Head control gives a baby more autonomy and more of a chance to explore the world on their own terms.
During the first month of life, most babies gain some head control and can briefly hold up their heads while lying on their bellies.
By the time a baby is 4 months old, they likely have significant head control and can hold their head steady without support for longer periods.
This article explores how a baby develops head control, how to help, and what precautions to take.
For a baby, controlling the movement of the head and neck requires average development, practice, and coordination.
However, every baby is different, and the timing of developmental stages naturally varies. Below, find a general timeline of head control.
Early head control
In the first weeks of life, babies begin responding more to their environments.
Some babies try to lift their heads or even hold them upright for short periods during this time. Others do not.
At 1 month, most babies bob their heads when they are held upright. They cannot comfortably hold up their heads without support.
During tummy time
By 2 months, most babies can lift their heads upright when they are lying on their bellies.
At first, this may only happen for a few seconds, but with practice, a baby can hold their head up for longer, moving it from side to side to take in interesting sights.
Some other head control milestones that may occur at this age include:
- When lying on their back, a baby may be able to lift their head so it is aligned with their belly button.
- Most of the time, the baby will position their head so that they are looking to one side or the other.
- When someone helps the baby roll over, the baby may be able to move their head into the right position during the roll.
- When raised into a sitting position, the baby will not be able to support their head — but they may be able to lift their head when they are reclined at about 15 degrees from a fully upright position.
By 3 months, most babies can lift their heads and upper bodies during tummy time. They may push up with their forearms so that they can look around.
In an upright position
At around 4 months, most babies can control their heads in an upright position. This may happen when raising the baby into a supported sitting position or when lifting the baby without supporting their head.
The baby may also move their head from side to side. Some other head control milestones at 4 months include:
- When lying on their back, the baby should usually hold their head so they are looking straight up rather than pointing their face toward either side.
- When rolling over with help, the baby may use their upper arms and legs to support their body. They may also begin rolling over on their own.
- When lifted into a sitting position, the baby may keep their head centered and raised by themselves.
A parent or caregiver can help a baby master this phase of development in a few ways:
- Provide lots of tummy time: Spending time on the belly helps a baby develop head and neck strength. Also, a 2020 systematic review found that regular tummy time promoted the development of some motor skills and helped babies hit other developmental milestones.
- Make tummy time engaging: Talk to the baby, shake rattles, or put interesting toys and other safe objects just out of their reach. Do not leave a baby alone or bored during tummy time.
- Tummy time on a parent’s chest: The baby may enjoy this more and be inspired to lift their head to see a familiar face.
The head is the heaviest part of a baby’s body, and it takes time and strength for a baby to learn how to support it. It is important never to rush this process.
Parents and caregivers also should not assume that a baby who can hold up their head for a brief period can do so for longer.
Lifting a baby without supporting their head can cause neck or head injuries. It may be better to provide this support if in any doubt about the baby’s ability.
Some other precautions include:
- Supervise at all times: Do not leave a baby alone during tummy time, as they may roll into or fall asleep in an unsafe position.
- Support their head in the baby carrier: Support is especially important during this time.
- Put the baby to sleep on their back: A baby should not sleep face-down, even after they can roll or lift their head.
- Always support the baby’s body: This is especially important when the baby is practicing new motor skills. For example, during tummy time on a parent’s chest, keep one hand on the baby’s back to prevent them from falling.
Learn more about safe sleep for babies here.
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommend that babies see a doctor by 1 week of age and at the ages of 2 weeks, 1 month, 2 months, 4 months, 6 months, 9 months, and 12 months.
These visits coincide with several developmental milestones, offering parents and caregivers the chance to ask questions and monitor their child’s development.
Here are some additional guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Talk to a doctor if a baby:
- cannot hold their head up while on their tummy at 2 months
- cannot hold their head steady in a sitting or upright position at 4 months
- does not respond to sounds or voices
- seems uninterested in interacting with others
- gains new skills, but stops using them
- loses skills after an injury or illness
Once a baby has better control over their head, they can move onto other motor skills. Some developmental milestones to look for next include:
- 4 months: The baby may roll from belly to back.
- 6 months: They may sit without support, and they may roll both ways, from belly to back and back to belly.
- 9 months: They may pull themselves into a sitting or standing position, using objects for support.
- 12 months: They may “cruise” by standing and moving from object to object with support, and they may begin walking.
It is important to note that babies born prematurely may be slower to reach these milestones. For example, a baby born 2 months early may reach these stages 2 months later than their peers.
In this case, a doctor might assign the baby a corrected age, based on how early they were born.
A timeline for a baby’s development is always general. Every baby is different, and some need more time and practice to lift their heads.
Any parent or caregiver who is concerned about a baby’s development should consult a pediatrician. Early intervention can often help make up for any lags may be a cause for concern.