What Is Tummy Time? And Why It's Important

What Is Tummy Time? And Why It's Important - Illustration by Elle Lindner

Verywell / Ellen Lindner

It’s hard to believe that the little bundled newborn you brought home will soon be doing amazing things like rolling over, sitting, crawling, standing, and walking. Although there’s not much you need to do to help your baby meet these milestones, experts agree there’s one activity that keeps babies strong and helps with physical development: tummy time.

Tummy time is exactly what it sounds like. You place your baby down on their belly, on a safe surface, and let them flex their muscles. Tummy time helps strengthen your baby’s trunk and neck muscles, and is a great opportunity for play and bonding.

It’s natural that you may have questions about why tummy time is important, how to do it, and what to do if your baby is resistant to it. We reached out to pediatricians to get some answers to parents’ most frequently asked questions about tummy time.

What Is Tummy Time?

When parents hear that they have to start doing tummy time with their baby, they often think it’s something complicated, or something that requires special equipment. But tummy time is simple and you don’t need anything special to make it happen.

“Tummy time is placing an infant on their stomach for a prolonged period while they are awake,” explains Fadiyla Dopwell, MD, a developmental-behavioral pediatrician at Pediatrix Developmental Medicine of Dallas. “Ideally, a parent should place the child on a flat surface, such as a mat on the floor.”

When your baby is very little, placing them on the floor might not work, says Dr. Dopwell. Placing your newborn baby on their belly while hanging out on your chest “counts” for tummy time, too. Another alternative for the littlest babies is placing a pillow (like a breastfeeding pillow) under the baby while they lie on the floor, says Dr. Dopwell.

Importantly, tummy time is not an activity that you can leave your child to do on their own. Tummy time should be done when your baby is awake and alert, and should always be supervised by a parent or caretaker.

When Should My Baby Start Tummy Time?

It may seem strange, but experts recommend you start tummy time early, soon after you bring your baby home. “I recommend formal tummy time practices start as soon as baby’s umbilical stump has fallen off—typically by about 2 weeks of life,” says Rachel Schlueter, MD, a pediatrician with Children's Physicians, a network of primary care offices based in Omaha, Neb.

It will be more difficult to find times when your baby is alert, so tummy time might be something you only do for a few minutes at a time at first, and then build up to longer time periods as your baby gets older.

Why Is Tummy Time Important?

The main purpose of tummy time is to help strengthen your baby’s neck and shoulder muscles—the same muscles they will be using as they do things like roll over, crawl, and eventually pull up to stand and walk.

“Tummy time is essential for a child’s gross motor development,” explains Dr. Dopwell. “Infants who spend time on their tummy strengthen their core trunk and abdominal muscles.” Dr. Dopwell also notes that tummy time strengthens your baby’s neck and head muscles, so that they can gain head control and lift their head more easily.

As your baby spends more time on their belly, you will likely notice that they have better head control overall, says Dr. Dopwell. Soon enough, they will be able to do things like push up onto their forearms and then onto their extended arms and wrists. Finally, says Dr. Dopwell, they will start pushing up onto all fours, in preparation for crawling.

“Children who do not spend time on their tummy have difficulty rolling, sitting independently due to decreased core strength, and preparing to crawl,” Dr. Dopwell says.

There are two other reasons why tummy time is important, according to Dr. Schlueter. This first is that tummy time makes it less likely that your baby will end up with a flat spot on their head.

“As pediatricians, we cause babies to have flat spots on the back of their head by asking all babies to sleep on their back,” says Dr. Schlueter. “This most often resolves itself with time and brain growth, but tummy time is a great way to give the back of baby’s head a break.”

Additionally, says Dr. Schlueter, tummy time is a great opportunity for your baby to play and explore their bodies and their surroundings. Tummy time is also a wonderful way to bond with your baby, Dr. Schlueter says. You can snuggle with your baby as they do tummy time on your chest, and as they get older, you can read to your baby and make funny faces during tummy time.

How Much Tummy Time Does My Baby Need?

Tummy time length is going to vary based on your baby’s age. Newborns simply won’t have a lot of quiet/alert time, so it won’t be possible to do tummy time with them for long periods of time. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends 3 to 5 minutes of tummy time spread out about two to three times a day at first.

