For new parents, dealing with an infant child can get complicated quickly. Amidst a deluge of conflicting advice from official and unofficial sources alike, inexperienced parents can often feel like they are doing everything wrong.
One aspect of caring for a baby that profoundly epitomizes this quandary is sleep. For a group that should typically sleep for most of the day, getting baby sleep right can be unnecessarily complicated.
However, one piece of information that stays constant across any classes on the basics of baby sleep is a recommendation on sleeping positions—you should always put your baby to sleep on its back.
The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) official recommends that babies sleep on their backs to reduce the risk of SIDS.
Sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS)—the medical term for sudden, unexplained deaths in babies less than a year old, is the leading cause of death among infants in the U.S. And several studies suggest that stomach sleeping may contribute to increasing SIDS risk.
But, what if your child rolls over? When is it safe to let baby’s sleep on their stomachs, and should you even allow it?
When Can Babies Sleep on Their Stomachs?
Short answer? After they cross the 1-year mark.
The official recommendation to put babies to sleep on their backs is in a bid to reduce their risk of SIDS, and the science backs this guideline. Several studies show a definite correlation between back sleeping and a reduced risk of sudden infant death syndrome.
Babies have the highest risk for SIDS during their early developmental stages, with the possibility of SIDS peaking around the 2-3 month mark.
However, SIDS risk begins to drop after babies turn six months old, and after the 1-year mark, the risk quotient becomes negligible. Consequently, to maximize the safety of your baby, it is essential that you strictly maintain the back sleeping position until your infant is at least a year old.
Does this mean that after the 1-year mark, you can change your baby’s sleeping position?
Should You Put Babies to Sleep on Their Stomachs?
It is of critical importance that you put infants to sleep on their backs during their first year of life. So, no, you should never put your babies to sleep on their stomachs during year one.
However, after they turn one year old, the rules shift a bit.
As babies develop, they gain more agility and become far less susceptible to SIDS, and as a result, they can then safely transition into other sleeping positions.
Hence, you should continue encouraging your baby to sleep on its back as long as they remain in a crib.
What if Your Baby Rolls Onto it Stomach During Sleep?
Babies typically gain the ability to roll over during the 4-6 month age range. By this time, most babies have aged past the period of highest SIDS risk, which is around when they are 2-3 months old.
Consequently, by the time babies begin to roll over, there is minimal risk of them having any issues.
Plus, as babies develop the strength and agility to change sleeping positions during the night, by extension, they gain the mobility and neurological maturity to move out of uncomfortable situations, helping them protect themselves, and further lowering the risk of SIDS.
Hence, you shouldn’t worry if your infant rolls onto its stomach during sleep, and you should let them continue sleeping without any disturbance.
However, you must continue putting babies to sleep on their backs throughout their first year of life, even after they earn the ability to roll over.
For Babies Who Prefer Stomach Sleeping
Before the American Academy of Pediatrics put out the recommendation to put babies to sleep on their backs, rolling babies onto their stomach was a standard recommendation from every well-meaning grandma, and this suggestion is not unfounded.
Many babies tend to enjoy sleeping on their stomach more, and typically fuss less in this sleeping position. In reality, most babies will roll onto their stomachs as soon as they can.
Plus, belly sleeping has all the makings of being ideal for the parents, as a belly-sleeping baby typically sleeps deeper and is significantly less responsive to noise. However, all of these potential benefits do not negate the potential risks.
Hence, you must get your babies sleeping on their backs from the start, as this practice helps them adjust and become more comfortable in this position over time. Placing your baby on its back some of the time it is awake can also help them acclimatize to this sleeping position too.
However, if your baby startles easily and finds it hard to sleep on its back, you can consider other palliative measures like swaddling them, giving them a pacifier, or using a sleep sack.
For Babies Who Won’t Sleep on their Backs
In rare cases, you may be dealing with an infant that absolutely won’t go to sleep on its back, even after you take measures to calm it.
Here, you should consider consulting with a qualified healthcare practitioner to ascertain the safety of putting your baby to sleep on its stomach. Your healthcare provider may okay stomach sleeping in some instances where it does not put your baby’s health in jeopardy.
According to Dr. Sears, while back sleeping is the optimal position for most babies, a tiny percentage may have peculiar needs.
Healthy babies naturally gravitate towards the sleeping position that allows them the most comfort and guarantees unrestricted breathing. For your baby, although unlikely, that position may not be back sleeping.
Why Is Stomach Sleeping Dangerous for Babies?
The main reason why stomach sleeping is considered dangerous for your babies is the increased SIDS risk it instigates.
While there is no clear cut explanation for why stomach sleeping increases SIDS risk in babies, researchers speculate that when babies lie on their stomach, there is an increased chance of them blocking their airways, rebreathing exhaled air.
This cycling of a single batch of air can lead to carbon dioxide buildup and a depletion of oxygen levels in the body.
However, a significant portion of the research into SIDS is still inconclusive, and researchers speculate that SIDS can stem from a host of other factors, including a failure of the brain to trigger waking up as it should when the baby is experiencing breathing difficulties.