"Tummy time": It's fun to say, but the consequences of your baby not getting enough of it are no laughing matter.
In 1994, the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development launched the Back to Sleep Campaign to encourage parents to lay their babies on their backs to sleep in order to help reduce the incidence of sudden infant death syndrome. Since then, SIDS deaths have decreased by about 50 percent, although it is still the third leading cause of death among infants, according the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
While back-sleeping may reduce the risk of SIDS, the American Academy of Pediatrics also recommends "tummy time" for infants, to ensure they develop their neck muscles and don't develop plagiocephaly, which is a flat or misshapen head, or torticollis, which is a crooked neck.
Miley, 7 months, Moundsville
In fact, physical therapist Stephanie J. Pruitt, author of "The Truth About Tummy Time" (2011), says her research has shown infants who are frequently placed on their backs are more likely to have shortened neck muscles, flattened heads and other develomental delays."
She cites back-sleeping, as well as overuse of car seats, infant seats, travel systems, bouncers, swings and other devices, for leading to increased incidences of torticollis and plagiocephaly. These constraints on babies' free movement can keep them from hitting developmental milestones, Pruitt says.
"It is difficult to achieve motor miletones if one is not given the opportunity to explore different positions," she adds.
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Nobody wants to see her child diagnosed with a condition that could have been prevented. A local mother whose daughter was diagnosed with torticollis, for instance, said her doctor blamed her for laying the baby down on her back to sleep with her head turned the same direction every time. Torticollis, however, also can be an inherited condition or caused by fetal positioning in the womb or during birth.
Torticollis treatment involves physical therapy to stretch and strengthen the baby's neck. Surgery may be required.
Plagiocephaly also can be caused by positioning in the womb, but Hangar Prosthetics and Orthotics, which makes cranial helmets for infants with plagiocephaly, states on its website there has been a 600 percent increase in the condition since the Back to Sleep Campaign was introduced.
According to Kyle Yonak, a certified prosthetist and orthotist with Hangar's Wheeling location, helmet prescriptions are on the rise locally. Infants as young as 3 months can be fitted, and they wear them for two to 10 months.
The earlier a child is diagnosed, the more likely the treatment time will be shorter, he said.
Infants must wear the helmets 23 hours a day, he added. The helmet can be removed for up to an hour for bathing and a few other breaks during the day.
"The helmets don't squeeze your head into a more symmetical shape and they don't apply any pressure. What they do is they redirect growth," Yonak said. After taking measurements of the baby's head, a helmet is crafted with an air pocket or void where the head is flattened. "The head grows into the part where the void is," he said.
How much 'tummy time'?
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According to Dr. Anne Zachry, a pediatric occupational therapist, about 30 minutes of tummy time a day should be the goal, but parents should expose the child gradually - as little as 15 seconds per session at first is OK. During the day, a baby should have two to three tummy time sessions.
"Believe it or not, you can begin exposing your baby to tummy time while you both are still in the hospital. The earlier you start, the more likely that your infant will accept the stomach as a natural position," Zachry says on her website, www.tummytimetips.com.
Start by laying on your back and placing the baby belly-down on your tummy to get the baby used to the position, according to www.pregancy.org.
When ready to move to the floor, give the youngest babies a little help by rolling up a thin towel or blanket and placing it under Baby's chest, Zachry says. A Boppy pillow also works well. "Position Baby's arms over the roll with his hands reaching out in front of the roll.
If Baby's chin drops, it should still be positioned slightly in front of the roll, and so that his mouth and nose still get plenty of air," Zachry says.
Other tips: Place a mirror or toy on the floor in front of the baby to keep his or her attention. And never leave a baby unattended during tummy time.