Can Newborns Sleep on Their Side

Can Newborns Sleep on Their Side?

Becoming a parent is an exciting and life-changing experience. You brought a new life to your home, but as soon as the baby cramps hit in and you can’t squeeze three hours of sleep per night, you’ll see it can only get this exciting. Another great concern parents of a newborn have is whether it’s safe for them to sleep on their side.

You may often see your baby try to turn to their side overnight, but your parents and friends may tell you it’s unsafe, especially of the so-called SIDS. What’s that? Is it dangerous? In this article we’ll give all the potential risks and reveal can newborns sleep on their side.

What Is SIDS?

Protect the child from SIDS
Source: Terry Cralle, RN

Sometimes, you must wish babies came with instructions that would help parents understand and help them better. Newborns are the safest sleeping on their back because as they’re too little, they’re unable to independently roll to other sleeping positions, ending up in a position that can compromise their health leading to the fatal Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS.)

On rare occasions, it happens that newborns and young children die without an explanation in their sleep. Because of how sudden and secretive it is, parents are scared of leaving their children to sleep alone. On most occasions, it happens before the age of one, but it can happen later too.

Parents are scared of it for many reasons. Because it’s “sudden” parents can’t predict when or if it’ll happen. There is no warning or ongoing heart or other condition the baby would be going through while being sick.

Pediatricians started dealing with SIDS quite early

Newborn sleep stomach
Source: Terry Cralle, RN

There were a lot of studies that decipher how the SIDS occurs so suddenly in babies, but the only conclusion they drew out of their studies is that it’s dangerous to sleep on the side or stomach. The conducted studies also provided guidelines and recommendations for parents they can use to help their baby sleep in a healthy position.

The occurrence behind the SIDS was even less known during the years and decades of the 20th century. So, in the 1970s, many doctors and scientists encouraged parents to promote stomach sleeping for their newborns because back then they thought it’d help prevent the choking as they thought it to be the main cause of SIDS. However, shortly after, doctors discovered that the SIDS death rose even more for the parents.

Ever since 1992, the American Academy of Pediatric encouraged and recommended parents to promote back sleep for their babies and children, because it will reduce the risk of SIDS. That proved to be fruitful, as now SIDS death happened to decrease. Back when sleeping on the stomach was still considered safe, the number of SIDS cases which was 130.1 cases per 100,000 live births back in 1990 dropped to 39.4 in 2015 as a result of changed sleeping habits for babies.

When Is It Safe for a Baby to Sleep on Their Side?

Baby’s muscles usually become stronger as the baby grows. So starting from the age of four months, you should start monitoring your baby’s flexibility, strength, and movement. Their motor skills will be more agile, and as you notice them lift their heads on their own, they’ll be safer to move on their own.

While the safest thing to do is to push your baby to sleep on their back for as long as possible, if you notice your baby has become active to the point it consciously turns to their side even after you put them on their back, it’s safe to let them sleep on the side, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics.

Also Read: When Can Babies Sleep on Their Stomachs?

Back sleep is the key

Based on this, whoever encouraged you to let your newborn sleep on their stomachs or side was wrong, as both can cause the SIDS. According to the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, if you want to avoid the SIDS in your newborn, the safest sleeping position for them is their back.

The side position is not considered a safe alternative to sleeping wholly on the back.

Studies have found that the side sleep position is unstable and increases the chance that infants will roll onto their stomachs – the sleep position associated with the highest SIDS risk.

The AAP Task Force recommends that infants be placed wholly on their backs to sleep – for naps and at night, the service recommended.

It’s important to note that babies that can independently roll without causing any trouble to their turning should be able to safely sleep in any position they’re comfortable in, and that’s safe.

Nevertheless, before that, it’s important to consult with the baby’s doctor so they can determine the overall health, vitality, and flexibility of your child before you can let them position themselves on their side.

After babies grow on their side and earn on their agility, they may prefer sleeping on their side or tummy, but only after they can turn to those positions independently and effortlessly.

In general, meaning, letting them sleep like that is safe, because the baby grew the muscles and strength to turn around to a safe side, should they notice they have difficulties breathing.

Other Risks of Newborns Sleeping on Their Side

Sleeping on the side seams to be less risky for babies compared to sleeping on the stomach. However, as a parent, you don’t want to take any risks that’d lead to compromising your child’s health.

In this section, we also covered other risks of sleeping on the side, and why you should avoid it.


Developing plagiocephaly is a common consequence of sleeping on the side for children. It defines as a flat area on the baby’s head which develops after the baby lays in one position for too long and too often.

It’s no secret that babies have extremely soft skulls and it can take over a full year for it to completely develop.

