Let's be honest: Newborn babies are adorable, but during the early weeks, they just lie around a lot. That's why parents anxiously wait for the developmental milestone of rolling over, which symbolizes that their little one is becoming mobile, an important step towards becoming more independent. (Next thing you know they'll be wanting the car keys.) Here's an overview of when babies start to roll over, how you can help them get there and what to do if they haven't yet mastered the big flip.
When Do Babies Usually Roll Over?
"Most babies will start to roll anywhere from the end of their third month to the fifth month, but with developmental milestones there is always an average, and some may also do it earlier or later," says Juan Carlos Millon, a pediatrician at TopLine MD in Plantation, Florida. The most important thing to know about the timing? "It's going to happen when you least expect it, so I start reminding patients at the two-month visit not to leave their babies unattended — even turning your back for three seconds to grab a diaper while they're on the changing table is enough time for them to roll over and end up on the floor," Millon says.
Keep in mind that although some very young babies may, as Millon says, "be crying hysterically, arching their backs and fling their arm so that momentum causes a roll," pediatricians define the developmental milestone of rolling over as a more purposeful movement. "And by purposeful, we're talking about the baby who rolls over to grab a toy, or get a better look at Mom," Millon says.
And don't be surprised if you catch your baby flipping herself for a few days on her playmat, but then seem to lose interest in rolling for a while. "Motor skills can come and go before they get solidly integrated into their repertoire," says Sarah Johnson, a board-certified physical therapist at Riley Children's Health of Indiana University.
Preparing to Roll
A baby is helped in her quest to roll by muscle development, specifically in her upper body. "Babies' heads are big compared to rest of their bodies, and that can pull their weight forward, so they have to develop enough strength in their necks and shoulders to shift weight backwards," says Johnson.
It's easier to roll from belly to back, so most babies master that first, although some do start by going the other way. "To roll from back to belly, they have to develop enough strength in their flexors, which are the muscles on the front of their bodies, so it's just easier to use their extensors, or back muscles, to roll and then push with their arms," says Johnson.
How to Help Your Baby Roll Over
Tummy time is the way to get your baby to develop the core strength she needs to get going, as well as have plenty of opportunities to try different kinds of movement. It's important to first learn what motivates your baby, whether it's the sight of your face, a toy that plays music or an especially eye-catching rattle.
"When babies are interested in something, their minds are oriented to want to learn — but they don't care about the rattle you're holding unless it's the one they happen to want," says Johnson. Once your baby is starting to push up, you can experiment by putting the toy above her head and slightly outside her field of vision, to force her to look up and back. You can also try moving her legs a bit.
"We'll give them a gentle pull to kind of show them where to go," says Johnson. And of course, once baby succeeds, be sure to reward her hard work, by giving her the toy she loves and plenty of happy praise.
Keep in mind that "tummy time" doesn't just have to be placing a baby on a floor mat while he wails in frustration. "Ideally they can be on their bellies any time you are playing with them, but lying on a wedge incline pillow, which helps eliminate some of gravity's effects, or placing them on your chest will give them the same benefits as the floor," says Johnson.
What to Do If Baby Rolls Over at Night
Good news for sleep-deprived parents: Although you should always put your baby down to sleep on his back to decrease the risk of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS), once he has figured out how to roll from back to stomach, you can let him snooze that way. "If you start him on his back, and he chooses to roll onto his belly, you don't need to go in the middle of the night and unroll him, it's not any more dangerous in terms of SIDS," says Millon.
Because a rolling baby can become entangled in blankets and risk suffocating, you can prepare for this milestone by discontinuing the use of swaddle blankets by age three months. "At the two-month visit I start the discussion about stopping the swaddle, which can be done by starting with one arm out, then both arms left free and then taking the blanket completely away," says Millon.
What to Do If Baby Isn't Rolling Over
Babies born prematurely or those with certain conditions, like neurological injuries, are going to be delayed in achieving milestones like rolling over. Johnson says that she'd hope to see a four-month-old being "somewhat motivated" to roll, although Millon says that because there is a range of development among children, he usually waits until the six-month visit to bring up options like early intervention (EI), which are programs in all states that offer free assessments and services like physical therapy.
"It's important to figure out the cause of the delay, whether it's weakness, low tone, or something related to sensory integration, and doing some kind of therapy can often help jumpstart movement and give parents some reassurance," says Johnson.