Tummy Time, Toys, Frustration And Trust

I recently received an email from Lily, who is encouraging her 6 month old baby to play independently and had questions about his frustration with toys. She kindly allowed me to share it with you (not the frustration or the toys…just the email):

“I loved your post about giving babies independent play time. I have a 6 month old little boy who is super easy and wonderful. When I read about giving him time to figure things out for himself and to just be alone and build his attention, I tried it. I’ve been putting him down and letting him just be while I sit nearby and read a book or just watch him in awe. He can sustain “tummy time” (a side note: I hadn’t read your blog before we started “tummy time”, but I’ve discovered that he much prefers to be on his stomach but can’t get there yet so I put him down that way, definitely a question for another time) for a LONG time, like 30-45 minutes.

Sometimes I put him down alone (no toys) and sometimes I offer some “toys” (we don’t have many toys so sometimes kitchen items, burp cloths etc become “toys”).I’ve found that toys frustrate him. He can’t get them in his mouth the way he wants to or manipulate them how he thinks they should go etc. He starts crying and throwing a fit. When he doesn’t have toys he is much calmer, and definitely looking around and thinking. I doubt that he’s doing much thinking once he’s frustrated with a toy.

So, my question is this, is the frustration good for him? At this point I don’t think he can work through it, either because he doesn’t have the physical skills necessary or because he doesn’t have the persistence to keep at it without breaking down. If the frustration isn’t good for him, when do I start offering toys? I love my boy and hate to see him upset, but I also feel a little guilty when his playtime consists of him and the floor (and sometimes the dog, who he loves).”


          Dear Lily,

Thanks for your kind words and your great questions. I asked for some input from my RIE colleague Roseann Murphy, because I was a little uncertain about what to recommend. Here are our collective thoughts…

First of all, it is fantastic that you are trusting your boy to have uninterrupted playtime, and that he is obviously enjoying it. 30-45 minutes is a feat! He’s developing his ability to play autonomously, learning through all of his senses, and stretching his imaginative powers. These are not things to be messed with.

If he’s content without toys, you can trust that his experience is enough. For all we know, he might be studying the gravitational pull of floating dust particles, composing jazz fusion from bird tweets and garbage trucks, or making mental plot notes for a future New York Times bestseller. Or as Roseann said, “What a lucky boy to have the opportunity to lie on the floor next to his favorite dog without a great deal of stimulation… just a chance to look around, observe and take in the environment.”

Still, it would be nice if he could also begin to explore toys occasionally without them winding him up (and the simple ‘toys’ that you are using sound perfect!). His frustration might stem from the limited range of motion he has on his tummy. He can’t manipulate objects as easily or as well in that position.

I know that ‘tummy time’ is still recommended by some doctors. Many of us think it’s the best placement for young babies (I know I did originally), and there are even whole websites about it. But pediatrician Emmi Pikler and her protégé infant specialist Madga Gerber believed that young infants should be placed on their backs. In that position they are free to turn their heads from side to side and look all around, stretch their limbs, closely examine their hands and feet to try to figure out how those miraculous body parts work (as my babies seemed to do constantly in the beginning), develop neck, back, and tummy muscles naturally, comfortably and without strain. Their rib cages are free, so they can breathe more easily and deeply. They can choose to work on rolling to their tummies when ready.

Now, I can certainly understand why you might be unwilling to try placing your son on his back when he is used to, prefers, and plays well in the tummy position. But I think it would be worth experimenting. He will probably be able to roll to his tummy independently anyway soon, but in the meantime, you’ll be giving him the option of grasping and exploring objects with greater hand and arm mobility.

You don’t mention how your son reacts to being placed on his back, or if you’ve even attempted it, but if he protests, try talking him through the experience. Tell him beforehand what you will do and that you know this is a little different for him, but you want him to try it for just a few minutes.

