Being a new parent is overwhelming enough, regardless of the plethora of parenting "dos and don'ts" that bombards us from conception to birth and beyond. This information is meant to inform parents so that we can make the best possible choices for our children. I think that most parents feel it is essential to create potential for their kids. Potential empowers our kids because it gives them more choices; potential choices to have a healthier physical, cognitive and emotionally fulfilled life. Amazingly, allowing plenty of tummy time can help create this potential in many ways. I know it seems too simple, but allowing your baby plenty of time on her stomach is developmentally vital on many levels. Here are some interesting facts about tummy time which are often over looked by the mainstream.
In order to better explain the role of tummy time in a newborn to four months, just imagine that your baby's body is a huge house with many rooms, and the electrical wiring throughout the walls/floors/ceilings is your baby's central nervous system. Allowing your new baby to move within the force of gravity is the equivalent of going through the "house" and turning on all the "lights." Not only do the "rooms" wake-up to their own existence, but they wake-up to and connect with each other creating an inter-connected whole. In her book, Amazing Babies, Beverly Stokes states, "Your baby's relationship to gravity is primary to his security, comfort, growth and development." 1 Not only does movement in relation to gravity turn-on your baby's nervous system, but it connects the sensations of the body to perceptions in the brain. "The close link between your baby's body movement, specific tactile sensations, and visual processing informs her about herself (and her environment) from the very beginning." 2 This is the very foundation of your baby's body awareness: what's "me" and what's "not me" But before your baby can even begin to make this differentiation, she needs to first bond and surrender to gravity, as well as to mom, dad, and/or care-giver. This is what is known as "yielding" and the "yielding patterns".
Since we live within the force of gravity 24/7, we don't realize the huge compressive force it provides. It is this compression that helps to stimulate and connect the body to itself and the brain. Establishing healthy yielding patterns is of primary importance from birth through the first month and beyond. Yielding with your baby tummy to tummy, for example, not only allows for her nervous system to plug in and turn on, but the bonding that happens between adult and child creates a loving connection which later feeds her sense of trust, confidence, and self esteem. Being able to surrender her body to mom, dad, and/or care-giver not only lays the groundwork for a healthy emotional life but also underlies her ability to have a healthy physical life. The ability to soften and yield facilitates fundamental spinal flexion and extension patterns that will affect her physically as she grows up. This is because every developmental pattern a child experiences is dependent on the development of the preceding pattern. So, if the early yielding patterns aren't allowed (for whatever reason) to unfold to their potential, it's as if you only occupy three rooms in that mansion of your body. You can make it work, but it's not optimal.
Yielding creates a baseline from which to push away from- which is the next developmental movement pattern that tummy time provides the space to practice. During this time of learning to yield and push, a baby's spinal cord, medulla, and cerebellum (known as the low brain) are forming connections called tracts and pyramids. The formation and definition of the low brain is responsible for the sucking, swallowing, and the rooting reflex. These are a baby's survival kit, already wired into our DNA, yet it takes movement within the context of touch and gravity to be revealed and used. All in all, there are 45 low brain reflexes which are only turned on and put into use through movement in the context of gravity. Moreover, for every reflex there is an opposing reflex that modulates it, each one acting as a "shadow" of the other. In efficient movement these reflexes interface and counter support each other at all times creating balanced postural tone and well integrated movement. If they don't develop in synchrony they remain too static or fixated, resulting in a postural tone that is too high, too low or inconsistent. This is of major importance, as the reflexes underlie the development of all head righting reactions and equilibrium responses. Reflexes are also the foundation upon which the mid brain and forebrain are built and they all rely upon tummy time to come to fruition. For instance, if a child is not allowed enough tummy time this can relate to poor horizontal eye tracking and eye convergence, which can lead to difficulty and delays in letter recognition and reading. Furthermore, the function of the vestibular system is dependent on your baby's ability to yield to gravity. This creates a baseline for balance by telling your baby about his relationship to gravity (up, down, left, right, etc.) as well as his speed of stopping and starting. "Many children with learning difficulties, especially those with attention issues, are not registering this (vestibular) information." 3
Developing Organ Support
The vestibular system, or vestibular organ, helps baby to "modify movement and postural tone- in relationship to gravity, space and time. Its stimulation facilitates the development of the tone of (all) the organs, which in turn is reflected in the postural tone of the skeletal muscles."4 If you can imagine your torso as a container, the organs are what give the torso container its volume. They support the musculoskeletal structure from within, creating "postural tone." Normally we think of postural tone as having to do with "muscle tone", but it is actually organ tone that underlies muscle tone. "This (organ) tone and how the organs initiate and sequence movement through the inner space of our bodies provides an internal organization that contributes to the patterning of our muscular coordination."5 In turn, you can imagine if a torso didn't have a liver, for instance, the musculoskeletal structure around where the liver should be would collapse in on itself due to lack of support.
