Can Newborns Sleep on Their Stomach? Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS) Explained
New parents have a long list of questions and concerns when it comes to caring for their newborn. How much food does the baby need? How do you know if you’re changing the diaper often enough? While we’re on the subject, what’s the best way to change a diaper? These questions and others are a common refrain for new parents navigating difficult territory — often with very little sleep. In fact, one of the biggest questions for infants has to do with sleep, namely, “Can newborns sleep on their stomach?”
Note: This article is for informational and educational purposes only. It is not medical advice. Speak with your doctor before making medical decisions.
Some parental concerns can be handled with a little trial-and-error (the stinky diaper test being a famous one!). But the question of a baby’s sleep definitely sits at the top of the list, due to its importance for a newborn’s overall health.
The issue is that an infant’s sleeping position can actually result in serious health concerns and even death if not handled properly. These Sudden Unexpected Infant Deaths (SUIDs) are frequently a result of a medical condition called Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS).
With this in mind, let’s take a look at this most important question: Can a newborn sleep on their tummy or stomach? Here’s the answer, plus a whole lot more that new parents need to know when it comes to sudden infant death syndrome.
Can a newborn sleep on their tummy or stomach?
Why Is a Baby’s Sleep Position So Important?
It might be tempting to think that a baby can sleep in whatever position is most comfortable to them. Unfortunately, this could not be further from the truth. A baby’s position is critical to their health during sleep. If sleeping in the wrong position, a baby can actually die in their sleep.
In order to drive home just how important and critical this is, consider this statistic from the University of Virginia Health System: “Approximately 3,500 infants die annually in the United States from sleep-related death, including SIDS, ill-defined deaths, and accidental suffocation and strangulation.”
It might be tempting to think that a baby can sleep in whatever position is most comfortable to them, but this could not be further from the truth.
With this in mind, the American Academy of Pediatrics shares official guidelines (click here to view) based on consistently updated research. This way, parents can know exactly what to do and how to make sure their infant is as safe as possible during all naps and sleep times.
What Is Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS)?
A study published in Lancet, a leading scientific publication, notes that, “Despite declines in prevalence during the past two decades, sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) continues to be the leading cause of death for infants aged between 1 month and 1 year in developed countries.”
In other words, it’s a very big deal, and new parents need to be aware of the severity of the situation.
But, what exactly is sudden infant death syndrome? Naturally, parents need to know what causes it in order to know best how to safely reduce the risk of it occurring.
Any time that the baby will be sleeping, a parent needs to be intentional and ensure that a number of particular conditions are met.
What is SIDS? Sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) is a condition where an apparently healthy baby dies during sleep without any known or otherwise clear cause. SIDS is sometimes referred to as “cot death” or “crib death” since this is where the condition often occurs, though it can happen anywhere a baby falls asleep.
What Causes Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS)?
What causes SIDS to happen? As it turns out, doctors do not yet know of an isolated, commonly shared, unifying cause for sudden infant death syndrome.
That being said, the Mayo Clinic writes, “Although the cause is unknown, it appears that SIDS might be associated with defects in the portion of an infant's brain that controls breathing and arousal from sleep.”
Additionally, doctors and researchers have pinpointed some additional biological and/or health factors that appear to present a higher likelihood of SIDS occurring:
- Low birth weight as a result of premature birth, or multiple birth (as in the case of twins, triplets, etc.)
- Recent cold or respiratory infection might contribute to breathing issues
- Babies are at highest risk to SIDS during the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th months of life
- Infants who have had a sibling or cousin die from SIDS are also at higher risk
All of this may be quite worrying, because it makes SIDS seem unavoidable, despite parents’ best efforts. But the good news is that’s not the case at all. There is plenty a parent can do for their newborn children to reduce the risk of SIDS.
Doctors and researchers have pinpointed some additional biological and/or health factors that appear to present a higher likelihood of SIDS occurring.
