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When Can You Let Babies Sleep on Their Tummies?

By Monica Crowe ; Updated June 13, 2017

Sudden infant death syndrome, or SIDS, is the leading cause of death among infants from ages 1 month to 1 year, according to the website KidsHealth. Each year in the United States, there are 2,500 SIDS deaths, the site says. SIDS, also referred to as crib death, is linked to babies sleeping on their bellies. Due to this, all healthy infants should be put to sleep on their backs, recommends the American Academy of Pediatrics. KidsHealth says that since this recommendation, SIDS deaths have decreased by more than 50 percent.

Crib Death

KidsHealth says some researchers have hypothesized that sleeping on the stomach puts pressure on a baby's jaw, which reduces the airway and restricts breathing. Another idea cited by KidsHealth is that stomach sleeping on soft bedding or with stuffed animals can cause a baby to re-breathe his exhaled air. The bedding might encircle the baby's mouth, trapping the exhaled air and accumulating more carbon dioxide than oxygen. This would eventually lead to death.

My Baby Rolls Over at Night

Most SIDS deaths occur between 2 and 4 months of age, with increasing frequency during cold weather, KidsHealth says. However, by the time a baby is 6 months old, he is able to roll from his back to his side or stomach. While you can place him on his back to sleep, there's not much you can do to keep him from rolling over during the night. Karen Sokal-Gutierrez, M.D., M.P.H. says babies who have more time on their tummies during waking hours have a lower risk for SIDS. Putting your baby on his belly during the day will help him develop upper body strength that will allow him to lift his head and roll over to breathe at night.

SIDS Risk Factors

No single risk factor is likely to be the cause of a SIDS death, KidsHealth says. However, there are several variables that might contribute to a crib death. According to KidsHealth, African-American infants are twice as likely and Native American infants are about three times more likely to die of SIDS than Caucasian infants. Also, boys have a higher crib death risk factor than girls. Other possible risks are poor prenatal care–including smoking, drinking or drug use during gestation–prematurity, mothers younger than 20, cigarette smoke exposure after birth and overheating from sleepwear or bedding.

Concerns About Back Sleeping

Some parents are afraid to put their babies on their backs to sleep because they might choke on spittle or vomit. Healthy infants do not have an increased risk of choking, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. However, for infants with chronic gastroesophogeal reflux disease and other upper airway malformations, stomach sleeping might be a better option, KidsHealth says. Consult with your doctor in such a case. Another concern about back sleeping is positional plagiocephaly, in which babies develop a flat spot on the back of their heads. KidsHealth says this is easily treatable by giving your baby more tummy time during his waking hours.

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