The most important thing is to project confidence. Our babies are quick to pick up any uncertainty, and it can rattle them. ‘If my lovely mom (the boss lady) is hesitant or tense, there must be something wrong!’

If you proceed with confidence and honesty, this would be a time to allow for a little frustration. Grunting and complaining is tolerable, productive frustration. “Crying and throwing a fit”, as you observed, is too much frustration for your little guy to handle. If that happens, ask him if he wants to be picked up to take a break. Similarly, if he gets frustrated reaching towards a toy, or while manipulating one, acknowledge his effort and try talking him through it first. “You’re really working hard. That toy is just out of reach. Almost there…” If his frustration escalates, ask if he needs to be picked up. Better to pick him up and give him a break than to hand him the toy, or otherwise “fix” his struggle for him.

Lily, you have wonderful parenting instincts. Whatever you decide to do, keep up the good work!

And if you still have guilt about your boy playing without toys, here’s a video of six month old Joey, a participant in RIE Parent-Infant Guidance Classes, enjoying some tummy time at home. Is there something else (or more) Joey should be doing? She looks busy enough to me.

All the best,

Photo (above) and video of Joey by Sarah and Nathan. (Thank you.)


Please share your comments and questions. I read them all and respond to as many as time will allow.

  1. Roseann Murphy says:

    Six month old Joey is certainly having a great time. Thank you for the video.
    I so enjoyed the response to Lily.
    Lily is an especially observant,respectful parent. I, too was wondering what happens when her sweet baby boy is placed on his back. I noticed over the years that children ages six through twelve months do not take readily to change. He is used to the tummy and is familiar with the way the world looks from that position. On his back, his “world view” changes dramatically so he may be wary of the change. Trying it out little by little…a little longer each time may be just the approach to use when changing “the world view” for anyone. No toys..just “his area”, his Mom and his dog friend for a while and then the toys. But by the time he is accustomed to his back…he will be ready to flip to his stomach… and will he ever be surprised and pleased that he can change his “world view” in a simple turn. It is worth a try..and who knows, he may be making the change as I post this. Can’t wait to hear about his next stage of development.

  2. Janet, you do a lovely job of describing and encouraging the emotional interplay between a baby and mother.

    Darn, but you and I are at odds with your description and assumptions about physical/motor development relative to position (on the back or on the stomach). Beginning with “free to turn their heads….” I just cannot agree.

    In short, both positions are important and the baby benefits from being in each position some of the time.

    Most of what you blog about is with the assumption of full potential for typical development. In my business of therapy for young children who show developmental delay, I find recommendations for one position being better than another problematic.

    Joey shows very important movement – called prone pivot. A 6-month-old child would be expected to move from tummy to back and back to tummy also.

    Absence of rolling at 6 months all by itself is not a run to the ER, but might prompt a question at his next scheduled visit with a physician.

    1. Hi Barbara,

      Thanks for your “Darn”, but I don’t mind you being at odds with me! I’ll always like and admire you and respect your opinion, whether we agree or not! I so appreciate you sharing your expertise.

      It’s true that my advice is based mostly on typical development, but Magda Gerber also worked for many years with developmentally delayed infants and toddlers. Her approach with those children was the same as with a typical child — trusting the child to demonstrate readiness by “doing it”, and intervening as minimally as possible in gross motor development. She believed that babies thrived when they were given the power of trust.

      Here’s what Magda said about tummy time for very young infants: “Newborn babies do not keep their heads up, and, for that reason, do not feel comfortable on their stomachs. And because they cannot hold their heads up, they cannot look around, and their visual field is limited to the patch of blanket in front of them.”

      (This is what I have also observed, and there are also many photos online and videos on Youtube that show infants in this state of discomfort and immobility.)

      “On his stomach, a very young infant may try a few times to raise his head, then give up and stay more or less immobile. Or he may continue bobbing his head, accepting the strain and discomfort as a normal condition. What else can he do in that position?”