Being so soft and flexible, baby skulls can adopt the shape of the area babies are laying in for too long. That said, if your baby sleeps on their side too often, that can lead to developing plagiocephaly.

It’s important to note that plagiocephaly is a condition that will rather affect the cosmetics and aesthetics or the actual health of the child. However, if you do notice a change in the baby’s shape of the head, it’s important to talk to the doctor and find a way to reverse the effect while the baby’s head is still soft and successive to changes. The good news is that it can be fixed if spotted in the early stage.

Possible Solutions

Repositioning – If your doctor discovers that this is only a mild stage and condition, they’ll advise you to change the sleeping position of the baby and do so often.

If that’s the case your baby’s skull shape will correct itself in a short time. They’ll advise you to be careful doing it because there’ll be the risk of another flat spot developing.

Helmet – If your baby’s plagiocephaly condition is more severe, don’t worry too much. There is still a way to repair it with the helmet therapy your doctor will recommend. Your child will utilize it so that the shape of their head is adjusted and corrected.


Because the baby is exposed to torsion and twisting on their sides, the risk for choking is on the rise. Similarly to SIDS, babies can experience a hazard that could potentially harm them.

If the trachea feels torsion it will make your baby’s chances to breathe more difficult which could cause them to die. Keep a track of your baby as they sleep and if you feel that they have more difficulties breathing as they shift to the side reposition them.

Harlequin color change

Another reason why sleeping on the side can be dangerous for newborns is because their skin on the side they are laying on begins to change the color as opposed to the other side of the body. It most commonly happens because of sleeping on the side.

newborns sleep on their side
Source: Terry Cralle, RN

However, it’s important to note that the harlequin color change is only benign in the vast majority of affected babies. The condition in itself manifests in about 10% of babies.

If you notice that the color of their side begins to change and you turn them to their back in time, the condition will withdraw and the color will go back in its original color within a few minutes.

Doctors are still studying and researching to determine the real reason behind this condition. However, they suggest that it most likely happens as a result of red blood cell accumulation, which often happens because of the gravity effects on the baby that sleeps on its side.


Torticollis is a condition where the baby’s neck shortens because of the shortened muscle called sternocleidomastoid. This muscle is extremely important because it’s in charge of connecting the baby’s head to the collarbone. This muscle strengthens when the baby is sleeping on their back but it can shorten when the baby is sleeping on their side.

Torticollis is dangerous for other conditions too because the muscles will start developing in abnormal shapes and patterns that can affect the vitality and flexibility. As a result of that, the bones may grow and develop abnormally.

Possible Solutions

Doctors often suggest physical therapy which will help the neck’s muscles to grow again and develop healthily, promoting healthy bone growth. Sometimes, doctors will also suggest a recovery harness that will resolve the problem in a short time.

If the problem is severe enough, the doctor will suggest both of the solutions to speed up the recovery. It’s just important to notice these changes in time so that they can be quickly fixed.

How to Stop the Newborn From Sleeping on Their Side?

If you want to ensure that your baby is safe and sleeps healthy, there are a few things you can do to ensure they’ll sleep on their back and not on the sides or stomach, which proved to be even more dangerous.

Use Pillows and Blankets

Elevating your baby’s head and neck could be a good way to ensure the sleeping feels more innovative to them, as well as healthier. However, if you put the extra cushions, pillows, and blankets directly under their head, that could be counterproductive. Instead, you can try to put it under the baby’s mattress to promote a healthy sleeping position.

Deep Sleep

As you know, there are different sleeping stages, same goes for babies. When babies are in the deep sleeping stage, it’s highly unlikely they will try turning. Let them fall asleep deeply. To ensure that, have the baby in your arms, cuddled, and snug. If you leave them sleeping as they’re falling asleep, they’ll likely try to shift into the position they find more comfortable.

Don’t Use Sleep Positioners

Swaddles and sleep positioners were thought to be an effective solution for parents who have difficulties keeping baby sleeping on their back. However, as the United States, Consumer Product Safety Commission warned, they may be extremely dangerous and can lead to the suffocation, strictly advising against it.


Many parents are against swaddling as it can make the baby feel trapped, but it’s a highly effective solution for the newborn to stay snug fit in the back sleeping position. Still, be careful and don’t tighten the swaddle too much. Also, don’t do it for too long because once they learn how to roll around the bed, the swaddling can become super-dangerous.

Use Firm Sleeping Surface

Firmer mattresses are better for babies because they’ll keep them in one position. Softer and plushier mattresses can cause a baby to sink in, making the turning easier, leaving your child exposed to SIDS and other risks of sleeping on the side.

If you want to be extra cautious, you can also try using a sleep monitor to keep an eye on what your baby is doing in the crib or basinet if you sleep in another room or are busy working on something.

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