While it might sound strange at first, your baby's tummy holds the key for much of his head, neck and shoulder muscle development. That's because encouraging your baby to get down on his tummy and lift his head works those muscles that are later responsible for head and neck control. If you want a strong baby, assume the position and squeeze in some baby tummy time by following some simple safety rules and playing a few games to engage your tiny Superman.

Tummy time works to help prepare your baby for other areas of development, including:

  • Muscle development.
  • Neck control.
  • Sitting up.
  • Crawling.
  • Bonding time between you and your baby.

Magdalena Oledzka, pediatric physical therapist for the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York warns that "babies who don't spend time on their bellies have been shown in the research to achieve their developmental milestones at later time (as compared to babies who spend time in prone position (belly time), and they are at higher risk to develop head flattening in the back of their heads and may develop torticollis secondary to the flattening (tilted appearance of the head)."

Baby tummy time is most important around the two-to-four month range. That's when your baby's neck muscles are strengthened to the point where he has some beginning control and can lift his head off of the ground. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that babies get three to five minutes of baby tummy time at least two or three times each day. Try doing tummy time at least 30 minutes after your baby has eaten, or it could be spit-up central.

Unfortunately, tummy time can go awry if its practiced improperly. Since the AAP recommends that babies always go to sleep on their backs, it's vital that you never allow your baby to fall asleep while on his tummy or walk away while your baby is having tummy time. Both habits could result in asphyxiation, especially if your baby lacks head and neck control, a common cause of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. Instead, try these simple steps for safe tummy time:

  1. Find a place on the floor that is stable and solid. Never attempt tummy time on an elevated platform or soft surface, like a bed.
  2. Spread a blanket over the area and move away any small objects that your baby could grasp and place in his mouth.
  3. Lie your baby on the blanket by propping his arms underneath his body. Don't lie your baby flat on the floor, since he'll lack the strength to prop himself up on his own.
  4. Stay nearby as your baby enjoys a few minutes of tummy time so you can monitor his movements and encourage him.
  5. Pick up your baby when he starts to show signs of discomfort or fussiness. You want your baby to enjoy tummy time and associate it with positive feelings so it becomes a common occurrence in your routine.

Once you've gotten the hang of basic tummy time, you can start introduce games and activities which serve to help develop your baby's reflexes and muscles while providing you the perfect opportunity to have some baby bonding time. Try some of these simple games to entice your baby to engage his muscles and show off some of his latest skills.

Belly bonding. "If baby can tolerate being positioned on their belly on mommy's chest or another incline such as a nursing pillow (boppy pillow) for 45-60 seconds before getting upset, that is a great place to start," says Oledzka. Your baby loves to look at human faces, so he'll lift up his head to check out one of the most familiar faces.

Toy roundup. Lie your baby on the floor and then place a circle of toys around him. Even if he can't physically reach for the toys, he'll probably be able to lift his head and look around and the offerings. The colors, patterns and characters on his toys will hold his attention enough that he'll practice using his eyes and neck together to check out his surroundings.

Airplane, airplane. Do you have a tiny pilot on your hands? Test and see by playing a little airplane game with your baby to help develop his head and neck muscles. Start by placing one hand under your baby's belly and one under his chest so that he's facedown to the ground but securely in your hands. Slowly swing your baby across the front of your body—he'll probably squeal with delight from the new view and the soothing movement.

Sibling play. If you have older siblings, tummy time is ideal for increasing involvement as a family. Invite older siblings to shake toys, make silly faces and interact with baby as you watch close by. Your baby gets to know the other faces in your home while you banish any sibling jealousy or resentment that has popped up since baby came home.

While tummy time will help your baby's development, don't stress if you baby balks at spending five minutes on his belly. Start with one minute at a time and work up to longer lengths as he learns new skills and strengthens his muscles. Before you know it, he'll be crawling all over the house with the same skills he learned a minute at a time as a newborn.