When my eldest was just a wee little thing, which seems like zillions of years ago now that she’s a bit of a mouthy almost-tween, she would cry during tummy time. I wondered if my baby didn’t like tummy time. Perhaps I was doing something wrong.
If your baby screams during tummy time, though, you’re definitely not alone. It’s not uncommon for the baby to cry during tummy time. And just so you know, when a baby hates tummy time, autism isn’t the problem. It could be, but there is much more to look for with the signs of autism than simply having a baby that cries during this time.
Eventually, though, my eldest came to love tummy time. How did I do it? And how did I make it easy for my youngest when she had tummy time? I’ll let you in on all those secrets further below.
Why does my baby hate being on her belly?
First of all, it’s so common for babies to hate tummy time in the beginning. Do you like working out? While I certainly enjoy my exercise, there are moments when I push myself out of my comfort zone to achieve my goals.
For a baby, it’s quite similar. They have no muscle strength. They can’t hold their own heads up. So, it can be uncomfortable in this regard. But as the muscles build, they will cry less.
Also, remember that you can break your tummy time into segments throughout the day. You shouldn’t force your baby to do tummy time for a 30-minute block off the bat. That’s just too much!
My article explains what happens if you don’t do tummy time.
What to know about tummy time
Tummy time should always be supervised. The American Academy of Pediatrics advises that you start tummy time right after the umbilical cord stump falls off.
Initially, newborns should be kept to a few minutes at a time for 2 to 3 times each day. When your baby begins to cry, it’s time for them to get their break from this activity. But once your child is about 3 to 4 months old, the amount of time spent on tummy time should be about 20 to 30 minutes each day.
Again, you can’t just make them do tummy time for a half-hour in one stretch. If you do, that is likely why your baby hates tummy time at 3 months, 4 months, 5 months, and beyond.
You should keep up tummy time as an activity for your baby until your child can roll over. Usually, the rolling-over milestone happens around 6 or 7 months of age. By this point, your baby will have the needed muscle strength and will be less likely to cry. If baby hates tummy time but sits up, they’re likely ready to move on to the next milestone…crawling. Keep encouraging them to make a move. You can read my post about helping your child crawl here.
How do I get my baby to like tummy time?
Your baby hates tummy time because it’s frustrating not to be able to lift their heads or push up onto their arms to have a better look around. Can you just imagine?
But you can do a few things to help when your baby refuses tummy time…
I know because I’m a creature of habit myself, but you have to hold your baby on different sides of your body. Switch it up a bit because this makes your baby change their head position and use other muscles. This way, they will become less upset during tummy time as these muscles get more use outside of tummy time.
And yes, you should face them away from you on occasion too. This also engages a different set of muscles. You may want to wait on this position until they’re about 3 or 4 months, though.
Change their head position at night
Babies always need to be placed on their back in the crib. If the baby hates tummy time and is getting a flat head, you will want to set their head in a different direction each night. This prevents flat heads and also has them using both sides of their body, which primes those muscles.
Take it slow
When a baby refuses tummy time, you may just have to start more slowly. Start with doing it for a few seconds per session, then gradually increase the duration so they’re in tummy time for longer each time.
Focus on comfort and security
Try lying on your belly on your tile or hardwood floors. Does that feel good? No? Then that’s likely what your baby isn’t happy with tummy time. A playmat or soft blanket is a great option if you don’t have any clean, carpeted floor space to work on.
Another common reason why a baby suddenly hates tummy time could be that she’s hungry, needs a diaper change (here’s our story of changing it the first time), or simply wants a nap. Ensure the baby’s needs have been met before engaging her in tummy time.
When a baby suddenly hates tummy time, she could also pick up on your nerves. You may be dialing up the pressure to perform without even realizing it. It may be a good idea to get your spouse or another caretaker involved in helping out with the tummy time sessions.
