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Tummy Time Alternatives: Improve Infant Head Control Without Tummy Time

Tummy Time Alternatives: Improve Infant Head Control Without Tummy Time

Tummy time is one of the most important activities to help your little one develop their neck and shoulder strength (among many other benefits), but for most babies it’s also quite hard for them to do. Some babies find it so difficult it’s almost impossible to get them to do tummy time early on.

If you find yourself in this situation with a fussy baby who refuses to do tummy time, there are some tummy time alternatives you can use to help develop their neck muscles and improve head control until they are able to do more traditional forms of tummy time.

In this article you’ll learn what those various tummy time alternatives are and how to do them with your little one.

Roll Your Baby Onto Their Side When You Pick Them Up

The first activity you can do with your little one is to roll them onto their side before you pick them up.

In the hospital, we’re often encouraged to pick up our babies off the floor, the change mat, or from their cot by placing a hand behind their head and then lifting them up. But I encourage you instead to roll your baby onto their side, and then pick them up from that side-lying position.

emma hubbard picking a baby up out of a crib - about to roll them onto their side
emma hubbard with a baby rolled onto their side about to lift them out of the crib

Rolling your baby onto their side will cause their neck muscles to activate in order to keep their head in line with their body. This is actually a reflex that babies are born with, and you can use it to help develop your baby’s neck strength and head control.

I also recommend alternating sides each time you do this. For example, if you roll them onto their left side when you pick them up, try to remember to roll them onto their right side when picking them up next time.

This helps to encourage balanced muscle development on both sides.

Play With Your Baby Lying On Their Side

Another great alternative to tummy time is to have your baby lay on their side while you play with them.

In addition to the benefits they get from being picked up from their side, playing with your baby while laying on their side also engages their trunk muscles as they kick their legs and reach for toys.

To do this, start by placing your baby on their back on the floor. Then straighten one leg, and take the other leg and roll it over the top of their body so that they come into a side-lying position.

Once they’re in that position, make sure both of their hands are in front of their body. Next, give them something interesting to look at, like a toy or some interesting scenery. You are very interesting to your baby, so simply lying down next to them is great too.

You should also prop baby up by placing a rolled-up towel, rolled-up blankets, or even just your leg or hand behind their back to stop them rolling onto their back.

baby playing on their side with a rolled up towel behind their back and toys in front of them as an alternative to tummy time.

Because there is a risk that they will accidentally roll onto their tummy, always ensure your baby is supervised while in this position.

And once again it’s important to alternate the side that they are lying on each time you do this to ensure that your baby’s muscle development is equal on both sides of their body and their neck.

Use Toys to Encourage Head Movement

You can also use toys in creative ways to help develop their neck strength and overall head control.

This is another exercise that’s quite simple but lots of fun for your baby.

You can do this by placing your baby on their back on a firm, flat surface like the floor, and then holding a toy in their line of sight. Once you notice they are looking at the toy, move it very, very slowly from one side to the other.

You’ll notice your baby will follow the moving toy with their eyes and then with their head as well.

That exercise of turning their head from one side to the other is working on their neck strength and head control.

parent showing a baby a toy and baby watching that toy while lying in crib
baby looking at same toy but now on the other side of their body as they track with their eyes

Being able to follow a moving toy is one of the many exciting milestones your baby is going to achieve in their first year of life.

If you’d like to learn which milestones you can be expecting your little one to hit and when to expect them, make sure you click here to download the free developmental milestones checklist which will show you what to expect at each age in your baby’s first 12 months of life.

Use Developmentally Beneficial Carrying Techniques

The next activity you can do with your little one is carry them in a way that encourages them to lift their head and turn their head.

There are lots of different techniques that you can use to carry a newborn which firstly gives them the opportunity to lift their head as well as turn it to the left or right to see what’s happening in the world.

These include:

Encouraging Your Baby to Lift Their Head While You Carry Them

If you carry your baby in an upright position with their arms up, just above shoulder height, this will give them a little bit of head support, but they will still have to engage their muscles to lift their head against gravity.

It’s a very simple way to get some of the benefits of tummy time throughout the day as you go through your usual routine.

Emma holding a baby over her shoulder with baby's arms raised slightly

Use The Football Hold

Many babies love the football hold for some tummy time fun!

To do the football hold, hold your baby with one arm between their legs and your hand on their tummy, and the other hand down across the front of their shoulder and hand resting on their chest.

You can then adjust the angle they are on to make it more or less difficult depending on what your baby is comfortable with. The more upright you hold them, the easier this is for your baby.

Using the football hold, where they will need to lift their head to look at the world that’s around them.

emma hubbard holding a baby using the football hold as a tummy time alternative

Use a Baby Carrier

Carriers or baby wraps are great if your baby hates tummy time because when they’re in them they are required to lift their head against gravity. With so many interesting things to look at they’ll also turn their head their head left or the right to look around, and also move their head to get comfortable.

man with a baby on his chest in a baby carrier

Hold Your Baby Facing Outwards

On the topic of carrying your baby, another thing you can do is hold them so that they are facing outwards rather than with your baby’s chest against your chest or your shoulder.

When you do this, be sure to provide support around their rib cage, and place your other hand underneath their legs. This will ensure that you are providing whole body support, while your baby will have to hold their head upright using their upper body muscles, and also activate those muscles to turn their head to look around.

Emma holding an infant in front against her chest with the child facing forwards

Progressing to Tummy Time

When you gain the confidence to try tummy time with your little one again, instead of placing them straight onto their tummy in tummy time, you can make it easier by rolling them onto their tummy. This activates that neck-tightening reflex so that when they roll onto their side, they’ll switch their neck muscles on to keep their head in line with their body.

For example:

To roll your baby from their back through their left side onto their tummy, use one hand and grab their left leg and gently straighten it.

Then with your other hand, place it on their right thigh or their right hip. Then gently roll the right leg over the top of their body so that they come onto their tummy. Once they’re on their tummy you’ll then just need to reposition their arm to make sure that it’s no longer stuck underneath their body.

To learn more about tummy time with a newborn and the positions to use, click here to read our guide to newborn tummy time.

Emma Hubbard

Emma Hubbard

Emma Hubbard is a Pediatric Occupational Therapist with over 12 years of clinical experience. She received her Bachelor's Degree in Occupational Therapy from the University of Newcastle. Emma is the founder of Brightest Beginning & writes about all things child development, sleep, feeding, toilet training and more.

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