baby crying during tummy time

My Baby Cries During Tummy Time

I hear parents say this on an almost daily basis. It is very common for babies to cry during tummy time. If your baby hates tummy time, keep reading! There is hope! I have turned many tummy time haters into tummy time lovers and you can too!

Why Do Babies Cry During Tummy Time?

Tummy time is hard work! It takes a lot of strength for babies to hold up their giant heads! Did you know that babies heads are 1/4 to 1/3 of their total length? (Huelke, 1998). Developing head control and strengthening their neck and upper body is no easy task.

baby sleeping on their back

Back to Sleep and Tummy Time

When the Back to Sleep Campaign was initiated in 1994, pediatricians began informing parents that babies should sleep on their backs at all times. While this was very effective for reducing the incidence of SIDS, it has had a negative impact on gross motor development.

Many studies have shown that after Back to Sleep was initiated, babies who slept on their back were delayed with developing head control, rolling, crawling, pulling to stand, walking, and other gross motor skills. Why is this?

This is because most of these skills are achieved in a prone (face down) position. And these prone skills are the foundation for many other skills. Young babies spend much of their time sleeping, so if they have to sleep on their back, that will be their position for most of the day.

When babies used to sleep on their tummies, they would have active tummy time every time they would wake up while waiting for mom or dad to come get them. They would also get practice lifting their head up every time they turned it to the other side during sleep.

Now that babies sleep mostly on their backs, the amount of time they spend on their tummy is significantly reduced.

It goes without saying that the most important goal is keeping babies alive and healthy! Placing babies on their back to sleep is important in meeting this goal. So what can we do?

baby doing tummy time

Tummy time didn’t used to be a thing. We didn’t have to schedule it into our day because it was already naturally happening. The American Academy of Pediatrics coined the term “back to sleep, tummy to play” to describe how baby should spend their day.

Tummy time is hard for babies and they aren’t as used to it as babies used to be. If we don’t intentionally put babies in this position, they will not be able to practice.

Babies See Less During Tummy Time

Until babies can raise their head 90 degrees of the surface, they can’t see very much when on their tummy. As babies get older and become more curious about their environment, a good view is important to them! They also often want to keep their eyes on you!

Babies often prefer to be held in a seated position because this offers the best view. Offering something interesting for them to look at is essential to keep them engaged during tummy time. Keep reading for ideas!

mom holding baby

Baby Wants to Be Close to You

Babies are programmed to have a need to stay close to mom and dad. It’s a survival instinct! Many babies cry during tummy time because they aren’t being held and they want that feeling of closeness.

Is It Okay to Let Baby Cry During Tummy Time?

In a word–NO. I’m not saying you have to rescue your baby immediately every single time they start to fuss. But I don’t recommend continuing tummy time if baby begins to cry.

Babies are smart. They quickly develop preferences and learn what they like and don’t like. If they decide they don’t like tummy time, it will just become more and more difficult to get them to be happy in this position in the future.

If baby begins to fuss, try finding a way to change the mood by giving them something new to look at or singing a song to them. If you aren’t able to find a way to stop them from crying, roll them to their back. Give them a break for 1-2 mins and then roll them back to their tummy.

You can go back and forth between these positions several times to help build up their endurance for tummy time without making them miserable.

How Can I Make Tummy Time Easier?

mom holding baby on chest, modified tummy time

Tummy Time on Parent’s Chest

If baby really does not want to be put down, you can still do tummy time! You can recline back and put baby on your chest. The more you recline, the more difficult it will be for them to raise their head up.

Babies often love this version of tummy time, because they are so close to you and feel safe and comfortable.

This version of tummy time is especially great in the first couple of months when tummy time is still a new concept. As baby’s skills improve and baby gets older, make sure you do start moving down to the floor more and more.

Tummy time on a flat firm surface at least sometimes is essential. This is where baby will learn to roll and crawl, they can’t do this when laying on top of you!

tummy time on a ball

Tummy Time on a Ball

Doing tummy time on a ball is my hands down favorite trick for turning tummy time haters into tummy time lovers. Babies tend to love movement and the ball can provide this.

