Back in 2011, I shared on this space “The Case Against Tummy Time”, a perspective by Feldenkrais practitioner Irene Lyon that remains one of my most controversial posts. Many have voiced disagreement with the suggestions in the article (which includes a video demonstration by an inspiring infant named Liv). Others have been relieved to learn that it isn’t necessary to place babies on their tummies — a position that tends to be uncomfortable and immobilizing for them in the early months.
My intention here is not to rejoin the argument. Parents can read the article (and others), solicit professional and anecdotal advice, and decide for themselves. For me, a child-directed approach always resonates, so I believe in offering babies the opportunity to roll to their tummies (from the back position) in their own perfect time.
While on their backs, babies can stretch, twist, move their heads and limbs easily, see their entire surroundings, and strengthen the muscles necessary for making eventual tummy time more comfortable. Child-initiated tummy time has cognitive and psychological benefits as well as physical ones, because it encourages mastery and a sense of agency.
It’s been exciting for me to witness a new wave of parents discovering the joys of unassisted motor development.
One common question I receive is about the transitional period after babies first learn to roll onto their tummies. They can usually only remain in this new position comfortably for a limited amount of time, but they haven’t quite figured out how to roll onto their backs again. I thought I’d address that situation here through a note I received from Rajvee:
I need a suggestion for my 4-month-old. She is a very happy and playful child. Lately, she rolls to her tummy instantly, enjoys being there for a while, and once she gets tired, she wants to roll back on her back (which she is not able to do yet). In this process she gets very frustrated and tired and yells loudly. I give her assurance, talk to her and try to give her emotional support while she is trying to turn back, but all in vain. I want to practice non-interference with her motor skills and let her discover a complete roll on her own. My question is at what point do I walk up to her and physically turn her over, basically end her struggle and help her?
What you’re experiencing is normal and to be expected — a very common transitional stage for babies developing motor skills naturally. She’s figured out how to roll to her tummy, but can’t yet get back into a supine position. On her tummy she is still developing muscle strength in her neck, and she will eventually learn to lift her upper body up, arching her back and supporting herself on her hands with her arms extended.
In the meantime, this new position is very tiring! It makes perfect sense that she complains after a few minutes.
I wouldn’t encourage her to roll back. She will work on that of her volition and achieve it when she’s ready (as she has “tummy time”). She’s telling you something else now, so I would simply acknowledge, “I hear you. Sounds like you might be getting tired. Do you want me to pick you up?” Extend your arms to her as you ask this question. Then wait a moment or two for her response. She might make eye contact with you… or perhaps grunt or cry out. She might do something physically like move her head or “kick” with her legs. She might also not do any of those things or seem to indicate any response.
That’s okay. I would still give her that moment, because it lets her know you want to communicate with her – you want to know what she really wants in this moment. Then I would say, “I am going to pick you up.” And then do so. Give her a break in your arms and, then, if she seems ready, let her know again, “Now, I will place you down on the floor” (on her back). But if you believe she may need milk or a nap, then you would obviously take care of those needs.
For more about tummy time and child-led motor development:
Plagiocephaly?!? (or Why “tummy time” is not the answer) by Sarita Galvez, moverse en libertad
“Tummy Time” May Not Be Needed by Nicholas Bakalar, New York Times
(Thank you so much to Rajvee for allowing me to share your question and beautiful photo!)