What to Do When Baby Won't Sleep on His Back

Thanks to the "Back to Sleep" campaign launched in 1994, just about everyone's heard that babies should be placed to sleep on their back. And for good reason: numerous studies have shown that this lowers the risk of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS), which may occur when baby is on his stomach and can't breathe well with his face against the mattress. Yet some parents may find themselves in a pickle when their baby makes it abundantly clear that he hates sleeping on his back and seems to prefer going to sleep on his stomach or side instead.


Sleeping tips for babies who won't sleep on their backFirst off, know that you're hardly the only one struggling with this problem. "Many infants do not like to sleep on their backs," says Dr. Deena Blanchard, MD, a pediatrician at Premier Pediatrics NY. The reason: "This position is easier to startle in, and infants with reflux who spit up may feel less comfortable on their backs. Most babies do sleep better on their stomach."

Yet that doesn't mean you should indulge your baby's preference. "The risk of putting an infant to sleep on their stomach is not worth it," Dr. Blanchard continues. Even though your baby may sleep better in this position, that's exactly what might be boosting the odds that something could go wrong.

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"There is some thought that this deeper sleep may lead to the increased SIDS risk," says Dr. Blanchard. Side sleep is also not considered safe, as your infant could roll onto his stomach.

So what's a mom with a bad back sleeper to do? It depends on the reason your baby hates it so much.

If the problem is reflux, consider slightly elevating the head of the bed by placing the bed at a slight incline, or by "placing a small towel or dish cloth under the mattress," suggests Dr. Dyan Hes, medical director of Gramercy Pediatrics. "This should only be done with a doctor's supervision. And never put anything directly under the baby's head."

If you suspect your baby hates sleeping on his back due to startling, the solution may be to swaddle. "In early infancy, it is great to swaddle babies to help prevent them from accidentally hitting themselves in the face when they startle," says Dr. Blanchard. Yet by 3 months of age, she recommends weaning baby from swaddling, since it's not safe once the baby is moving around. Switch to a sleep sack at that point.

The good news for moms: enforced back sleeping doesn't last forever. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, babies should be put on their back to sleep for every sleep until 1 year of age. Yet once your baby starts rolling onto his stomach -- typically between 4 to 6 months -- you don't need to get up and roll them back onto their backs.

"If a baby can roll over on its own to its belly, then you can feel comfortable leaving him or her in that position," says Dr. Terra Blatnik, MD, a pediatrician at Cleveland Clinic. "This is the only time it is safe to leave a sleeping child alone on his or her stomach." The reason: once baby can move into his preferred sleeping position, he's most likely mobile enough to avoid the dangers that come with it. 

How does your baby sleep?


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