The Case Against Tummy Time: Guest Post by Irene Lyon

Does your baby like tummy time? Most don’t, for good reason. Until infants are able to roll into the tummy position on their own, most of them find it uncomfortable, immobilizing, and no doubt highly discouraging. 

But rather than listen to our babies, we are asked to put our faith in recent studies about plagiocephaly (flat-headedness), studies that don’t take into account the fact that infants are now spending more time than ever in restrictive devices (like car seats, bouncy seats and carriers) that inhibit babies from doing what they are naturally inclined to do: round out the back of their heads by turning them from side to side. 

Instead, the back position and rousingly successful “Back to Sleep” campaign (which has cut the SIDS rate in the US in half since it began in 1992) have been named as the culprits.  So, rather than understand these studies as a reflection of the need for more free movement and floor time during the baby’s waking hours, many experts have concluded that imposing tummy time is the answer.

In this insightful guest post, Irene Lyon, a Feldenkrais and Somatic Experiencing Practitioner (and producer/director of the world renowned “Baby Liv” video), sheds light on the valuable developmental processes hindered when tummy time is imposed early, and helps us see tummy time from our baby’s point of view. Irene writes: 

Have you ever had a local anesthetic for dental surgery?

Your gums, facial muscles, facial affect, smiling, talking, eating – it all just goes funny and you simply can’t use your mouth area until the anesthesia wears off. You feel kind of silly and imbecile-like, yes?

Now imagine this.

You are on your stomach, lying on the ground. You want to lift your head up.  But someone just injected your back extensor muscles (the ones that allow you to lift up off the ground and lift your head) with that same local anesthetic that dentists use. The very muscles that work to lift up your head and chest are simply deadened. It’s even hard to engage your shoulders and arms to lift yourself up because, unfortunately, they too interact with your back extensors. You might say: “Darn it, this head feels so heavy. It’s a struggle. I feel completely helpless!”

This last scenario is exactly what happens when infants are put on their stomachs for “tummy time.” The only difference is that the infant can’t speak yet to say: “Hey, what’s going on, this sucks. I’m uncomfortable. HELP!”

Putting infants on their tummies without having them go through the process of getting to their tummy on their own is analogous to injecting their back extensor muscles with that local anesthetic. They are paralyzed and basically unable to access their back extensor muscles, mainly because the actual act of getting to their tummy from their back (something that takes months!) is what forms their spinal curves – the lumbar, thoracic and cervical – and in turn gives them strength in their back muscles.

Have you had a chance to watch “Baby Liv”?

Before you read on, give yourself the 3-minute pleasure of watching Baby Liv. Watch the video piece straight through.  See the process of Baby Liv going from her back, to side, to tummy (and all the in-between’s).

Then, I’d like to give you a recap of what she’s doing from a functional and structural point of view. In essence: What is giving her the juice to get to her tummy and decide when she is ready for her own “Tummy Time”.

This footage was taken over a series of months.

@ 20 seconds: She’s pretty still, but if you look at the eye movement, to the right and left, that is priming her spine for rotating. For now, she’s doing tiny pieces of rotation. (Try this yourself, only move your eyes left and right. If you are attentive enough, you’ll sense you neck and head wanting to move in the direction your eyes travel.)

She then looks at her fingertips. This gaze upwards is forming the curves in the upper part of her spine (the cervical area) – and in actuality, it is transmitting throughout her entire body. The support she finds from the ground under her – from foot to head – provides “juice” for this movement (and all movements, really).

@ 41 seconds: You can just see the increase in fluidity throughout her entire self and a greater availability for movement.

@ 1 min: She’s moving her legs a lot, and this is putting a nice wave up her spine…think…snake like movement!

@1.15: She starts to do a roll. This seemingly innocent movement carries a lot of punch in the development world. That little push through her foot and the tiny rotation it brings is just the beginning of finding a teensy bit of spinal extension and use of her back muscles. Lifting both of her legs up tilts her pelvis and flattens her lower back into the ground. This flattening of her lower back is forming the opposite of her lumbar curve. It is lengthening her back muscles. This lengthening gives her ‘energy’ in her back muscles so that she has more ability to actually engage them.

@2.09: If you can catch it – it’s quick – when she is going for giraffe Sophie, you see her little head pick up off the ground. BINGO! This little lift is happening because the rest of her body, below, has found the support surfaces and functionally to un-weight her head.  All the pieces are falling into place.

@ 2.18: She’s a pretty happy kid.  She’s got there HERSELF (think: self-reliance), and her head held high with absolute support coming from her pelvis, hands and legs. She’s anchoring into the ground in numerous places and learning how to use her environment for movement. You see, in this moment of her lifting her body up, there is no impingement on her neck area, and clean spinal curves are being developed.

It isn’t about the firing and strengthening of “muscles” per se, it’s about functionally doing the movements that our nervous system wants to find, and then letting the muscles, and nature, just do their job.

@2.44-2.46: Now she is really showing off her ability to finely control her rotation and movement. She’s got it dialed. It feels good. She’s having fun!

Irene Gutteridge (now Irene Lyon) blogs at her virtual office, irenelyon.com. Her education is in the health sciences and she is a certified Feldenkrais and Somatic Experiencing Practitioner practicing in Whistler & Vancouver, British Columbia. You can reach her through her website, www.irenelyon.com, via Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/lyonirene, Twitter: @Irene_Lyon, or good old email: irene@irenelyon.com. She loves meeting new people!

For more about tummy time:

No Tummy Time Necessary and Tummy Time Baby’s Way by child development specialist and RIE Associate Lisa Sunbury, Regarding Baby

Tummy Time May Not Be Needed
by Nicholas Bakalar, The New York Times

Plagiocephaly?!? (or Why “Tummy Time” is not the answer)
by Sarita Galvez, Moverse en Libertad

The Tummy Time Debate by Gill Connell, Little Treasures Magazine

For more thoughts on natural motor development and parenting with trust, I recommend Magda Gerber’s books: Dear Parent: Caring For Infants With Respect and Your Self Confident Baby: How To Encourage Your Child’s Natural Abilities From The Very Start

And my book, Elevating Child Care: A Guide to Respectful Parenting

 

(Photo by devinf on Flickr)

208 Comments

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  1. Thank you so much for this article. I was so worried my little one would never learn to roll. From about 2 months of age she stopped tolerating tummy time and would only tolerate being on her back for short sessions other than when she was sleeping. Turns out she had reflux. Being upright was the only position she was comfortable in so she mastered sitting very early and wanted nothing to do with tummy time and laying on her back if she could help it. She hated being in a swing and bouncer chair for more than 10 minutes (blessing in disguise) so she spent the majority of her day upright interacting with me. I would still try to give her tummy time and time on her back as much as she would tolerate because I was so worried about her having weak muscles. This article gave me hope that she could still develop her muscles without forcing anything on her and working in the parameters that she was comfortable with. At her 6 month check-up she still hadn’t rolled over in any direction but the reflux didn’t seem to bother her as much while she was on her back so I let have as much free play as possible. A little over a week before she turned 7 months and the day before her occupational therapy appointment she rolled over from her back to her front! I’m so happy that this article gave me the perspective of observing and listening to what she was communicating to me that she comfortable with.

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