Ask An Expert: The Importance of Floor Play with Halie McClaran, PT, DPT
October 10, 2022
When it comes to baby containers, there is no shortage of options on the market. It’s no secret that babies require a lot of holding and entertaining, and since we’re all human (with aching arms), we all need a break from time to time in order to rest and finish other tasks. From loungers to bouncers, and walkers to jumpers, there are a million products that provide a confined container in which you can place your baby. And, although it’s okay to use these items for short periods of time, experts agree that the best place for your baby to play is the floor. Rather than spending money on pricey swings and bouncers that don’t encourage motor development, giving your baby plenty of floor time to explore their surroundings and range of movement is all you need to support proper development. The catch? Babies don’t always like being on the floor, especially when their neck and trunk strength isn’t developed enough to comfortably support the weight of their head. However, with time and practice, your baby will quickly develop the necessary strength to enjoy freely moving about, and you’ll notice how much tummy time changes as they grow. Ditch the containers, which can cause container baby syndrome, and invest in a soft, comfortable play mat that grows with your little one. To learn more about the importance of floor play for your baby’s development, we spoke to Halie McClaran, a pediatric physical therapist and doctor of physical therapy (with over 112k followers on her TikTok @haliealane9!), who shared her expertise on why floor play is so critical.
Q: Why is floor time better than bouncers, swings, or loungers?
HM: Supervised floor time is extremely important for a baby’s development. Floor time really helps baby learn new gross motor skills and strengthen their muscles in order to learn how to roll, sit up, and crawl. Floor time also promotes vestibular and cognitive development, as well as spatial awareness. Floor time helps to strengthen your baby’s muscles. As a parent, we all need a break and a safe place for baby while we are trying to get chores done around the house, so baby bouncers, loungers, swings, or ‘containers’ as we call them, are a safe option for short periods, but it is recommended that baby spends no longer than 20 minutes at a time in such ‘containers.’
Q: Does floor time always have to mean tummy time?
HM: No! Floor time does not always equal tummy time. Although tummy time is very important for baby’s development in head control and overall gross motor skills, time spent on baby’s side or back can be just as important for development. Time spent in side-lying helps to promote hands to midline, and time spent on baby’s back can help with development of visual tracking and overhead reaching.
Q: Is independent floor time better than interactive floor time?
HM: Both independent floor time and interactive floor time are important. Independent floor time helps your baby learn how to play independently and explore toys and their environment on their own (with supervision, of course). Interactive floor time is a great bonding time for you and your baby, and can help them learn how to interact and play with others and toys—plus, they will think it is so much fun!
Q: At what age can my baby start having independent floor time?
HM: Supervised tummy time should start as early as the day you bring your baby home! More independent floor time can start a little later, around 6-8 weeks, when baby is more alert and interactive. High-contrast toys are great for visual development and really catch your baby’s attention. Activity/Play gyms are also great for babies to encourage visual tracking and overhead reaching.
Q: Is floor time still beneficial if my baby is on their back and not their tummy?
HM: Yes! Floor time spent on baby’s back is beneficial to promote initiation of rolling, overhead reaching, visual development, and exploration, although it is very important to include tummy time daily. Tummy time helps strengthen your baby’s neck and upper-body, and promotes head control. Strengthening these muscles is necessary for your baby to learn how to hold their head up, roll, sit up, and crawl. Floor time, even when spent on baby’s back can provide your baby with sensory information that helps their brain and muscles develop.
Q: Is it okay to use an infant pillow to make laying on the floor more comfortable?
HM: Pillows can limit your baby’s ability to move their head, and also have a risk for suffocation. It is never recommended to use a pillow. Instead, consider using a play mat to soften and provide a safe and comfortable surface.
Q: If my baby spends most of their floor time on their back, why can’t they just lay in their bouncer?
HM: Even if your baby is not able to get off of their back yet during tummy time, time spent on the floor is very important for your baby’s development. Increased amounts of time spent in containers can actually hinder your baby’s overall development and lead to issues such as torticollis (tightness in the neck muscles), plagiocephaly (flattening of the head), and overall motor delay.
Q: How much of my baby’s awake time should be on the floor?
HM: I go by a rule of thumb: any amount of time your baby spends in a container (including time spent in the car seat), they should spend double the amount of time on the floor.
Q: What are some ways I can make floor time more engaging for my baby?
HM: Some ways to make floor time more fun for baby is to introduce appropriate toys for their developmental stage. You can also introduce sensory play of materials with different textures, sights, smells and sounds. Some things I enjoy doing with my baby are singing songs, reading books, building towers and letting him knock them down, and howing him how to use each toy with hand-over-hand play.
Q: Could there be an underlying reason that my baby hates being on the floor?
HM: If you ever have concerns about your baby’s development, you should contact their pediatrician. You are your baby’s biggest advocate!
Q: How do physical therapists help babies reach motor milestones?
HM: Physical therapy is a doctorate level program. A pediatric physical therapist is able to evaluate your child and determine their needs in order to reach their motor milestones. PTs are experts in how your baby is using their muscles to move, but also look at many other aspects of development, such as range of motion, muscle strength, endurance, posture, balance, coordination, motor planning and reflexes. Each child is very different in their individual needs to meet their gross motor milestones. Once an evaluation is complete, the physical therapist will develop a treatment plan and goals for the child. They will work with the child on achieving their motor milestones, as well as develop and educate the parent on things to work on at home.
Q: If my baby is a little delayed in meeting gross motor milestones, can I fix this with more floor time, or do they need to see a physical therapist?
HM: It depends. Every child is different. If you ever have concerns of your baby not meeting milestones appropriately, you should talk to their pediatrician. Their pediatrician should be able to tell you if a referral to a pediatric physical therapist is needed. A physical therapist will do their own evaluation on your baby and look at their bones, muscles, and joints, and examine how they move!
About the Author: Alice
Alice Mendoza is a copywriter and blog writer based in Los Angeles. She began writing for a baby brand while on maternity leave, and realized she had found her niche. Today, she writes exclusively within the baby space, using her BFA in Creative Writing and her own experience as a mother to guide her. When she’s not working, you can find her chasing down her toddler, going on walks around the neighborhood, or watching reality TV.