We all know that Tummy Time is recommended for babies so they can develop strength in their neck, upper body, and back. Some feel that tummy time should start right away, while others feel that it’s best to wait until a baby can roll to their tummy themselves rather than being placed on their tummies. I like to think of Tummy Time as Rolling Time. Giving your baby time to move freely on a blanket on a carpeted floor allows them to develop the muscles and movements needed to get themselves to their tummies. You are there to support them in this process.
Most babies protest being placed on their tummies when they are very young. It’s hard for them to lift their heavy head, and the sensation of pressure on the tummy may feel uncomfortable at first. But with time, most babies get used to being on their tummy, and once they learn to roll there, first with your help, and then by themselves, they begin to like it, and eventually become comfortable enough to sleep that way.
After watching many babies over the years, and having read and researched developmental movement, I have come to suggest rolling time to parents rather than tummy time. When you give a baby the freedom to move, and help them slowly roll to their tummy you are showing them what to do and what it feels like to get there. And when they have had enough, you slowly roll them back again so they can feel what to do to get off of their tummy.
Rolling is an intrinsic developmental movement. Unless there is an underlying issue, a movement, like rolling, is innate for babies. They are inclined to want to roll when given the opportunity to do so, and when they are developmentally ready for it. This is important. Giving babies space to move freely allows for developmental movements to emerge in a baby’s own time.
Knowing that every baby develops at their own pace, and there is a wide range of normal is important to keep in mind. Some babies are movers and shakers from the beginning, while others are observers and slower to find their way to movement. But given the chance, and without any underlying issues, all will eventually move through the process of rolling, rocking, scooting, sitting, crawling, standing, cruising and walking. Some do it faster than others, but each will find their way to an upright position.
Even though you want to give your baby time to move freely on the floor, it’s important not to be in a hurry to get babies to an upright position. Some babies love to stand even before they really have the strength to do so. The problem with standing and sitting a baby before they have the structure to support themselves is that it puts a strain on the joints of their body. It’s important to let the muscles develop so they can protect the joints. That’s why it’s so important to give a baby time to move freely on the floor. This will allow the muscles to develop over time, which will help give babies the strength to sit and stand.
As well, when a baby is kept in a bouncer, swing, and car seat for too much time they are inclined to want to do “sit ups” even when placed on their backs on a blanket. Rather than twist, they lift. This can make it harder for them to find their way to their tummies.
The same thing goes with sleep positioners, and with swaddles. For a newborn, a swaddle can help them relax and stay asleep while laying on their back, which is what is recommended for safe sleep. However, if you use a swaddle for too long, you don’t give your baby a chance to get used to moving their arms and legs as a way to settle in to sleep. And sleep positioners are not recommended at any age.
The movement of twisting is what propels a baby to rolling. So, when a baby can turn their head side to side they are beginning to develop the muscles needed to twist. Once a baby can twist to look behind them they will often lift their legs and flop them to the side which then initiates an extension through the torso and a lifting of the head to complete the roll. Some babies find other ways to get to their tummy, but if you watch closely, you will often see this progression.
Each baby will find their own timing for this developmental sequence, so sooner is not necessarily better. It’s about giving your baby an opportunity to move freely that allows this process to unfold.
Rolling and Sleep Safety
And once your baby is able to roll themselves to their tummy, and they aren’t in a swaddle or suit of any kind, and there isn’t anything else in their sleep space, they can sleep there. It takes a little while for a baby to get used to sleeping on their tummy, but once they do, they often sleep for longer stretches. Some babies are able to roll by the time they are 4 months, while others take a bit longer to master the skill. The point is to give your baby an opportunity to practice, so they can develop the strength to repeat the move.
Rolling can sometimes happen very early on in the newborn stage, but it usually is not repeated with any predictability. Before you let your baby sleep on their tummy you want your baby to learn how to roll easily from back to tummy and back again so you know they have the strength to move into other positions.
How can parents help?
You can start to help your baby with rolling starting around 2 months. It’s best to do this after a nap and about 30 minutes after a feed so they are less likely to spit up. Rolling time at this age is for short periods of time. Once your baby starts to fuss, you want to stop. Move your baby slowly, and be careful to protect your baby’s arms. Don’t pull your baby’s arms to get them to roll. The idea is to encourage them to initiate a roll on their own. You are there to support them in exploring movement. If you are concerned at all about your baby, check with your baby’s pediatrician before you begin.
1. Place a large blanket on a carpeted floor. Make sure the blanket is not too thick. Don’t use the pads that have toys hanging from overhead.
2. Take an infant toy that makes a noise, such as a rattle and gently shake it about 12 inches above your baby’s face. You want to get your baby’s attention, but don’t startle your baby. You can hold the toy farther away if you like. Changing the distance and angle of the toy helps to develop the muscles in your baby’s eyes.
3. Then slowly move the rattle across your baby’s field of vision so they start tracking it with their eyes. Go back and forth a couple of times, or until your baby looks away. Give your baby time to rest before trying it again.Once your baby can track the rattle across their field of vision directly over their head you can move the rattle slightly behind your baby so they have to look over and back to track the rattle. You might notice that your baby can track to one side more easily than the other. This is common and totally fine. It’s good to encourage your baby to track to both sides, so keep trying to get your baby to look to the side that is more challenging for them.
4. Now that your baby can track and twist to look behind, you can place the rattle down and slowly roll your baby’s body so they are laying on their side. Don’t be in a hurry to roll them all the way. Your baby might roll back to their back, which is fine. Go the other way and just see what happens.
5. Once you see your baby trying to roll over, slowly help them complete the roll, but make sure their arms are not trapped under their body. Talk to your baby while they are moving and let them know you are going to help them roll. Use your voice and touch to reassure your baby that you are there and ready to help.
6. Place a couple of toys for your baby to look at while on their tummy. They are not likely going to want to stay there for long, which is fine. You can massage your baby’s back and legs and feet while they are on their tummy.
7. When you think your baby is ready, tuck their arms close to their body and slowly roll them back again. Be sure and help your baby roll both directions so they get used to rolling to the left and to the right.
Rolling in their crib
Once your baby is used to rolling on their own they will likely start rolling in their crib as well. Be sure they are no longer swaddled or in a Merlin sleep suit, or any other kind of weighted blanket, or sack that covers their hands. You want your baby to be able to push themselves up when they are on their tummy. As well, you don’t want anything in the crib with your baby. Until at least 6 months, your baby shouldn’t have anything in the crib with them (including a lovey of any kind). You want to be sure there aren’t any blankets, pillows, or bumpers, or sleep positioners in the crib. Nothing but your baby.
At first, your baby may become upset when they find themselves on their tummy in their crib. Before you go in to help, give your baby a minute to get used to being there. When you do go in, slowly roll your baby over to their back before you pick them up so they can feel how to get off their tummy. Talk to your baby in a reassuring voice to let them know that they are okay.
Remember, once your baby can roll to their tummy themselves they can sleep there, as long as there isn’t anything else in the crib. You will still be putting your baby down on their back, but if they roll to their tummy let them be. Eventually, your baby will learn to put their head down and drift off to sleep that way. In my experience, once a baby gets used to sleeping that way they usually start to sleep for longer stretches.
Being able to move freely allows your baby to find other positions to sleep in beside on their back. Being strong enough to get into other positions is key. Give your baby the freedom to move their bodies and enjoy watching them explore Rolling Time!
Disclaimer: Elizabeth Green's Early Parenting Sleep Consultations and written materials are for educational purposes only and are not meant as medical advice. All spoken and written information is to be used at each parents' discretion.