The so-called “tummy time” is a recommended activity that you do with your child only after she has developed the ability to control her head. For most parents, this simply means putting their baby on her stomach and allowing her play in that position to facilitate the development of the baby’s ability to lift her head and hold her body in extension. But you can — and should — do more.
When my daughter was born, I knew I wanted to help her develop the best movement patterns right from the start. The patterns she would develop in these early stages of her life would lay the first foundations of her ability to move properly, from sitting to crawling to walking and beyond.
Why “Tummy Time”
Think of a baby's development as building blocks. Each block is a different stage of their movement development, and each new block is built upon the last.
Being at the beginning of their development, the "tummy time" stage lays the foundation of all other stages.
What would happen if the foundation of building blocks wasn't complete or was built improperly?
At some point, the entire building block structure would come tumbling down.
In this case, taking adequate time to lay a strong and complete foundation of proper movement will prevent aches, pains, and even injuries in the future. As such, the "tummy time" stage in an infant's development should not be rushed or overlooked.
Advancing "Tummy Time"
The point of “tummy time” is to lay the foundation of being able to roll over and sit up with proper movement. In order to do those activities, a baby must first develop the strength to lift her head and hold her body in extension.
To help my daughter become proficient in the "tummy time" stage of her development, I would use a stability ball to create a more complex environment.
When we are born, we all have a natural instinct ingrained in us to protect our noggin. So, with my daughter laying on the ball, I would slightly roll the ball forward like her head was going to go on the floor. The act would trigger the natural instinct within her to lift her head and extend her spine to protect her head from the floor.
As she progressed, I began to focus on helping her develop her core, which she would need to roll over and hold herself in a proper sitting position. Still on her stomach on the stability ball, I would move the ball slightly sideways, and as the ball tipped to the side, she would instinctively laterally flex her spine (i.e. turn her body) to try to keep herself from falling over.
In these advanced "tummy time" practices, she wasn’t just learning how to hold her body in extension; she was also learning how to use balance and coordination in her movement.
Moving and using our bodies requires a lot of balance and control from our core. If we cannot properly extend, flex, rotate or laterally flex our spine, we will not be able to produce proper movement.
We may take it for granted but standing on our two feet requires a tremendous amount of balance and control. Think about balance as a very subtle adjustment to a disturbance in some kind of outside force. If your adjustments are too great or not great enough, you’ll fall over. Balance is being able to respond to those disturbances appropriately. And depending on how you coordinate your response to disturbances, it can really affect how well your body moves.
Through this simple practice of creating a more complex environment for my daughter to develop the ability to hold herself in extension and to develop her core muscles, she also developed advanced levels of balance and coordination in this more primitive position.
The Difference in Action
We have friends who had a child before my daughter was born. They did “tummy time” the way most of parents do “tummy time” — simply laying their children on their stomach for periods of time, without creating a more complex environment. I remember the first time I ever held him; he just felt like this mush in my arms. He didn’t feel like he was holding himself up the way my daughter could hold herself up at the time.
And in fact, it took him a much longer time to develop the ability to fully hold himself in extension, to roll over, to sit up, to crawl, and to even start walking.
While my daughter did not start walking ahead of the curve, she was walking with near-perfect movement mechanics when she finally took her first steps.