You can also grade the level of difficulty by rolling the ball forward and backward. If baby is doing great and you want to make it harder, roll them forward. If they are having a hard time or becoming fussy, roll them back. Rolling them back decreases the intensity of gravity, therefore making it easier for them to hold their head up.

Another benefit of tummy time on a ball is that you can target many more muscles than on a static, flat surface. You can roll baby forward and backward to target flexor and extensor muscles (muscles in the front and back of our bodies). You can roll baby side to side to activate the muscles on the sides of the body. You can also roll baby in a circle to target everything!

Here is a great YouTube video of a physical therapist showing how to do tummy time on a ball with your baby.

This 65cm ball is the perfect size for tummy time, is affordable, and even comes with a pump!

Tummy Time on a Boppy Pillow

If tummy time is difficult on a flat horizontal surface, try using a pillow under their chest to elevate them. The Boppy pillow is a common baby item many families have. If you already have one, this is great option. If not and you want to purchase it, you can find many options on Amazon.

Boppy Tummy Time Prop, Black and White Modern Rainbows with Teething Toys, Fabric, A Smaller Size for Comfortable Tummy Time, Attached Toys Encourage Neck and Shoulder Strength Building

This YouTube video of an occupational therapist shows how to use the Boppy Pillow for tummy time as well as for other motor skills.

Another option is to simply roll up a towel or blanket. You can create a large blanket roll and position baby’s arms on it to give their whole body a lift. Or you can make a small blanket roll (2-3 inches) and place it under baby’s chest with their arms in front. This allows them to keep their arms on the surface while giving their chest a lift.

tummy time with blanket roll

Other Activities that Improve Tummy Time Skills

Baby wearing is a great way for babies to work on improving head control while being close to you. If baby is having a hard time with tummy time and you are able to wear them in a carrier, give it a try! For more information on baby wearing, check out our article The Benefits of Baby Wearing.

Another activity that can help is holding your baby in an upright or supported sitting position. Most babies will be able to support their head briefly in this position by 6 weeks of age. All babies should have good head control in this position by 3 months.

tummy time outside on the grass

More Tummy Time Tips

  • Find the right time to do tummy time. If baby has a tendency to spit up after feeding, you may want to wait 30 mins or more. If baby is always fussy in the evening, focus on morning tummy time. If baby does best when their older sibling is entertaining them, wait until the older kids are home from school. Whatever works best for your baby!
  • Make sure babies arms are under their chest and not out to the side. If baby’s arms keep going out to the side, you can help bring their arms in and hold onto their upper arms.
  • Try doing tummy time outside. Being outdoors tends to make a lot of babies happy. Give it a try and see if it works for your little one!
  • Offering interesting visual stimuli is key! Your face is often enough in the newborn phase. As they get older, many babies love looking at themselves in a mirror. Tummy time mirrors are non-breakable and safe for babies. Laying baby on top of an interesting blanket with bold black and white or colorful patterns like this one can help to entertain them. Water tummy time mats are another fun option.

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Davis BE, Moon RY, Sachs HC, Ottolini MC. Effects of sleep position on infant motor development. Pediatrics. 1998 Nov;102(5):1135-40. doi: 10.1542/peds.102.5.1135. PMID: 9794945.

Huelke DF. An Overview of Anatomical Considerations of Infants and Children in the Adult World of Automobile Safety Design. Annu Proc Assoc Adv Automot Med. 1998;42:93–113. PMCID: PMC3400202.

Jantz JW, Blosser CD, Fruechting LA. A motor milestone change noted with a change in sleep position. Arch Pediatr Adolesc Med. 1997 Jun;151(6):565-8. doi: 10.1001/archpedi.1997.02170430031006. PMID: 9193239.

Majnemer A, Barr RG. Association between sleep position and early motor development. J Pediatr. 2006 Nov;149(5):623-629. doi: 10.1016/j.jpeds.2006.05.009. PMID: 17095331.

Safe to Sleep (2022). National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. Key Moments in Safe to Sleep® History: 1994–2003 | Safe to Sleep® (

The First 12 Weeks: The Best Ways to Support Your New Baby’s Development (E-Book)
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