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“What’s Lily up to this week?” I text my friend while pumping at 2 a.m. She had a baby three weeks after I did, so we spend a lot of time swapping late-night photos, stories and Oh God, why won’t she sleep past 5 a.m.?!? pleas.
“Lily’s AMAZING,” my friend texts back. (Whoa, all caps. Lucky her.) “And she’s sleeping so much better now that she can finally roll from her tummy to her back.”
Wait, what? My baby was already 6 months old at the time, and she was still spending the majority of her nights trying to roll onto her stomach, and then, when she succeeded, wailing for me to flip her back over. Like a screaming little turtle, only reversed. Lily was three whole weeks younger than my baby—and she was premature, while mine was late. The text sparked a deep fear: Is my baby developmentally behind?
So I did what any relaxed, completely not-panicking mom would do at two in the morning: I started frantically searching the internet for answers. And when do babies start to roll over? Well, it depends.
What do experts say about rolling over?
As the mom of an infant, I have approximately 7 zillion baby books on my shelf (Baby 411, What to Expect: The First Year, The New Father…) and they all suggest that this milestone should happen around the fourth or fifth month of a baby’s life—and that most babies will roll from tummy to back first, then from back to tummy about a month later. (Uh-oh.)
By six months, a baby should be able to roll in both directions, according to the CDC. But before a baby can roll, she has to strengthen her neck, leg and arm muscles enough to actually push herself up and twist her body around—and although rolling looks like a simple motion, it actually requires the coordination of hundreds of different muscles in the body. It’s no small feat, and it can take months of practice to master.
What about real moms?
I sent a quick text to all the moms on my group text chain: “When did your kid roll over?” The responses varied wildly. One baby rolled over once at 3 months, then abruptly stopped and didn’t roll again until 5 months. “It was so weird,” this mom told me. “It was like he tried it once, hated it and forgot about it.” Another baby was rolling back to front and front to back by 4 months. Three moms reported that their kiddos had, in fact, mastered rolling when they were in the 5- to 6-month range. And although my baby was definitely last in the rolling department, I found comfort in knowing that babies seem to roll over at their own pace. Slow and steady wins the race, right?
What are the reasons a baby might not roll over?
If your parents insist you started rolling when you were 3 months old, but your baby didn’t even start thinking about it until 6 months, it doesn’t necessarily mean you were more advanced than your kid is. It might just be because babies spent more time on their tummies in those days.
“Spending less time prone, or on their stomach, since the release of the 1996 Back to Sleep recommendations to reduce the risk of SIDS has caused some infants to roll over a little later than they used to,” pediatrician Vincent Iannelli, M.D., explains. “It can also cause some delays in picking up other milestones, including sitting up and crawling. Fortunately, by the time they are toddlers, these delays all seem to disappear no matter how your baby sleeps, so it’s likely more appropriate to describe these kids as having a ‘lag’ in their development and not a true delay.”
If your baby rolled over once or twice and then suddenly stopped, this is totally normal too. “Usually, non-rollers are busy working on another motor skill, and most babies can only work on one skill at a time,” says pediatrician Wendy Hunter, M.D. “So ask yourself what else she’s working on. It might be scooting or even just babbling a lot more. Learning to eat takes a lot of brainpower too, so her intellectual capacity may just be occupied by food.” (We don’t blame you, baby. We think about food a lot too.)
How can I encourage my baby to roll over?
Two words: tummy time. Getting a baby on her tummy as often as possible is the best way to strengthen her neck, leg and arm muscles and get her comfortable with twisting her body back and forth. Some babies aren’t huge fans of tummy time and need to be encouraged to play this way for more than a couple of seconds. Try propping up toys, books or a mirror in front of your kiddo so she has some entertainment. Start doing tummy time for a few minutes every day and work your way up to 15-to-20 minute sessions as your baby gets more comfortable.
How does rolling over affect a baby’s sleep?
Although belly sleeping was the norm when we were babies, it’s now a big no-no, due to SIDS. But while it’s important to put your baby to sleep on her back, if she rolls over onto her stomach on her own, it’s perfectly OK to leave her there. “Don’t freak out that your baby will roll over and suffocate during sleep,” says Dr. Hunter. “If she has developed the ability to roll, she has also developed the ability to sense trouble when she’s sound asleep and will move her head to avoid being caught in a blanket.”
That said, learning to roll can cause sleep disruptions in some babies; they’re so excited about learning a new skill that they want to keep practicing, even if it’s four in the morning. Or like my kid, your baby might get stuck rolling one way or the other and need your help (again…and again…and again) to get back to a comfortable position. Stay calm and remember that once they master rolling, this will pass.
When should I get freaked out and call my pediatrician?
Well, first of all, you shouldn’t get all freaked out. But you should give your pediatrician a ring if your baby hasn’t rolled in either direction by 6 months, the CDC suggests.
“The lack of initiation by 6 months is a good indicator that your baby may need a little push from a pediatric physical therapist,” according to North Shore Pediatric Therapy. “If your baby is not picking up his feet and rolling easily from side to side while on his back by 6 months, bring him in for an evaluation.”
But seriously, try not to sweat it too much. Now, at over 7 months, my baby still doesn’t roll from front to back with much regularity, but because she’s hitting her other milestones (like sitting up and feeding herself with a spoon) with flying colors, my pediatrician doesn’t seem concerned.
“Conditions have to be just right for a baby to roll over and to keep doing it,” says Dr. Hunter. “So don’t worry if your child rolled over once and then stopped. Don’t fret over which direction they rolled or how old they were when they started. Whether your baby rolls over, wiggles, scoots or jigs, as long as your child is trying to move their body toward objects in some manner, they are developing normally.”
Phew. Back to worrying about why her poop is that weird yellow color.