By now, most parents are more than well aware of the dangers of putting their babies to sleep on their tummies, but not as many know just how important it is for them to spend some time on their stomachs when they're awake. Sure, "tummy time" is a term you're probably familiar with, but you might not be as familiar with what can happen if your little one doesn't get enough. So what are some signs your baby needs more tummy time?
After the American Academy of Pediatrics launched its famous "Back to Sleep" campaign in 1992, the rate of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome in the U.S. fell by over 50 percent, according to the AAP. That's an undeniably good thing, but as the years went by, doctors began noticing some less-than-good consequences of the shift to putting babies on their backs. One 2008 survey of 400 pediatric physical and occupational therapists conducted by the American Physical Therapy Association (APTA), for example, found a widespread increase in motor skill delays caused by babies spending an insufficient amount of time on their stomachs, as ScienceDaily reported.
"We have seen first-hand what the lack of tummy time can mean for a baby: developmental, cognitive, and organizational skills delays, eye-tracking problems, and behavioral issues, to name just some complications," said APTA spokesperson Judy Towne Jennings, PT, MA, a physical therapist and researcher.
"New parents are told of the importance of babies sleeping on their backs to avoid SIDS, but they are not always informed about the importance of tummy time," she said.
Worried that your baby hasn't been on her belly enough lately? The following are some signs that could mean she could be lacking in the tummy time department.
1. Flattened Head
There's a reason why you see so many babies wearing cranial shaping helmets these days: The same survey by the American Physical Therapy Association that linked a deficit of tummy time to delayed motor skills also found a correlation to an increase in misshapen infant heads, according to ScienceDaily.
"Since the early 1990s, we have seen a significant decrease in SIDS cases, while simultaneously witnessing an alarming increase in skull deformation," said APTA spokesperson Colleen Coulter-O'Berry, PT, MS, PCS, a physical therapist at Children's Healthcare of Atlanta.
This flattening, known medically as deformational plagiocephaly, generally manifests on the back of the infant's head and is most often more pronounced on one side, according to the Stanford Children's Health website.
2. Not Meeting Motor Skill Milestones
Worried that your little one is falling behind when it comes to developmental hallmarks like sitting up and rolling over? You guessed it: Not enough tummy time could be the culprit.
"By spending time on their tummies babies learn to move from side to side, and this helps them learn to reach and crawl," Peta Smith, vice chair of the Association of Pediatric Chartered Physiotherapists (APCP) in the U.K. told BBC News.
"Not only does 'tummy time' help with coordination, balance and postural control, which is the foundation for all movement skills, it increases babies' confidence and independence helping them to become motivated to explore their surroundings as they learn to control their bodies."
When back-sleeping babies were placed on their front for extra time during the day, Smith explained, they were able to roll over, crawl, sit up, pull to standing and walk earlier than those who spent more time on their backs. But it's also important to note that babies who are later to develop these skills do eventually tend to catch up.
3. Head Tilt
If your baby's head seems to tilt to one side or she has a hard time lifting up her head when she's on her belly, she might have a condition called positional torticollis (which can occur when the muscles in a baby's neck become stiff or tight). As explained by Pathways.org, an American Academy of Pediatrics supported not-for-profit child development organization, this can develop when babies don't get enough tummy time because their neck and core muscles don't have the opportunity to strengthen. Physical therapy can help to remedy this issue, thankfully, particularly when it's detected early.
4. Trouble Following Objects With Eyes
That's right, tummy time (or lack thereof) can even have an influence on your baby's vision for better or worse. As American Academy of Pediatrics fellow Lisa Dana, M.D., wrote for BabyCenter, tummy time supports visual development by giving babies the chance to "track movement and focus on objects."
"Babies who spend time on their tummies look at the environment around them with a different perspective," she explained.
"Even before they are crawling, they can explore their world by rotating their head and rotating their bodies in different positions. This may ultimately help with cognitive development."
5. Digestive Troubles
Because tummy time serves as a sort of infant massage, it can also be beneficial for babies who are struggling with digestive issues. In particular, as Alan Greene, M.D., FAAP explained on Parents' website, tummy time can help to relieve painful gas.
"The gentle pressure on the abdomen moves gas along when the gas has built up," he said.
Is there anything tummy time can't do? If you've been slacking thus far, don't freak out. Early intervention can make a world of difference. Starting from the day baby comes home from the hospital, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends two to three sessions per day for three to five minutes each, increasing the amount of time as the baby grows. (Just remember to never leave baby unattended!)
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