Most parents will have been told by their child’s doctor or family that putting babies to sleep on their backs is the safest option. And while many understand that letting infants sleep on their front is dangerous, they are curious about whether it’s safe to let their baby sleep on their side.
Here’s a look at the different things all parents should know when considering the position they put their babies in when it comes to napping and nighttime sleep.
Why You Might Be Tempted to Let Your Baby Sleep On their Sides
In an ideal world, you would be able to put your baby to sleep on their backs and have them fall asleep within seconds. However, as all parents find out pretty quickly, this isn’t the case.
This can prompt parents to look for different methods and tactics to help their baby’s sleep, such as putting them on their sides. Admittedly, some babies do find it easier to sleep in this position, and while it might not lead to any health threats straight away, it is known to increase the chances of suffocation and SIDS.
A few more reasons that parents might be tempted to let their infants sleep on their side includes:
- When you put your baby on their back but they eventually roll over onto their sides on their own.
- You have been told that sleeping on the side can actually prevent choking
- You’ve witnessed babies sleep on their sides (or even their front) and they look completely fine and healthy
Whether it’s any of the above reasons or not, the basic truth is that back sleeping is the safest position for all babies to sleep in. If your baby is flipping or rolling onto their sides, that’s great. It shows they are developing their muscles and soon will be out of the phase where you have to worry about their sleep position.
In the early days of flipping and rolling, however, you need to be vigilant and make sure your baby does indeed have the strength it takes to maneuver themselves out of harm's way if their face or nose gets blocked and they find it harder to breathe after flipping themselves over.
At this stage, you’ll want to stop using the swaddle if you’re still using it and look for alternatives like swaddle transition garments such as the Zipadee-Zip.
Reasons It’s Not Safe for A Baby to Sleep on their Side - SIDS and Other Threats
The reason that sleep positions are such a big deal for infants is because the threats that face children who are newly born can be fatal. While their bodies are so delicate and dependent, their risk of things like suffocation and sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) is high.
As we’ve mentioned in many of our posts, SIDS is a leading cause of death throughout the world. Not letting your baby sleep on their front, as well as avoiding using the swaddle past a certain age, has been proven to prevent this from occurring.
One of the reasons it's not safe for a baby to sleep on their sides is that it can quickly lead to sleeping on the front, which is the biggest risk factor for infants. For instance, a child can easily roll or rock themselves onto their front when you’re not looking and end up face down with their mouths covered.
Add to that the inability to move their limbs because they’re too young or restricted inside of their swaddles and things start to get very dangerous. To avoid all this from happening, it’s best to put your baby on their back, which will make it the hardest for them to end up sleeping on their fronts.
While their bodies are so delicate and dependent, their risk of things like suffocation and sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) is high.
Plagiocephaly or “Flat Head”
Babies sometimes develop a flattened head when they're a few months old, usually as a result of them lying in one position for too long, according to health organizations like the NHS.
The reason for this is that baby’s skulls are soft and pliable when they’re first born and if they lie on their sides or backs for too long, the pressure can cause the skull to flatten. Some babies who sleep on one side only, due to preference and habit, can develop this more substantially.
This isn't considered a major cause for concern, as it doesn’t have any effect on the brain and the head shape will often improve by itself over time.
To take pressure off the flattened part of your baby's head give your baby time on their tummy during the day and encourage them to develop their back and neck muscles so they will quickly build the strength they need to move their heads into different positions when they get older.
Head Tilt (Torticollis)
A condition called Torticollis can also affect how your baby sleeps. Your baby may prefer sleeping on one side or turning their head to the same side each night to be more comfortable.
Also, according to Healthyhildren.org (AAP), head tilt is a condition that causes a child to hold their head or neck in a twisted or otherwise abnormal position. This may cause them to lean their head toward one shoulder and, when lying on her stomach, always turn the same side of her face toward the mattress.
Both these things are not ideal and you should always try to place your baby on their back to sleep. For parents who notice certain tendencies towards sleeping on the side, it is recommended to seek advice from a medical professional.
There are a number of strategies that can be used to alleviate these conditions, including:
- Tummy time
- Neck strengthening exercises
- Breastfeeding from different sides
- Placing your child to sit or rest in places where they do not need to turn their heads too much
- Putting your baby to sleep on its back and not their preferred side to sleep
This can cause her head to flatten on one side and her face to appear uneven or out of line. If not treated, head tilt may lead to permanent facial deformity or unevenness and to restricted head movement.
If you’re looking to learn more about safety issues surrounding baby sleep, check out our blog post: The ABCs of Safe Sleep!
How to Put Your Baby to Sleep Safely
It’s easier said than done, but the easiest way to guarantee safety at night is to put your baby on their back to sleep. Try to do this from the very beginning and stick to this method until it's a habit. Also, make sure that any family, friends or babysitters are following this method too.
Even if you find that your baby sleeps perfectly well on their sides, or even their front, it’s best not to take the risk and you should always choose the back. Babies might encounter difficulties from side or front sleeping when you’re not around to witness it.
If your child is a difficult sleeper, we would recommend focusing on different strategies for calming and soothing them at night, and ways of adjusting the room atmosphere to be more conducive, rather than experimenting with different sleep positions.
When Is It Safe for a Baby to Sleep On the Side?
There will come a point when it is safe for a baby to sleep on their side. This will come when your child’s neck muscles are strong and their overall agility is developed to the point that they can move themselves out of uncomfortable and dangerous positions while they’re sleeping (all on their own!).
Without such strength, any position your child ends up with can be problematic because they don’t have the ability to get out of it by themselves. For example, if they are on their sides and their faces become pressed to the mattress, stopping them from being able to breathe, your baby won’t be able to move out of this dangerous position.
It will be safe for your baby to sleep on their side when your child’s neck muscles are strong and their overall agility is developed.
Safe Sleep Best Practices
As well as putting your child to sleep on their backs, there are several practices and methods you can follow to increase the overall safety of your child’s sleep. These include:
- Sleeping in the same room as your baby until they are at least 6 months
- Remove any unnecessary items including blankets, pillows, toys, and any crib accessories.
- Do not swaddle past a certain age (many organizations recommend swaddling is only safe under 2 months of age)
- Regulate the temperature in your baby’s room
- Encourage good sleeping practices, through regular routines
- Implement regular nighttime checks and set up a baby monitor
- Consider a transitional swaddle item such as a Zipadee-Zip to help your baby feel more secure at night, while still allowing them to roll around as much as they like.
Final Notes On Side Sleeping
As well as understanding that it’s not 100% safe for a baby to sleep on their sides until they show you they are strong enough to move about in the crib without your help, there are a number of other rules and practices you can follow so that you can seriously reduce the chance of SIDS occurring and other threats that might be present during side sleeping or front sleeping.
For more information, take a look at our article: Promoting Safe Sleep for Babies