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When Your Baby Hates Tummy Time

Ahhh tummy time!!! Love / Hate right? … mostly just hate 😉

Before I had my first, I really didn’t grasp all the stress and worry that can come up with this. I figured this kind of stuff (tummy time, head shape) being a Chiropractor would sort itself out. Kind of on the bottom of my “oh no, what if the baby hates tummy time” list of worries as a new mama. But guess what… She HATED tummy time.

I remember going to her doctor at one of the appointments in the first 6 months and leaving feeling crushed. Her doctor, who is lovely, quickly said, “looks like there’s some slight flattening on the one side of her head, had you noticed it“. First of all, how you see your own kids I’ve learned is MUCH different than looking at someone else’s. In hindsight, was she latching better on one side…YES; was she resting her head on her favorite side more often than not… YES; did I flip her head to toe when I put her down to sleep… NO; did I always carry her on one shoulder… YES…was she rolling more over one side…. YES; did she scream anytime she was in tummy time… YES; did she spit up every time I put her in that position…YES …OMG right. I know you are thinking, “my baby does all or most of those things”! DON’T FREAK OUT. It’s so so common and any of the above are really good reasons to get your babe checked out by a chiropractor, physio, osteopath that has training with pediatrics.

So I left her doctor’s appointment feeling like a failure… I should have known better I thought and I already felt so overwhelmed as a new mom, I couldn’t imagine at that point adding something else to the NEVER-ENDING TO DO list (especially when she HATED tummy time). The slight flattening gradually worked itself out with some chiropractic and craniosacral work and as she got into different positions (hands and knees, sitting and just frankly grew out of the always lying on her back phase). Looking back also, that time in my life was chaos. My mom was sick and we were literally never home. She was always getting toted around in her car seat, stroller, having naps in odd places and I don’t really remember having time to just sit and play with her on the ground very often (I found ONE picture of her in tummy time…oops!!).

GOOD NEWS is, I have some really simple tips for when your baby hates tummy time. These alternatives will put your mind at ease because you have options and you are not the only one who’s struggling with this.

Option 1 – Tummy time on you! Chest to chest. We know that skin to skin is so wonderful for newborn babies, as it helps them to regulate temperature, breathing rate etc and among other things, is so incredible for bonding. I demoed a quick video on this position recently with my little one, you can view it here. Try this when your babe is not fully fed. You can be lying flat on your back with your babe tummy to tummy with you. Have babes head turned to one side so that they are resting their cheek/ear on your chest. If you are finding your babe not super comfortable here trying lying on an incline (as below)… this will raise their head just a bit and in the case of reflux or lots of spit up they may be more comfortable. As baby gets older you’ll notice they start to pick their head up and move it from one side to the other side… the start of the development of the neck musculature and the curve of the neck!

Option 2 – “Daddy Rides” as we like to call them in our house! It’s a comfortable position for my hubby to carry our babes when they are little because he doesn’t have to worry about their unstable heads flopping all over and they fit pretty well along his forearm. It’s almost like carrying a football. Here’s a pic! Same deal here… they are on their tummy’s, the neck is in extension and they will begin to look at things on their horizon.. Works that same to strengthen the paraspinal muscles, stimulate and coordinate the visual system. Make sure to switch arms each time they are in this position to get the head looking outwards and rotating both ways.

Option 3 – tummy time on the nursing pillow (could also use a rolled up bath towel or receiving blanket). I love this one and seems to be really well tolerated for most… again it raises the head up a bit in relation to the body so with reflux can be a lifesaver. They can still eventually put weight into their arms and forearms (gets them ready for crawling). See a pic here (this is my second at just a few weeks old!). If you are noticing they want to look more one way try and hang out on the opposite side so they can see you or put a mirror or toys there to stimulate looking in that direction.

Option 4 – Tummy time on the ball! This one I recommend to parents who come in with colicky babies, have a preferred side of nursing, are tilting/turning their head more to one side or again just hate regular tummy time. The ball is great because it puts gentle, typically comfortable pressure on the tummy. If you position them in-front of a mirror so they can see themselves or have your partner sit in-front of them it makes it a bit more fun and enjoyable for everyone! Make a game out of it! Here’s how you do it. Place baby tummy down on the ball. Hang onto their hips so they don’t go anywhere. Start with them resting their head/cheek/ear on the ball then slowly roll them forward. This will activate a reflex for baby to lift the brow/head to look at the horizon. You may notice they don’t lift the head mid-line. If this is the case lets say they lift leading with the left ear…tip the ball more to the left as you roll forward so it encourages them to lift and lead with the right ear. Ideally you’d like to see them lift mid-line as it shows the muscles on both sides of the neck working simultaneously together. Do 10 reps of this roll forward. It will encourage the neck to come into extension just like tummy time and help to strengthen those little muscles.

In addition, I should mention here… I just read an excellent blog from a pediatric occupational therapist who suggested for newborns.. If you are trying tummy time on the floor directly, instead of lying them flat on their tummy, tuck their legs up underneath them (bum in the air, like child’s pose) and lay them on either cheek (I would add here, alternate the cheek they rest on so that their neck gets symmetrical movement on both sides). From a spinal curvature/adapting to the outside world perspective… having the legs tucked under them may be the most comfy in the early weeks as they have just spent 9 months curled up in a c-curve… With the legs tucked underneath them the lower back is still sitting in the c-curve and only the neck is coming into a slight extension. You’ll notice when they are really little that they automatically go into this curled position when you pick them up under their armpits. It’s a reflex and totally normal. Here’s my first in that curled up position naturally at about 10 days old.

***Side note … Clinically, the neck and lower back are the most common areas I find to hold tension in a newborn. Again, these 2 areas are going through a huge physical shift as they are “unwinding/stretching out” from being in-utero. The mid-back seems to fair pretty well as it’s naturally c-curved, it doesn’t have to shift orientations like the top and bottom of the spine does.

There you go… a few really easy modifications for tummy time! Try these out and rotate them through your routine. It can get boring just watching your little one cry on the ground, trust me I know! Once these tummy time modifications get a bit more comfy, try them again on the ground. This is an important step essentially in allowing them to figure out their next movement milestone… ROLLING! Rolling does require them to be able to extend their neck and move it in both directions along with other things so give them time to explore the ground when possible.

Happy tummy time mama’s!


Dr. Gillian


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