Why does my baby keep rolling to their tummy when they hate it?!!

Do you know this scenario well? Your baby cries to be rescued from their tummy, so you roll them back. In only a few seconds you see them making movements to roll right back to their tummy, immediately crying again. To most of us, this makes no sense, and in more intense moments of the day, it can be downright exasperating. If they don’t want to be there, why do they keep going back?!!

The answer, in short, is that the choice to roll again is not about wanting to be there or not. For that matter, it may not exactly be a “choice” either. Instead, it’s closer to your baby’s experience to think of rolling as a habit that’s hard to break.

Are you consciously choosing all the movements you make? For example, in the beginning of the pandemic we were all told to stop touching our faces. How did that go for you? Not so well for me! In order to have a chance at  stopping, I had to notice, somehow, that I was about to do it and pause right at the initial impulse to make the movement, which was hard enough already. Next I needed to do something other than touching my face, when I felt utterly compelled to do it. It’s exceedingly hard to do. (Are you scratching an itch on your face right now as you read this?!).

For your baby at this stage, and in the environment you’ve created for them, rolling can be something more like this than like a thoughtfully considered decision. 

Imagine a ball at the top of a hill — it takes just a little push, hardly any force to get it to roll all the way down to the valley where it stays at the bottom. It’s not until someone comes along and applies a very big force, like a strong kick, that the ball can get out of the valley.  The valley is a “stable attractor.” It’s easy for the ball to get there, and difficult to leave. When your baby first learns to roll, rolling is a “stable attractor.” A groove that the baby’s body and brain fall into easily and often. And similar to the ball resting in the deep valley (or me touching my face)- the readiness to shift to a new action (such as playing on their back)  just isn’t very accessible to your baby’s body and mind in this moment and in their current environment. 

Once the skill of rolling is more practiced and not quite so new, your baby will have begun to explore other new options for movement.  They will roll easily to either side, maybe initiating the movement not just by moving their leg, as they may have done at first, but also by reaching an arm across their body, or other variants. At this point, rolling over won’t have the same magnetic pull in their system. To understand this point in their development, you can think of a few hills that are less steep and with much shallower valleys. There are a few choices for where the ball might roll to – different possibilities for action and it’s easier now to roll the ball out of the valley to a new location — to initiate a new action rather than repeatedly rolling.

Now there are several attractive moves to make instead of the one and it’s easier to shift from one to the other.  What does this mean for your baby? When your baby has reached this stage, now they won’t feel so utterly compelled to roll immediately to their tummy when they clearly are tired of being there. Until they reach that point though, we can catch ourselves rubbing our face once again, feel some empathy for their situation and give them a pat on the back while telling them we know just how it is.  

* The ideas in this post are based upon the work of Dr. Esther Thelen, developmental psychologist and my Feldenkrais teacher at Indiana University in 2001/2002.