How to make tummy time better
Think of something you dislike. Whatever that thing is, surely you can relate to the feeling that it drags on forever. Maybe it’s a meeting at work that could’ve (and should’ve!) been an email or a chore you despise (dishes…ugh). Making these things more fun makes them go by more easily. And you may just find it’s not such a pain after all.
The same can be said for babies and tummy time.
So, lie down next to your baby during tummy time and meet them face to face. Talk soothingly, sing some fun songs, rub that tiny little back, and make them feel all comfy-cozy.
When I did this with my eldest, she no longer protested tummy time.
Babies who start lifting their heads can be further coaxed to keep up the good work when sitting in front of them on the floor. Shake a rattle or two. Make goofy faces and sounds. Do whatever you can to get them to lift that little head and take a gander.
Another great tool is a baby mirror for tummy time. Someone gifted us one that I can’t seem to find anywhere now, but this one linked here has the right idea. Babies are fascinated with mirrors and seeing “another baby” there.
Can you do tummy time on your chest?
Spending time with your baby on their belly on top of your chest is a great way to get them to lift that head and look at you. And it will count toward the time you need to spend for tummy time.
So go ahead and enjoy the cuddle and tummy time in one, but make sure you do your other sessions on a firm surface. The firmness is what helps those muscles develop. The same goes for your king bed too…you can put the baby up there with you on their tummy but the softness of your mattress and bedding is just a bit too much.
Alternatives to Tummy Time
While the AAP says tummy time is essential for proper development, there are different ways to do tummy time. Below you’ll learn other ways to mix things up and help your little one hit those milestones.
What can you do instead of tummy time?
There are 4 different ways to do tummy time, which can help build the muscles’ strength and pave the way for proper motor skills.
To really help baby strength-train, lay her on her side sometimes too. Switch sides for each session. This will boost the muscles on each side of her body. You can support her head with a rolled-up towel or receiving blanket. If you lay in front of them, they will be happy!
- Belly to belly
Babies love our faces. You may not want to face the world without makeup, but your baby won’t care. She loves you no matter what!
I always said my youngest looked at me like no one else ever has, with such pure love and adoration. So this gives you a chance to soak up all that love. Lie down on your back and put your baby there on your chest. You can sing or dangle a baby toy there as you do.
- The lap-lay
Lap laying might be best if you’re on the go and can’t get home to your usual tummy time spot. Put your baby on her belly across your lap. Use your hand to hold them in place and gently pat her. You can also dangle a toy in front of her to keep her entertained.
- Rock-a-bye tummy
When the baby only wants to be with you, use your arms to support her chest and belly. Then rock them as you carry them in this face-down position.
Each of these positions will help build your baby’s upper body muscles. But mix it up! You want to challenge your baby to engage with tummy time every day. Using these with traditional tummy time will make things more fun and exciting for your little one.
One last thing about tummy time…
I know it sucks when your baby shrieks and screams during tummy time. My rule of thumb was always to pick up my girls as newborns when they cried after a few minutes of tummy time.
I’d take care of their needs in the morning; our activity would be tummy time. Then nursing, nap. And then in the afternoon, repeat. Evening…repeat. You’ll find what works for you too.
I will say this, though…if you meet all those other needs like diaper changes, hunger, thirst, and rest, your baby will protest less during tummy time. Toys that help them with tummy time are a good choice too. Mats and padding plus those little tummy time activity centers can all keep them stimulated with colors, toys, sounds, and activities that will coax your baby to stay in tummy time just a wee bit longer.
After the newborn phase, your baby will start showing off her muscle strength more and more. Keep it up, and soon, you’ll realize she’s holding her head up alone. Before you know it, that little munchkin will be crawling across your floor at speed so fast; you’ll be amazed you have to run after her. Trust me on this. Maybe build up your muscle strength, too, so you can keep up. It gets hectic once they go mobile!
Leslie Berry lives with her husband and two young daughters in Los Altos, California, where she loves helping other moms get comfortable with motherhood and embracing the insanity with facts peppered with laughs.
She loves eating too much sushi, exercising, and jamming out on her Fender. Read more about Leslie here.