As I mentioned earlier, when a baby is learning to yield and push from his tummy, it is not only the brain that is developing. He is also gaining muscular strength by pushing his whole body weight against the resistance of gravity. During this time he is also developing the organ tone which supports the growing musculoskeletal structure. If there is low tone in the organs, that will be reflected in low muscular tone. If there is too much tone within the organs, that will be reflected in the musculature as well. Tummy time allows for this "calibration" and integration of the organ and musculoskeletal systems. If the muscles aren't supported by the organs the muscles will have to work harder and areas of tension develop in order to maintain posture, or there can be a weakening and collapse of the structure as a whole and a general lack of alertness and vitality will result.6 When the organs are supporting the structure efficiently, there is a sense of "buoyancy" as the vitality of the organs flow outward through the limbs. The lack of buoyancy accompanied by chronic areas of tension is quite often experienced later on in life as "neuromuscular burn-out." The lack of organ tone and vitality underlying the musculoskeletal structure are quite often the missing link in a variety of adult complaints, ranging from lower back/neck pain, shoulder, hip and knee problems, digestive discomfort and general lack of energy.
Use of "propping devices"
A propping device could be a high-chair, a walker, a bouncy seat, or any seat that "props" the baby in an upright position. For many babies the use of these devices is happening too early in life. A good rule of thumb is to never put a baby into a position that they cannot organically sustain themselves. In other words, if your baby cannot sit up on his own, don't put him in a seat which forces him (through the use of a propping device) to sit upright. Many parents think that if they sit their baby up, he will learn to sit up on his own. What is not yet understood by many parents is that the baby gains the organ support and muscular strength to sit up from spending time on the floor. When baby moves from tummy crawling to hands and knees crawling, the legs and feet are developing connections to the core through the pelvic floor.7 This connection is made through strengthening hip flexion and extension. What can happen in babies who are propped up too early is that they develop too much extensor tone in the legs, which can later evolve into chronically tight hamstrings and back extensor muscles. This is almost always accompanied with weak hip flexors, weak pelvic floor muscles and lack of core support. Unfortunately, this postural habit can also make toilet training difficult, as toddlers who have been propped up are lacking in body awareness and pelvic floor strength and connectivity.
Preparing for tummy-time
Firstly, make baby's environment safe. Sweep or vacuum, plug all electrical outlets and put anything away that would be considered unsafe for baby to put in her mouth. Next, put a clean blanket down on the floor with a few age appropriate toys. After feeding her and a diaper change (if it's needed) put baby on the floor when she is awake and quietly alert. Next, get down there with her! Get on her level. Touch her gently to not only reassure her that you're close by, but to also elicit body awareness. Wherever you touch her, her awareness will follow. As I mentioned earlier, putting baby on her belly on your belly is a wonderful way to spend time with her (especially in the beginning). She gets to feel you breathe and this also supports her yielding and flexion patterns. In younger babies, tummy time is quick; she will begin to fuss when she is done and wants to be held and fed. As baby gets older and begins to move through space, tummy time becomes more about exploring the environment and playing, and less about bonding with parents and/or care-givers. Keep adjusting your baby's tummy environment by introducing new toys, new textures, sounds, and new friends. This is also a great time to nurture relationships with siblings and family pets. Your baby will direct you to what she wants; just remember to be in the present moment, creating an environment where she feels her needs are being met. Success with your baby at this stage often transfers into a not-so-terrible two (at least in theory!), and much success in all proceeding stages of life. You will do more for your baby by modeling movement than trying to make her move. Lastly, don't forget to have fun! The more she feels like you are playing with her (positive reinforcement), the more she feels loved and the more she ultimately learns. As a parent, there's no better feeling than knowing you are giving your child all the tools possible to grow up big and happy. Having plenty of tummy time might not get your kid into Harvard or make her an Olympic athlete, but it's a good place to start!
Melinda brings 15 years of experience teaching dance and movement education through health and fitness. She specializes in working with a wide range of people recovering from illness, injury, childbirth, and surgery. Through education and embodiment she seeks to use movement and touch therapies to empower those she works with. She also choreographs and performs as both dancer and musician. Contact her at www.thesmartbody.com/Instpage.html