What does it mean if my child is delayed in rolling?

Delay in Rolling: How to fix it 

What is rolling?

Rolling is the first skill your child learns that moves them between different positions in space. It is one of your baby’s first total body movements, utilizing the arms, trunk, hips, legs, head, and neck. Rolling teaches your child numerous foundational skills they will continue to use as they grow to complete tasks such as walking, dressing, writing, or playing sports.

Why is rolling important?

Rolling introduces your baby to a variety of skills including:

  • Bilateral coordination (using both sides of the body together to achieve a goal)
  • Motor planning and coordination (how to use one’s body to achieve a goal)
  • Consequences/outcomes of actions (when I move my body like this, this outcome occurs)
  • Freedom of motion and the ability to explore one’s environment

Rolling also helps develop many pre-existing systems and skills, such as

  • Strength of the neck, trunk, hips, arms, and legs
  • Development of the vestibular and proprioceptive systems which play roles in balance and awareness of one’s body in space
  • Development of the sensory system, including vision, sensation/touch, and hearing
  • Development cognitive growth through environmental exploration

When should my child start rolling?

You may notice your child beginning to roll around 3-4 months of age - these initial rolls are completely accidental and help teach your child about the consequences of weight shifts and various movements when on their belly, back, or side. Around 5-6 months of age, you may notice your child begins to roll with greater intent. Rolling becomes less accidental and more purposeful as your child learns from each accidental roll how they can use and move their bodies to change positions. Often you will notice your child starts rolling from their tummy to their back first, before learning to roll from their back to their tummy - that’s ok and a typical pattern of skill development! 

How can you help your child if they are not yet rolling?

Does your child prefer to remain on their stomach or back? Do you find them becoming frustrated because they want to move but can’t? Come R.O.L.L. with us in the exercises below!

R: Reach!

  • One of the most important skills your child must develop prior to independently rolling is the ability to free one arm to reach forward. This is accomplished by learning the skill of weight shifts. Weight shifts are integral to all aspects of movement from rolling to walking to climbing. By shifting weight to one limb or side of the body, you free the opposite side to move. This is an important concept your baby is beginning to learn during the first months of his or her life. If your baby has not mastered weight shifts on their tummy and back, they won’t be able to roll!
  • Weight shifts in prone: while propped up on forearms or extended arms, encourage your child to reach forward for an item with one arm. This encourages the supporting arm and that side of the body to accept weight, freeing the reaching arm to reach forward. This motion is ultimately the first step in initiating a roll from tummy to back!
  • Weight shifts in supine: while lying on his or her back, encourage your child to reach up and across the body for a toy or item of interest. This shifts weight onto the supporting side of the body while freeing the reaching side of the body to obtain the item. This motion is the first step in initiating a roll from back to tummy and you may even notice that your child rolls into side lying or onto their tummy while practicing this skill. 

O: Over and Over!

  • I’m sure you’ve heard the phrase “repetition, repetition, repetition” before. Well that applies to your baby’s acquisition of new skills too! When learning a new skill, your child will practice it hundreds (if not thousands) of times before mastering it. To help foster your child’s acquisition of this skill, facilitate repetitive rolling, with your assistance. 
  • For this activity, you will need a large area of open space, such as a clear floor in your living room. Start with your child on their back. Bring their legs and hips into flexion (like tucking the knees toward the chest) and then down to the floor in the direction to which you wish your child to roll (their legs are now stacked, one on top of the other). Look for your child to reach and look (see the next bullet point, the first L in ROLL) to complete the roll to tummy. Once on their tummy, tuck their arm across their chest and lift the opposite hip, encouraging them to roll over their tucked arm and onto their back. Repeat over and over, rolling across the room and then all the way back (remember to always practice all skills to both sides!)

L: Look!

  • The motion of the head plays a huge role in your child’s ability to roll. If your child is not looking in the direction to which they wish to go, they will not be able to move their body past their head. For example, if your baby is on their back and wants to roll to their stomach, he or she must first look to the side to initiate the roll to side lying and then look forward to complete the roll to their tummy. If your child is having a difficult time coordinating his or her head movements with the rest of their body, break it down! Start with your child on their side and have them practice rolling from side to belly and side to back. 
  • To get to their belly, encourage them to reach overhead and look up by extending their neck. This will drive their body from the side lying position to the prone (tummy) position.  
  • To get to their back, encourage your child to reach up and back with their arm while turning their head to look in the same direction. This will drive their body from the side lying position to the supine (back) position. 

L: Legs!

  • Along with the position of the head, the position of your child’s hips and legs drive the motion of rolling. Similarly to how your child will struggle to roll if their head does not look where they are going, your child will not be able to roll if their hips do not help unweight the lower trunk and legs to initiate the roll. This is particularly important when rolling from back to tummy. If your child is having a hard time initiating a roll, practice these activities:
  • Encourage your child to grab their toes. Use a sock or toy on their toys to help grab their attention if they seem disinterested. If necessary, help by bringing their hands to their feet and keeping your hands gently over theirs. From this position (think Happy Baby yoga pose), facilitate side to side rocking with your child  
  • If your child is already doing this, utilize that foundational skill to help them roll. From their back, flex their legs up (happy baby) and over to one side. Hold their legs in this position while encouraging them to follow with their trunk, arm, and head. Use a toy to attract their attention to bring the arm across the body, transitioning into sidelying. 

What do I do if my baby is not rolling yet?

Remember that skill development is a continuum and not all children develop at the same pace. Always trust your gut as a parent and check in with your pediatrician any time you are concerned about your child’s development. As a general guideline, if your baby is showing no interest in rolling at 6 months or older, it may be time to check in with your pediatrician or local pediatric physical therapist. Here in the state of California, and in many other states across the country, thanks to Direct Access legislation, you can bring your child in for a physical therapy evaluation without prior referral from a doctor. While you will eventually need to check in with your pediatrician, you can get a jump start on physical therapy, developing a home program, and working toward progressing your child’s gross motor skills.