The tummy down position for newborns looks awkward to adults. Babies have their little tushies in the air like a beetle, their legs tucked underneath them, and all their weight pushed forward on their upper chest and face. To most of us, that position looks like torture. To others, it may remind them of the yoga “child’s pose” that is meant to relax and center us, bringing our spirit back to a state of equilibrium. This position is actually exactly what a newborn infant needs to help calm and give them the opportunity to learn how to self-soothe. When newborns are on their tummy, the floor provides support to counteract the ballistic movements that are typical and can disorganize babies’ states of consciousness. Their arms are tucked underneath them with their hands conveniently close to their faces and mouths. Newborns frequently get their hands to their mouths when in this position. However, when on their back, they do not have the motor control to easily reach their hands to their mouths. The floor provides that support.
Full term, healthy newborns can turn their head each way and effectively clear their airway when awake and placed on a firm surface, so there is no need to be concerned about suffocation when baby is in this position. They drag their faces, including cheeks, lips, and chin across the floor, which provides rich sensory information to those parts of the face. Again, conveniently, these are the parts that are essential for feeding; the extra sensory information provided by the floor causes more frequent firing of neurons in this part of the brain, and strengthens the pathways that are needed to reinforce successful feeding.
In regards to vision, newborn infants see best 8-12 inches from their face. When on their tummy, parent and caregiver faces and voices (the best toy around) can easily be positioned in that precise spot so you can marvel, talk to and bond with your baby where they see you best. It also gives the parent an opportunity to lie down: Something all new parents need to do! Also, if babies’ hand happens to move a bit away from their face, they can visually regard it and start learning about self-discovery: Wow, that is MY hand!
You can also start working on the coordinated connection/integration of auditory and visual information with behavioral/motor responses. By positioning yourself on the opposite side of way baby is facing and softly calling to your baby, they will first hear and then listen, locating your voice and the hearing sound of their name, responding with motor movements to try and turn their head the other direction in order to SEE the source of what they heard. This simple game helps to connect sensory information with motor output AND ends with an amazing gift to both you and the baby: They get to see your smiling face! Added bonuses are that they 1) crossed midline in the process, which strengthens the integration of right and left sides of the brain, and 2) practiced looking both directions, increasing mobility, length, and strength of joints and muscles on both sides of the body. It truly is amazing how a simple game can positively affect so many systems and contribute to their development and maturity.
One of the best ways to ensure that your baby likes tummy time is to start at birth. If your baby is still not tolerating this position well after consistently practicing throughout the day for a couple of weeks (such as short times after each diaper change), there are many ways to modify the tummy-down experience to make it easier and more successful. Try chest to chest tummy time, lap soothe tummy time, and tummy down carrying. If you are still struggling to help your baby enjoy this time, live workshops and individual consultations are available in the San Diego area and online video consultations are available for those further away!
A recent search for online videos of infants on their tummies highlighted a misconception that many parents have. Despite the very calm, happy babies that were on the floor on their tummies for minutes at a time, parent’s voice-overs indicated they thought they were torturing their babies, that they were doing this merely to follow doctors’ orders to force their babies to “workout.” Rather than interpreting what your feelings would be in this position, take the time to read your babies’ expressions. This position is one that calms and nurtures our newborns’ immature systems; it provides rich sensory and motor experiences that no other position provides; and it allows the opportunity for babies to build foundations in these domains that will positively contribute to development for the weeks, months and years ahead. Enjoy this position with your baby; it is one of the easiest and least expensive ways to support your babies’ development.