      Are you saying that a parent should be alarmed if her baby cannot roll from back to tummy, or vice versa, at 6 months old? I have witnessed a wide range of ‘normal’ in that area. Obviously parents should be sensitive to possible delays, but for the most part, I think parents worry too much about developmental milestones and doctor’s charts.

  3. So, adorable. My son is 5 months and always rolls on his tummy even when I place him on his back to play.
    It was nice to read this article and reaffirm that it is alright to let our babies explore and learn without toys or with toys. Thank you for sharing it with us.

    1. Hi Tina! Yes, once an infant has the muscle ability to roll and can choose his position, it’s easier to trust him to show you what he needs.:-)

  4. ditto: “I’ll always like and admire you and respect your opinion.”

    Your reference to “newborns” on their tummies is totally different from reference to babies in the 5-7 month range of age. So maybe we don’t disagree so much as we need to be specific as to what age we are referring to in making statements. ?

    I don’t disagree that among (largely educated) parents a kind of obsession with developmental charts is not helpful to the family. However, when a parent has a concern that is difficult to express to a professional, I see greater harm in the professional ‘pooh-poohing’ their concerns.

    Indeed an isolated lack of motor skill may be chalked-up to the random range of normal. But I could not list the many possible other ‘red flags’ to Lily and so suggested a calm question at the next visit.

    1. I totally agree with you about not ignoring a parent’s concerns! But don’t you think that infants who don’t seem to be rolling, pivoting, scooting or (later) crawling, often haven’t had enough opportunities to experiment and practice? We are encouraged to place very young infants on their tummies, keep them in carriers, confine them in seats, or prop them up in sitting positions, rather than giving them lots of floor time, free to move. Freedom of movement leads to healthier gross motor development, don’t you agree? And pre-rolling infants are most mobile on their backs. Can’t we then trust them to roll to their tummies when they are ready?

      1. I don’t see it as a matter of ‘trust’ of the baby. “I find recommendations for one position being better than another problematic.” (I have a habit of repeating myself.) If a pre-rolling infant is left on his back most of the time (emphasis on ‘most’) many important other developmental motor opportunities are missed. Emphasis on ‘many’ – too many to teach here.

        Another concern for too much time on the back is developing a flattened cranium (back of the head).

        The baby is trusting his parents to meet his physical needs. In my parenting book a physical need for all infants is for their positions to be changed. Often. Until they learn to move themselves.

        1. I think most professionals in your field have that opinion, and I appreciate you sharing it here. Emmi Pikler and Magda Gerber had beliefs about natural gross motor development that have always been a little unusual. (Many years before the SIDS studies, Magda recommended placing babies on their backs to sleep, because of the freedom of movement they have in that position.)

          Barbara, since you agree that a very young infant should not be placed on her tummy, what would your ideal process be? At what age do you recommend starting tummy time?

          1. Where did I say that? (!) Third time, change infant’s position often. That.is.all.

            1. Barbara, sorry! I guess I misunderstood what you said previously about newborns and 5-7 month olds: Your reference to “newborns” on their tummies is totally different from reference to babies in the 5-7 month range of age. So maybe we don’t disagree so much as we need to be specific as to what age we are referring to in making statements. ?

              Thanks for clarifying…

  5. Thank you for your thoughtful response. There are definitely some things in there that I will try and think about. Most notably I realized that when his toys are out of reach I tend to hand them to him, when instead I could just give him a break.

    I also wanted to clarify a few things. He is actually perfectly happy when I put him down on his back but he is less mobile that way and therefore is “finished” with independent play sooner. He has amazing head and neck control and can lift all of his limbs off the ground (airplane style) when on his tummy. He seems to experience equal frustration with toys in both positions (because it often has more to do with not fitting in his mouth or being out of reach). So, while I agree with you that practice on his back will be beneficial I did want to point out that he has impressive mobility on his stomach.