As your baby gets older, you can increase the amount of tummy time. You’ll likely find that you’ll be looking for more activities to do with their baby as their awake time increases, and their attention span becomes sharper. Three-month-old babies may be able to do tummy time for up to an hour each day.

As Dr. Dopwell notes, even once your baby is able to do more minutes of tummy time, it doesn’t have to happen all at once. “We recommend a goal of 60 minutes per day, and this should not be done at one time but broken up in intervals,” she says. “Typically, we recommend tummy time between feeds and when an infant is awake. One session can be five minutes, but another can be 15 minutes if the infant tolerates it.”

How to Do Tummy Time

The way you do tummy time with your baby will vary based on their age and their temperament. The main principle of tummy time will apply in all cases: It involves placing your baby on their tummy, and it should happen when they are awake, alert, and can be supervised by you.

Dr. Schlueter says that for newborns, tummy time might look like skin-to-skin time combined with tummy time. “I love to encourage families to enjoy time relaxing on the couch with baby lying on their tummy on your chest,” she suggests. “This provides wonderful time for bonding while you read a good book, scroll through the internet, or watch television.” You can read aloud to your baby for some brain-boosting stimulation, Dr. Schlueter adds.

As your baby gets older and their strength and tone increase, they’ll be able to participate in more intentional tummy time activities, Dr. Schlueter says.

“Reading board books together or following the sights and sounds of toys moving in front of them are great first activities,” she offers. “Add tissue paper or textured fabrics under moving arms and legs for added sensory play.”

You can even do tummy time outside, says Dr. Schlueter. Place your baby on the grass or a play mat at the park or back yard and watch cars pass by, she suggests.

Tips If Baby Doesn't Like Tummy Time

One of the most common concerns that parents have is when their babies seem resistant to tummy time. You can take heart in knowing that if your baby cries and fusses when you put them down for tummy time, your baby is far from alone, assures Dr. Dopwell. However, Dr. Dopwell says that just because your baby seems unhappy doesn’t mean you should forgo tummy time.

“Resistance to tummy time is a typical response, and the more they are on the tummy, the more comfortable they become,” she says. “If a parent immediately picks up their child and stops tummy time, they reinforce the resistance and make it difficult to become accustomed to tummy time.”

While continuing to try, you can work toward making tummy time a more fun and interesting experience for your baby. Dr. Dopwell suggests getting down to eye level with them and talking, singing, and playing. Placing some toys within their view, or showing them their face in a mirror are good distractions as well, she says.

A Word From Verywell

As parents, we tend to overthink things like tummy time. We may wonder if we are doing it properly, frequently enough, or if our babies are gaining enough skills as a result. Although tummy time is important, and pediatricians recommend that you do it on a regular basis, there are no hard and fast rules. The basic idea is that you find time each day to give your baby supervised time to lie on their belly and move their body.

Most babies enjoy tummy time at some point, especially with a little gentle encouragement. If your baby is resistant to tummy time despite your best efforts, you should bring this up at your next pediatrician visit. Your pediatrician may have additional suggestions and may want to look for any developmental reason why tummy time may be less pleasant for your baby.

6 Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Babies Need Tummy Time!

  2. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Babies Need Tummy Time!

  3. Nemours Children’s Health. Tummy Time.

  4. American Academy of Pediatrics. Back to Sleep, Tummy to Play.

  5. Cummings C, Canadian Paediatric Society, Community Paediatrics Committee. Positional plagiocephaly. Paediatrics & Child Health. 2011;16(8):493–494. doi:10.1093/pch/16.8.493

  6. American Academy of Pediatrics. Back to Sleep, Tummy to Play.

Additional Reading

By Wendy Wisner
Wendy Wisner is a lactation consultant and writer covering maternal/child health, parenting, general health and wellness, and mental health. She has worked with breastfeeding parents for over a decade, and is a mom to two boys.

Originally written by Vincent Iannelli, MD

Vincent Iannelli, MD, is a board-certified pediatrician and fellow of the American Academy of Pediatrics. Dr. Iannelli has cared for children for more than 20 years.

Learn about our editorial process