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Consider this Alternative to Tummy Time

April 03, 2019

My husband recently came home and told me of his friend’s newborn son that was left to wail and cry out his “tummy time” session because it was “important for his development, so that he would hit all his developmental milestones”.

Truth is, most babies don’t enjoy “tummy time” and it’s something that parents have to force. Some do. some don’t. The good news is that it looks like babywearing is a fine (gentler, and more relaxed) alternative to orchestrated “tummy time” sessions and it actually activates similar muscles.

Newborn baby holding his head up while being worn by his mother.

More good news is that babywearing is good for you and good for your baby in SO many ways. Not only will your baby be strengthening her little body, together you will reap all of the psychological, biochemical and physiological benefits as well.

Consider this, an infant in an inward facing carrier, held upright throughout the day, gets unlimited opportunities to work on moving her neck and holding her head up while gradually strengthening her neck muscles with each activation. The act of simply remaining upright in response to her mother’s varied movement also works her stomach muscles, her back and even her little arms (if she clings), not to mention the work she does to tune her vestibular system. And if she needs a rest from dealing with gravity, she always has her mother’s chest to lean on for support.

In parts of Africa where children are worn throughout the day, studies show advanced development of gross motor skills and age-appropriate milestones. Shall we say, they pass these motor skills tests with flying colors. And there is almost no plagiocephaly (also known as flat-head syndrome).

Illustration of a baby with plagiocephaly next to a baby without.

Moreover, in a study of over 40,000 African children that were worn in a cloth/wrap not one case of Hip Dysplasia was found. But I’m getting sidetracked. There’s no question that there’s a positive correlation with a baby’s physical development and being carried in arms or worn upright in a cloth or carrier. And although infant biomechanics and positioning is an understudied field, more controlled studies are underway to show how babies are moving (and muscles are activated) in different baby gear and in common positions.

What we do know is that in many cultures, there is no “tummy time”; it doesn’t seem to be needed as the infants get plenty of time to build ample muscle strength while being worn.

Nurses with mother and baby in Kenya, Africa

So why are pediatricians pushing “tummy time” so much? With the “Back to Sleep campaign” and increased time spent in bouncers, semi-lying container like devices, car seats, and flat bed strollers the truth is that infants are spending the majority of their day either semi-lying or horizontal—i.e. on their backs.

It may seem that horizontal/versus upright positioning might be more gentle on little infants spines. However, if you are always lying on a group of muscles it subsequently impedes your ability to use them. Visualize, for a moment, how much an infant is working or contracting her neck muscles in an infant car seat [out of the car]—not.very.much.

Weak neck muscles lead to an imbalance in the front, back, and sides of the body. This leads to babies that are struggling to engage in activities that require them to control their heads. Which in turn leads to a delay in self-initiated mobility.

If a baby can’t roll, move to sit independently, or crawl she is left to lie there, spending even more time on her back. A vicious circle. She is left at a definite disadvantage if she ends up in a dangerous or undesirable position and her muscles are weak (from lack of activation).

Sleeping baby in a carseat

The bottom line is, we all want our babies to be strong. Rest assured, there is not only one prescribed road to strengthening your baby’s neck and back muscles; there ARE more relaxed options. Babywearing and holding your baby in-arms, is one of these.

Consider taking your baby out of the stroller and out of her container and creating a safe beautiful holding place for her upright on your chest; give her the opportunity for nature to gradually and gently work its magic. And, most likely, you’ll both love it!

*This information is based on studies that are underway on the Biomechanics and Babywearing study at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences. It is hypothesized that wearing an infant inward facing in a soft structured baby carrier will result in similar muscle activity as prone positioning or “Tummy time”, the current gold standard of strengthening head, neck, and upper body muscles in an era where babies are encouraged to sleep on their backs (supine) and are spending more time in infant seats or swings. If you have specific questions about your baby and their development, we always recommend always consulting with your health care provider.