Calculated risk, or why I let my kid sleep on his stomach

Guest post by R. Hamilton

Yes, I let my baby sleep on his stomach.

I’m not stupid: I know that it’s recommended that infants sleep on their backs, and I understand why it’s recommended. SIDS is scary, terrifying stuff — and the fact it’s still mired in mystery means that there’s extra fear around it.

But my son sleeps better on his stomach, and with all the shifting recommendations about what’s OMG DANGEROUS!!! for babies, I’ve gotten exhausted by all the flashing red lights telling me everything is going to kill my kid. It starts to feel like babies are essentially to sleep face up on concrete in a cage. Bumpers? SUFFOCATING! Blanket? SMOTHERING! Stuffed animal on the glider a few feet away? Why are you trying to kill your baby!?!!

In some ways, it reminds me of Just Say No … if drug educators put something as harmless as marijuana on the same danger level as heroin, it’s easy for people to get jaded and dismiss it all as bullshit. With the amount of recalls, safety alerts, and unsolicited advice around baby sleep safety, it starts to feel like someone’s going to call CPS if I let my baby even look at a crib bumper.

Furthermore, it’s hard for me to know how to take these safety recommendations when the American Academy of Pediatrics still views bed-sharing/family beds as terribly dangerous and awful. Meanwhile, international studies have found bed-sharing can actually reduce SIDS. For me, I’ve decided napping with my baby isn’t something I’m worried about — but all the flashing red lights about how everything is dangerous make me worry that I’ll ignore a legitimate warning.

Again, I’m not stupid here. I understand the fear around SIDS. I understand how hard doctors are working to bring SIDS levels down through research and education. I’ve done my research, and read first hand accounts from parents who have lost children to SIDS. And yet still, I let my kid sleep on his stomach.

It’s up to each parent to calculate the risks and make the choices that are right for them. What’s safe? What’s dangerous? What feels right to you? I knew one mom who wouldn’t let her 5 year old walk to the next door neighbor’s house on their dead-end street. For her, the risk wasn’t worth it.

For my family, I feel like I’ve calculated the risks and decided that I feel ok about sleeping with my baby, and ok about letting him sleep face down. What calculated risks do you take?

Comments on Calculated risk, or why I let my kid sleep on his stomach

  1. I just finished reading Our Babies Our Selves and for me it gave me the most useful information on this topic. It is about how culture shapes the way we raise our babies and also how babies may have been evolutionarily designed certain ways.

    If you only read one chapter, read the one about sleep. The book totally recommends co-sleeping, baby wearing, and breast-feeding; but does say that until about 6 months it may be better to have the baby sleep on their back or side, but that co-sleeping naturally facilitates that.

    The author states that babies definitely sleep better on their stomachs, but that may not be a good thing because they may "forget" to breath (I am totally simplifying here),

    I like that the book was written by an anthropologist and tells you about real studies that have been done, and about many different cultures around the world; and that most of our modern American parenting ways are based on pseudo-science.

    • Our Babies, Ourselves was the most useful book in terms of understanding babies and where we (might have) evolved from. It was fascinating.

      I hate books that prescribe a way to parent, but this one just tells you how babies MAY want to be parented, and says if you vary from this, it's fine, but you MAY have more fussiness.

  2. I agree entirely — until recently, if my son slept alone it was only on his stomach, and we decided that once he could roll, it was up to him to decide how he was comfortable.

    He also, at ten months, sleeps on a light quilt, has a single teddy bear, and uses a blanket in his room, because his radiator doesn't work. I check on him more often than when it was just jammies and a bumper, but it took a lot to make his crib as homey and roomy as mommy and daddy's bed was.

  3. As an NICU nurse I can tell you that babies ARE more likely to stop breathing when on their bellies because they get so comfortable their brains basically relax too much. That said, I'm not a big fan of "Back to Sleep" either because so many kids have reflux and can aspirate their own vomit. Personally, I feel (and tell my patients' parents… off the record) that well supported side sleeping is best with tightly rolled up blankets or the side sleeper cushions you see on the market. Makes the baby feel more like they're being held. Also, there WAS a legitimate study that pacifiers help prevent babies from falling into such a deep sleep that they go apneic (stop breathing)… certainly no cure for SIDS but a comfort measure that could possibly do some good.
    That said, I'm a big supporter of co-sleeping (unlike most of my RN peers) and feel that when it's done correctly (no extra pillows, firm mattress, etc…) it can help prevent SIDS because baby is still close enough to hear mommy's heart beat which some theories say may help keep their little hearts beating. I co-slept with my daughter until she was 2.5 years. I'm about to have my second any day now and will at the very least keep the bassinet in arms reach if not co-sleep… (once I go back to working night shifts I'm not sure I want daddy co-sleeping while I'm away only because men generally don't have the same mommy alertness/wiring and they have been shown to be more likely to accidently roll over on baby).
    definitely educate yourself about the risks and benefits before making your decision and try not to get mad at the dr.'s and rn's who encourage you that back is best… we're basically required to tell you that because SO MANY parents are not educated/aware/take proper precautions to tummy sleep/co-sleep safely!

