When you pick your newborn up for the first time, you might worry that his head could fly right off his neck because it seems so loose and wobbly. In addition to having weak, undeveloped muscles, your baby also has a disproportionately large head compared to older children and adults, making it harder to lift. Always support your newborn's head while holding him and give him opportunities to increase his muscle strength by putting him on his stomach on the floor while he's awake.
Neck Muscle Development
In utero, your baby didn't get to exercise his neck muscles much. But once he emerges into a world that's easier to see straight-on, your baby develops his neck muscles quickly, especially if you give him the motivation and opportunity to lift his head. By the end of this first month, he's able to lift and turn his head while lying down, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. By the time he's 3 months old, he's gained enough head control to hold his head up on his own, the AAP explains, although you might still notice some wobbling from time to time.
The Importance of Tummy Time
Gaining muscle strength takes exercise, and the best way for your baby to exercise his neck muscles is to spend time lying on the floor, what many parents and doctors call "tummy time." Babies spend their nights lying on their backs -- which the AAP recommends, because it reduces the risk of sudden infant death syndrome -- and then often spend their days sitting in swings or infant seats. The neck muscles can become tight and weaker than they should be, unless you give your baby adequate time on his stomach while awake, the American Physical Therapy Association warns. Start tummy time as soon as you bring your baby home from the hospital. Aim for at least 20 minutes of tummy time each day, MayoClinic.com suggests.
Your baby can develop problems with his neck muscles that interfere with his ability to turn or control his head. In some cases, these problems are congenital, meaning present from birth. In others, they develop after birth. The most common problem, called infant torticollis, makes it difficult for your baby to turn his head. In some cases, he might hold his head in a tilted position. His positioning in the womb or the use of forceps or vacuum at birth can increase the risk of torticollis. Most babies who have torticollis improve within six months to a year, but if this doesn't happen, surgery can cure the condition in most cases, KidsHealth.org reports. Talk to your baby's pediatrician if you notice that he doesn't turn his head in one direction or if he holds it at an angle.
Other Causes of Abnormal Neck Muscle Development
Lack of head control as your baby grows past the newborn stage can be a sign of musculoskeletal problems, such as cerebral palsy or developmental delays. A Kennedy Krieger Institute study published in the September-October 2012 issue of "The American Journal of Occupational Therapy" found a correlation between head lag -- the inability of a baby to lift his head well when pulled to a sitting position -- at age 6 months and autism. Let your pediatrician know if you're concerned about your baby's ability to hold his head up.
- HealthyChildren.org: Movement Birth to 3 Months
- KidsHealth: Infant Torticollis
- American Physical Therapy Association: Lack of 'Tummy Time' Leads to Motor Delays in Infants, PTs Say
- MayoClinic.com: What's the Importance of Tummy Time for a Baby?
- BabyZone: Tummy Time, When Do I Start? How Do I Do It?
- The American Journal of Occupational Therapy: Head Lag in Infants at Risk for Autism, a Preliminary Study
- Polka Dot Images/Polka Dot/Getty Images