’s both neurologically and psychologically ready.” If your baby is developmentally delayed, talk to your doctor about exercises to strengthen his trunk, advises Dr. Upkeh.
Add board books or other simple, safe toys such as mirrors to spark your child’s interest, recommends Coulthard. “Something that both of my boys delighted in when they were six months old was lying on their tummies with newspapers directly in front of them, ripping them to shreds. But watch that baby doesn’t mouth and swallow little bits of paper.”
At the end of the day, even though the avid tummy-timer may crawl a little earlier, your dumpling’s entire necessary motor skills will develop regardless, just from your normal daily loving attention, including feeding, carrying and play. “There is no direct link between insufficient tummy time and gross motor delays,” says Dr. Ukpeh. “The child without early tummy time catches up just fine, and by age one there is absolutely no measurable difference.” Algarve agrees: “My beautiful girl is now running around and totally developmentally on par with all the other toddlers at her daycare.”
CF’s lifestyle editor Melissa Carter’s son preferred tummy time on his mommy’s chest, leaving the playmat for the cat.
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