In the past 20-some years, we’ve learned just how important it is to put babies to sleep on their backs, a practice that has been credited with lowering the rates of SIDS. But while “Back is Best” for sleep, researchers are more and more adamant about helping babies get in some “tummy time” during waking hours.

That’s because tummy time is essential for building babies’ strength and motor skills—and even affects their handwriting years later.

The link was discovered through an informal study by Dr. Anne Zachry, chairwoman of the department of occupational therapy at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center. As she explains to The New York Times, she realized that poor handwriting was symptomatic of arm and trunk weakness. She then sent questionnaires home to the parents of children with poor handwriting and learned “the majority of these kids having fine motor and handwriting issues did not have tummy time.”

Why is tummy time important?

Zachry says it seems that tummy time sets off a positive chain of events: Babies who do tummy time are more likely to crawl rather than skipping straight to walking. By doing this, they continue to strengthen their arms and cores and have more muscular control for years to come compared with kids who did not do as much tummy time.

“In tummy time, they’re using their neck and trunk and shoulder muscles, and also their hands,” Zachry says. “They start pushing themselves up to look around, working muscles that are foundational for fine motor skills, and getting a different perceptual experience.”

Other benefits of tummy time

According to the NIH, tummy time has several more immediate benefits, including:

  • Reduces the risk of positional plagiocephaly, or flat head syndrome
  • Strengthens neck and shoulder muscles to help baby sit, crawl, and walk
  • Improves baby’s muscle coordination

When should you start tummy time?

Zachry stresses the importance of starting tummy time “as soon as you get home from the hospital.” Begin with just a few minutes on the tummy at a time before extending sessions as baby gets stronger (and less sleepy).

And if baby doesn’t seem to be on board, don’t worry. That’s common, too. “The reason I believe most infants resist it is they have poor head control and it’s hard,” she explains. “Don’t put them on a blanket on the floor and go, ‘Okay, it’s time for tummy time,’ and step away. Get down at their level with a small toy.”

By working with baby on this, you’re teaching them determination along with boosting their motor skills—both of which should be helpful when they’re in that handwriting competition a few years from now.

A version of this story was originally published on June 18, 2018. It has been updated.

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