  4. Just going along with this, as some of the comments are mentioning support for co-sleeping.

    There are a lot of different ways to co-sleep and bed share. It doesn't *only* mean sleeping with the baby cuddled up next to you. It's sad that many people are so fearful of the phrase itself without even understanding all that it means!

  5. bittybabyrn, as an RN myself, based on one study (no matter how rigorous), I wouldn't believe that pacifiers can help protect against SIDS. If there was a larger body of evidence I would, but until then I will remain a non-believer!

    • That's why there is so much fear about SIDS…because they don't really know what SIDS is or even how closely related all the so-called symptoms are, the studies that are produced are inconclusive.

      Obviously, and tragically, babies sometimes pass in their sleep but more research is needed to find out why. As the wife of a biologist, I find it very difficult to believe that perfectly healthy babies just stop breathing. I think with more research, they will find that there are specific reasons why some infants pass away in their sleep. I am willing to speculate that they will find many reasons (brain stem formation, undetected infections, slight variations in lung or airway formation etc).

  6. We also let my son sleep on his belly, but were a little panicked about it. We ended up getting a breathing monitor and it was the greatest thing ever! Made by itonly cost about $70, and it was super easy to use. We never had a false alarm, and it allowed both of us to sleep so much better! We knew it was a "calculated risk" but, as a little bit of a worrier, I just couldn't take it. So this way we were all happy. I'm not doing this as "product placement" I swear – just another helpful tip, I hope, for moms who are on the fence about whether or not to take the belly-sleep plunge.

  7. This is like the do/do not eat while pregnant furore. We need to do what is right by us and our family not what some researchers tell us to do/not do.

    My LO sleeps with us sometimes and other times he is in his carrycot, just like sometimes he sleeps in his bouncer chair. I do put him to sleep on his back but he'll happily sleep on his tummy on my chest/tummy and I'm happy if he is happy.

  8. My son is 8 months old now, and for the first 3 months of his life he slept mostly on his stomach because that's the only way he would sleep well. We also co-slept for the first 3 months. Then he went through a phase that last a couple of months where he slept mostly on his back. It was a natural thing, and it did put me more at ease, but I still checked on him every hour (or more) to make sure he was still breathing. Since he started rolling over on his own at around 5 months, he sleeps whichever way he wants. Most of the time it's on his stomach, sometimes his side, sometimes his back. He's also sleeping through the night most nights. Everyone worries about SIDS (I hope), but you can only worry to a certain extent before it makes you crazy. I'm glad I didn't let it make me crazy.

  9. Last week, my mother came over to babysit and was checking on our baby every 15 minutes or so to make sure she was breathing under the blankets she piles over her face. It's how she sleeps best, and if we take them away, she pulls them right back over again. I turn the baby monitor volume up high at night so we can hear her breathe, and she seems to be doing just fine, so I'm letting sleeping babies lie for now. She also loves her bumpers, touching the flowers on them and talking to them. I think she felt more secure in her crib when I put them on, as she immediately started sleeping longer. I'll keep them on until she starts playing with them in a worrisome way.

  10. I hate the scare-tactics used surrounding the perceived dangers of letting babies sleep however they like. My son alternates between sleeping on his back, his side and his stomach and there’s no way I’ll ever move him once he’s in his cot. We co-sleep when he wakes up scared or with teething pains, or sometimes even just when daddy’s away at work and we both need some comfort.

    Of course I worry about SIDS, but I worry about it in the same way I worry about my mum’s cancer returning or my other half’s boat capsizing – in a sort of detached, random way. If I thought about it any more it’d drive me crazy.

  11. First, thats my crib!! My husband built it!!! Thank you for posting
    Our daughter co-sleeps, and when she is in her basket she is on a reindeer hide (which I guess is a no-no) and she often sleeps on her side because she often falls asleep nursing – in bed.

