Could Lack of ‘Tummy Time’ in Babies Hurt School Performance in Teens?

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The national Back to Sleep campaign prompted parents to put infants to sleep on their backs to reduce the risk of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS), or “crib death,” and it successfully cut the rate of SIDS deaths by 50%, since its launch in 1994. But, according to a fascinating recent article on Slate, the campaign had a “side effect”: parents have become so anxious about letting their babies lie on their stomachs that their motor development is being delayed due to lack of “tummy time.”

Slate’s Brian Mossop writes:

[T]aking away “tummy time,” it turns out, cuts off a pivotal avenue of development. The less time infants spend on their stomachs, the slower they generally are to acquire motor skills during their first year, which means the potential delay of simple feats like lifting their heads as well as more-complicated movements like rolling over, crawling, and pulling to stand.

The article cites research linking delayed motor development in childhood to all sorts of later life problems, like poorer gym class performance at 14, lower scores on tests of reading comprehension in your 20s, and reduced muscle strength at age 31. (More on Is My Baby Too Fat? Parents Put Infants on Diets)

But there’s a problem here, a logical leap too far. The studies on the long-term effects of delayed motor development didn’t look at the cause of those delays: obviously, children with motor delays caused by genetics, birth defects or other issues unrelated to “tummy time” may have later cognitive or motor problems that are due to those factors, regardless of how much time they spent on their bellies during infancy.

Although it’s entirely possible that lack of tummy time may delay development, and that that delay could be linked with later risks, the available data don’t come anywhere near proving it. Further, the studies cited by the Slate article were conducted on children born in the 1960s or earlier, in Europe — before the tummy time problem even occurred. The research controlled for some factors like birth weight and socioeconomic status — but they could not control for genetic differences. (More on Battle of the Bris: A Move to Outlaw Circumcision in San Francisco)

Tummy time certainly isn’t a bad idea and there’s no reason for parents not to encourage it — but we just don’t yet know whether it has any effect at all on how well your child will do in gym in junior high, let alone on the SAT.

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