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Experts: Lack of 'tummy time' causes developmental delays in children

February 23, 2011|by Cara Restelli, KY3 News |

Medical professionals call it a national epidemic: normal children who are delayed in accomplishing basic skills like holding a pencil or catching a ball.  At least one expert calls them "bucket babies."  They're kids who spend too much time in containers like car seats and not enough time on their tummies.  It causes problems in children from infancy through adulthood.

SPRINGFIELD, Mo. -- Twenty years ago, a 5-month-old baby like Lexi Cizek would have spent almost all her time on her tummy.  But, today, Lexi cries after just a minute on her belly. 

"It was just torture for her to do it and eventually you'd just pick her up," said Lexi's mom, Karyssa.

Lexi is one of millions of American babies facing the possibility of developmental delays simply because she doesn't spend enough time on her stomach.  Occupational therapist Charlene Young is traveling the nation, lecturing to health care professionals about what she calls "bucket babies." 


"The number of children with developmental delays has increased dramatically, so it is imperative we stop that from happening," she said.

The Back to Sleep campaign encouraging parents to place babies to sleep on their backs and the growing popularity of convenient devices like infant car seats, swings, saucers and bouncy seats have led to children not getting enough tummy time. 

"Extensive time in containers limits movement, which causes problems with development," said Young.

There is growing clinical evidence that it's causing delays in otherwise normal children. 

"It's affecting motor skills, both fine and gross, and sensory development overall.  The developmental milestones have changed dramatically in 20 years."

It's all because spending time on your stomach establishes the upper body strength that babies will use for the rest of their lives to do things like read and write, hold a scissors properly, and even climb a jungle gym. 

"It's absolutely vital for development.  It supports neck development, which supports the jaw, which supports talking and eating.  It supports the neck, which supports the eyes being able to focus together and scan," said Amy Vaughan, an occupational therapist with Burrell Behavioral Health.

Because they don't have the upper body strength to support them, more and more children are completely skipping over the crawling stage.  Once seen by medical professionals as unnecessary for the normal development of children, more and more of them now believe crawling is crucial. 

"Crawling will help strengthen muscles to support handwriting and endurance.  It's going to support the midline to swing a bat and hit a ball and have hand-eye coordination to do it well," said Vaughan.

"If a child doesn't develop according to milestones, than it has a snow ball effect.  Cognitive development could be delayed, visual motor skills are delayed.  We're seeing 1 in 5 children with a visual processing disorder," said Young.

It can affect kids throughout their life. 

"By the time you get to a college level class it matters how long you can sustain writing and typing," said Vaughan.


Without intense therapy since age 3, Mason Malarkey might never have been able to take Taekwondo.  His entire life, he has battled developmental delays. 

"When he wrote with a crayon, he would bear down so hard that they would break.  He's done that with pencils.  He's always had trouble with scisssors.  He's always had problems with buttons and zippers too," said his mom, Michele.

His occupational therapist says it was most likely caused by not enough tummy time and completely skipping over the crawling stage. 

"He was a kid who you would put him on his tummy and he would scream bloody murder.  The minute he'd scream, what would I do?  I'd scoop him up and hold him," said Malarkey.

Thanks to an early diagnosis, Mason is catching up, but still has some difficulties. 

"He turned 8 years old last month and just learned to tie his shoes last month."

Malarkey said every parent needs to know the importance of tummy time, crawling and getting babies out of their buckets. 

"If I had to do it all over again, I would not have picked him up as soon as he cried on his tummy.  It's very important that he was on his tummy and crawled.  At the time, I didn't see any problem with it."


Occupational therapists also believe a lack of tummy time causes sensory processing problems.  This means children may not respond properly to taste, touch, movement, smell, vision and hearing, a condition known as Sensory Processing Disorder.  Some children may even show signs of behavioral problems. 

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