    Also, he is capable of rolling over, he just doesn’t choose to. He’s typically content with however he’s put down (though as I said, for longer on his tummy). He doesn’t try to roll. When he has tried to roll he has been able to, but he just usually doesn’t try. I think when he learns to crawl (which is coming soon) he’ll be more motivated to roll and it might happen with greater regularity.

    Again, thank you for your thoughts. We’ll continue to enjoy playing with or without toys, on our back and stomach.

    1. Thanks, Lily. It’s helpful to get more details, since I was unsure about my answer to your questions. Your experience with your boy’s play sounds so positive that I wouldn’t want you to mess with it!

      It makes sense that if your baby is used to you handing him the toys that are out of his reach, he is less inclined to work on moving to them himself and more inclined to become frustrated if he can’t get to them easily. It’s amazing how quickly babies become accustomed to what we do! Sometimes a baby will seem to want the experience of reaching and grasping more than he wants the actual toy. It’s always interesting to me to note the way we, as adults, sometimes perceive a situation very differently from the way our babies do.

      You might consider including a teething ring as one of his toys, or toys that are easier for him to fit into his mouth.

      Thanks so much again for letting me share your questions. And please keep me posted!

  6. Joey’s floor… so clean and shiny. Wow.

  7. Hi Janet, I’ve enjoyed reading this discussion and wanted to question about toys for a 3 month old… my boy is content to play on his back, he’s very interested in his hands now (and doing lots of the movements shown in the Baby Liv video) or generally checking out things around the room. I was wondering what are the signs he is ready for toys – I am assuming he will eventually start to, say, manipulate his bib or reach out to grab an object nearby. If so, is there anything I should have around him in the meantime to encourage him? He has a black and white book to look out but otherwise it’s just him and the room.
    Also wanted to mention -to attest to Magda Gerber’s recommendations, he has always been on his back to play and sleep,is only in his car seat for traveling and still has a perfectly shaped head : )

  8. Thank you for publishing that AMAZING video! I am the mother of 3 grown children, grandmother of 6 adorables(with #7 on the way)and am still learning the basics! The RIE approach is such a natural, easy way to deal with life. The perception that all humans learn in their own way, in their own time should not be a novel idea. But, in order for human beings to employ the skills necessary to allow ourselves and others the time and space needed for exploration, we must slow down and re-prioritize. Difficult to do, but the rewards are instantaneous! Thank you for this great support for all of us struggling humans!

  9. Tawni Martini says:

    Lily, thank you for asking this! My 5-month-old also prefers to be on his tummy; having read Janet’s advice long before he was born, I always put him down on his back, but lately he usually rolls over almost immediately! He’s also definitely been noticing toys more lately, just in time to receive a whole bunch of them for Christmas (90% wonderful open-ended things, from the relatives who were kind enough to consult our wish list 😉 ).

    Janet, here’s where my question comes in: Often when he’s focused on a toy, he’ll start hollering at it. I think there probably is a frustration element to it, like with Lily’s baby, but he doesn’t seem otherwise upset, though after a while it can escalate to crying. The thing is, the hollering can be really loud! If it indicates interest and excitement as much as frustration, I don’t want to “rescue” him from that situation, but oh! my ears! What to do?

    1. Hello Janet,
      I have the same situation as Tawni. My 3 old month baby almost 4 is usually on her back but either position (stomach or back) she does a high pitch scream when putting a toy in her mouth, once I take it ways from her she’s okay and continues to look around or kicking.

  10. Help! I was hoping this article would cast some light on our situation: my 5 month old can get so frustrated when playing, that he doesn’t even recognize my presence when I ask him whether he’d like to be picked up. If I let him be it just gets worst and worst – screaming and crying. That just doesn’t seem right. But then again, how do I support him best?

    1. Hi Capa – That sounds like something other than frustration about playing. Maybe he’s in pain? Or too hungry? I would make the choice yourself to pick him up if he is clearly upset. Let him know… “I will pick you up…” even if he can’t hear you.

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