In previous generations, stomach-down was the preferred sleeping position. Babies seemed to like it. Parents seemed to like them liking it. Some of those parents of yesteryear still lobby for tummy-down sleeping as grandparents or caregivers. Since the Back To Sleep campaign took hold in the 1990s, stomach sleeping has fallen out of favor, by way of medical mandate. But some parents of our generation are (quietly?) putting their babies to sleep on their stomachs.
Stomach sleeping makes sense in a lot of ways. For one, babies often sleep better that way. When a baby is on his back, a reflex causes his limbs to fly up in a disorganized fashion. This is fine for an awake baby, but a lot harder for a baby trying to shut down and go to sleep. Babies are affected by this in varying degrees, but some are constantly awakened by smacking themselves in the face, or just by the abrupt movement of their bodies. On the stomach, the baby’s body is tucked away and the view of the world is limited, making it easier for the baby to shut down and tune out. This may be what your neighbor means when she talks about developmental appropriateness. There is also research that shows stomach-sleeping babies are quicker to reach milestones such as crawling and rolling (as these milestones require a lot of practice time on the belly). But back sleepers reach these milestones within a reasonable time frame, especially if they get time on their stomachs while awake.
But then there’s the question of safety. The mainstream, accepted and heavily promoted research clearly states that back sleeping reduces SIDS. Not everyone buys this. Stomach sleeping advocates often cite a New Zealand study that posits that SIDS is unrelated to sleep position, and is the result of chemicals leaching from non-organic mattresses. The SIDS Alliance does not consider the New Zealand study significant and stands by the back-to-sleep campaign.
SIDS is a complicated and fraught subject, and it’s difficult to parse out the issues.
At the heart of many of these controversies is the fact that the definition of SIDS is still unclear. When we called the SIDS Alliance some time ago about a separate issue, the woman who answered the phone told us that what constitutes a death by SIDS varies from state to state.
There are alternatives to stomach sleeping for parents of arm-flinging infants: you can try swaddling or a baby sleep bag. You can also try propping the infant on her side. Side sleeping is generally considered safer than stomach sleeping but not as safe as back sleeping. And finally, your baby may like back sleeping! Seriously, some babies prefer it or hate it at first but get used to it relatively quickly if you keep trying. And of course, there are the babies who won’t sleep on their back OR stomachs, but will only sleep while nursing or rocking or being driven around the block. We are generally of the do-what-works-for-you sleep camp. But we encourage you to research the various risk factors and consider safety concerns before you make a decision.
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