In particular, because of the connection between SIDS and breathing, parents actually have a lot that they can control to make sure their baby sleeps safely, in order to reduce the risk of sudden infant death syndrome from ever happening to them.
How to Reduce the Risk of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS)
The central thing to keep in mind with reducing SIDS risk is that it is far less likely to happen if parents take the right precautions each and every time they put their newborn down for the night or a nap.
Any time that the baby will be sleeping, a parent needs to be intentional and ensure that a number of particular conditions are being met.
As a parent or caregiver, here are several ways you can protect your child from SIDS with every nap or nighttime sleep.
1. Babies should always sleep on their backs. One common question new parents ask takes a form similar to the following: “Can newborns safely sleep on their stomach or tummy?” The answer is no. Under no circumstances should a baby under the age of 12 months sleep on their sides or stomach (aka, “tummies”), as this results in a much higher chance of accidental sleep death occurring. All parents, babysitters, and any other caregivers that may be caring for the child should be informed to place the baby on their back when putting them to bed.
2. Keep the crib clean and empty. Make sure to get a firm mattress for your infant and remove all pillows, soft blankets, bumper pads, or stuffed animals from the crib. Any one of these may interfere with the baby’s breathing if it becomes pressed against them during sleep.
3. Breastfeed your baby, if possible, for at least the first 6 months of life. Research shows that breastfeeding a baby for at least 6 months to a year significantly reduces the chance of SIDS occurring.
4. Control the temperature safely with sleep sacks. To keep a baby warm safely, you can use a sleep sack (or similar wrap-style garments) that does not require any other (aka, extra) blankets, covers, or clothing that may obstruct breathing.
5. Consider using a pacifier. Research indicates that sucking on a pacifier (with no strap or string attached) at both naps and bedtime may reduce the risk of SIDS. That being said, do not force a pacifier if the baby does not want it, and don’t reinsert the pacifier if it falls out during the baby’s sleep.
6. Never share the bed with your baby. Only bring the baby into your bed for feeding or comforting, but the baby should always sleep in their own crib or bassinet.
7. Do not expose the baby to secondhand smoke. According to Nationwide Children’s Hospital, “SIDS (sudden infant death syndrome or crib death) occurs four times more often in smoke-exposed babies than in babies who have a smoke-free environment.” Parents, expectant mothers, soon-to-be fathers, and any caregivers should make every effort to quit smoking to protect their child from adverse health effects.
8. Room-sharing may reduce the risk of SIDS. According to the official recommendations of the American Academy of Pediatrics, “The best place for a baby to sleep is in his parents’ bedroom. He should sleep in his own crib or bassinet (or in a co-sleeper safely attached to the bed), but shouldn’t be in his own room until he is at least 6 months, better 12 months. This is because studies have shown that when babies are close by, it can help reduce the risk of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, or SIDS.” That being said, these guidelines have come up against recent research showing that “babies who slept in their own room before 4 months, slept longer, and for longer stretches, than babies who slept in their parents’ room.” While longer sleep may not affect SIDS directly, it might have an effect on overall family health.
All this being said, no two babies (or families) are the same. Gather all the relevant information, then you can make an informed decision as a parent. The best solution will most likely come from making time to speak with your child’s pediatrician about the best course of action.
There are plenty of concerns for a child’s health and safety, and many of them can keep parents awake at night — in addition to a crying newborn! Don’t leave anything to chance. Instead, be sure that you have all the right information, speak to your child’s pediatrician, and make smart decisions as a family.
No two babies or families are the same. Gather all the relevant information, then you can make an informed decision as a parent. The best solution will most likely come from making time to speak with your child's pediatrician about the best course of action.
That includes ensuring that your baby sleeps on their back, breastfeeding as long as possible through the first year of life, and creating the ideal sleeping environment for safe sleep.
Thankfully, there’s a trove of great resources to help you make those decisions. As far as your baby’s health is concerned, every precaution taken is a good one, so long as it’s backed by medical science and the recommendations of your pediatrician.