  12. After reading this article and googling a bit, I found an interesting (but brief) blog post about SIDS that I thought those reading the discussion here might be interested in:

    In short, someone (Thomas McCabe) is suggesting a possible link between babies being put to sleep on their backs and rising autism rates. The idea is that babies that are put to sleep on their back, don't sleep as well (as many of the commenters here have noted), and suffer some developmental and neurocognitive delays as a result. We know deep sleep is important for memory consolidation and cognitive function in all people. Hence it doesn't seem like an unreasonable hypothesis that reducing babies quality of sleep by forcing them to sleep in uncomfortable positions could cause problems. After all, babies have been sleeping on their stomachs for thousands of years and if we're really making their deep sleep less efficient when we put them on their backs, one would expect that to have significant impacts.

    I'm not a parent (yet), but I am a scientist, and I don't think I would put my baby to sleep on its back if baby seemed uncomfortable there. I hope McCabes hypothesis is explored further- it sounds like he's been having a helluva time publishing or oven getting his idea out there.

  13. At 4 months my daughter is co-sleeping and she either sleeps on her back/side next to me, and for the first couple of months she almost completely slept on my chest. My partner kept saying i'd roll over and knock her off but it's the position I felt most comfortable with, and we both slept through the night. Now she's a little too big, but I always think going with your instinct is the best idea. I slept on my belly as a baby as I turned out okay, and according to my mom I was an excellent sleeper.

  14. What drives me nuts is the people who take everything that is said by "professionals" as the be all and and all. My son could only sleep with a soother that had a little animal attached to it to give it some weight so he didn't spit it out. He wound up in the hospital in the winter with pneumonia and when the nurse saw that soother she freaked and started telling me my child would die from SIDS. I don't know if she thought I was going to take the chooch out of his mouth and throw it away right there. Instead I looked her right in the face and said "Well, he's not dead yet." Try telling that to the next person that questions your parenting. You will get some interesting reactions!

  15. My first child would not sleep on her back at all. She was so active all the time that the only way to keep her asleep was to lay her on her stomach. Otherwise she would move in her sleep and hit herself awake…weird, I know. I was given a lot of grief over it and never answered truthfully at the pediatricians. I've learned now that I am on my third child that you have to take the warnings and advice with a filter for sure. My first 2 kids missed out on the value of breastfeeding because when I had difficulty, the pediatricians increased my fears and pushed supplementing. I think most moms know their children and their abilities and should be allowed to make choices themselves.

  16. I'm so happy to read this! Currently I'm at 37 weeks and my husband and I decided we are going to have our baby sleep on his/her stomach. Both him and myself as well as all our siblings slept on our stomachs. Both our mothers threatened us if we had our babies sleep on their backs due to the baby possibly chocking on vomit in the middle of the night. In fact my husband's sister (yes she's a doctor) even wrote a medical paper that was published on how its safer for an infant to sleep on their stomach and not their backs. One of the reasons that they recomended sleeping on their backs had to do with a study in Australia where the babies slept on sheep skin and would inhale that and cause them to suffocate. By putting a baby on their stomach they sleep deeper, longer, less likely to choke from vomit as well as build muscles better by pulling/pushing themselves up.

  17. I had reading all these horrid warnings about what to do about babies…they make me feel like I have to encase my child in a magic bubble or wrap them in bubble wrap for their own safety! So many things that the masses consider dangerous were fine years and years ago…and yet according to them we'd all be dead and not having children of our own. I survived I'm sure my little baby will also survive just fine!

  18. M 2 year old son always slept on his tummy unless he fell asleep breastfeeding, lol. And my 15 month old daughter is generally a side-sleeper. Both of them share a family bed with my husband and me. Although my son is starting to sleep some nights in his toddler bed which is beside my side of the bed.

  19. I let my little girl sleep on her tummy also. She just would not sleep on her back once we got her home. Which was really strange because she spent a month in the NICU and slept almost exclusively on her back there.

  20. My son slept on his tummy from birth. He got bacterial sepsis when he was9 months old, and ended up in the hospital. One night a nurse noticed me putting him to bed on his stomach, and got really angry. She thought I just “ignored the suggestions” because I’m young. No, I decided to opt against it because that’s what’s right for my family.

    When I started letting him sleep on him tummy, his night wakings went from 3 to 0 or 1, at just over a month old. He would sleep 12 hours sometimes!

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