One of the common misconceptions circulating in babywearing circles is that time upright in a carrier can be equated with “tummy time”, or time an infant spends playing on its tummy. These two activities should not be equated, there are important differences for the child’s development in each position. However, there are also many similarities and time in a carrier is a good alternative to tummy time when the latter is not practical.
“Tummy time” is commonly defined as time an infant spends playing on its stomach while awake. It is commonly recommended by many medical professionals to start at birth as a way of reducing or avoiding the mishaping of an infant’s head (plagiocephaly) caused by too much time in one position.
Tummy time also has the benefit of strengthening an infant’s abdominal and chest muscles while offering a different view of the world and an opportunity to engage with it directly as a tactile experience, rather than observing it while lying on the back.
However, some babies, especially those with reflux, protest and detest tummy time. Many parents are left wondering whether an activity so distressing to their child could be beneficial developmentally while worrying that failing to engage in regular tummy time may result in an avoidable disfigurement for their child in the form of plagiocephaly.
The good news is that babywearing is an alternative to tummy time. The common misconception, however, is that the two are equal.
Like tummy time, sling time has many benefits for an infant’s development. Upright time in a carrier removes pressure from the back of the head (present when the baby is lying on its back), reducing the chance of plagiocephaly quite effectively.
Time spent upright in a sling also exercises many of the same core stability muscles that are used during tummy time, however these muscles are not being used to the same level of exertion over the same time period as tummy time. Consider doing a pushup on the floor (or not). Now, think about pushing up while leaning against a wall. The latter is much easier, thanks to gravity. This is a similar comparison to tummy time and sling time. Another difference is that upper abdominal muscles may be used to a greater extent than lower abdominal muscles during sling time. The reason for this is the way the child is secured to the caregiver in the sling.
Since a baby is less likely to be frustrated in a sling and spend much longer in a sling more regularly throughout the day, the overall cumulative effect of sling time will be very beneficial to the development of these core stability muscles. The stimulation of the world around the very young infant will provide a very good incentive for the baby to develop its neck muscles from a very early age. In addition, since the babywearer is generally moving about while carrying the infant, the baby’s sense of balance and movement will also be developed.
There are several benefits of tummy time that sling time does not replicate, however. When a child is playing on its stomach, it can reach for (and usually mouth) toys. Gradually this will develop into a desire to move towards a desired object. Although a child can be given a toy to manipulate while it is in a carrier, this latter encouragement to take the first steps towards autonomous movement is missing in the carrier. Not all the same muscles are used to the same degree when in a carrier compared to when a baby is on its stomach. With this in mind, however, there are many benefits of closeness to a loving caregiver while in a sling that tummy time cannot replicate. Time babywearing can be used as a good way to develop those gross motor skills an infant needs to find tummy time less frustrating.
Although tummy time and sling time are not entirely interchangeable, they are two similar forms of exercise for an infant, each with benefits. Sling time, while not replacing tummy time, can help reduce the probability of placiocephaly while also developing core stability muscles in the worn infant. It is a good alternative to consider when a baby is frustrated by tummy time and an easy way to develop a child’s muscles in preparation for tummy time. However, time spent on the stomach should be introduced at some point for optimal development of gross motor skills.