Why I chose to sleep my baby on her tummy

My husband and I decided to sleep our daughter on her tummy.  Yes. We willingly went against the medical profession's recommendations.  We are not cavalier parents who want to buck the system.  We are not 'rebels without a cause.'  And we most certainly would not willingly do anything we believed might put our daughter in harm's way.  On the contrary, we carefully weighed all the options, sought information from many different sources, and prayerfully considered our decision before she was even born. 

I'm not writing this to try and justify what we've done.  I'm not writing this to try and convince you that my way is better than most.  And above all, I am not writing this to try and belittle anyone who made a different choice.  I'm writing this because I believe it needs to be said.  I believe that more people need to hear that they have a choice.  One small voice against the roar of an ocean.  And I suppose, if I'm honest, I do hope that by writing this, I may sway you, at least to consider that there are alternatives to Mainstream Parenting. 

I could inundate you with research, with statistics, with boring, term-paper lingo, but instead I'm going to try and keep it simple.  I'm just going to share the top 3 determining factors that brought us to our decision. Because, no matter what anyone tells you, it is a decision.

First and foremost, I can tell you from both research and from personal experience that babies sleep better on their tummies.  There are lots of reasons for this fact. For one thing, babies naturally tend toward tummy sleeping, as evidenced by the vast array of 'sleep positioners' on the market today, ranging from wedges to straps to sleep sacks, all designed to keep the baby from finding her way to her tummy.  If babies didn't naturally want to be on their tummies, there would be no need for these products!  Another factor affecting baby's sleep is the startle reflex.  Babies arms and legs tend to flail about when they are sleeping, either in response to a noise, or just because their brand new muscles are still trying to figure themselves out.  A baby on his back is more easily startled because he flails into 'nothingness'.  Kind of like when you fall asleep in the car (or class) and your head nods and you are startled awake.  Same thing.  But when baby is on her tummy, the mattress is pushing against her arms and legs, so the reflex is 'hemmed in' and usually goes unnoticed.  [This problem is 'rectified' for back sleepers by swaddling, but I hear time and time again from moms who say their little one hated to be swaddled, and would automatically pull her hands out, which defeats the purpose of swaddling.] Piggybacking on this idea, because babies on their tummies are less easily startled by their reflex, they enjoy longer, uninterrupted sleep cycles.  I don't think there's much need to elaborate on this... :-)  Suffice it to say, despite what they tell you in the doctor's office, when pressed, "most pediatricians concede that when babies are placed on their stomachs, they tend to sleep better, they are less apt to startle and they often sleep through the night sooner." [http://www.nytimes.com/2005/10/18/health/18slee.html?pagewanted=all]

The second factor has to do with development of motor skills. But let me preempt myself with a proviso:  The 'averages' referred to here are just that: Averages.  There will always be some babies who develop faster and some who develop slower, no matter what the parents do.  However, it is very well documented that babies who sleep on their tummies on average reach developmental milestones well ahead of their back-sleeping peers.  [In fact, because of the delays caused by back sleep some medical professionals have suggested that the "normal" ages at which children had previously attained developmental milestones should be pushed back. This would enable medical professionals to consider children who previously were considered developmentally delayed as "normal." I'm sorry, but I find this mildly absurd.]   Tummy sleepers are rolling over and sitting up sooner, crawling [which, by the way has been 'removed' as a developmental milestone, because so many babies just aren't getting there anymore!], reaching for objects, and generally engaging in their world with more interest.  Now, these statements are generalities.  Not every baby fits into these descriptions.  I know several moms who were extremely diligent with 'tummy time' but slept their babies on their backs, and they did quite well, developmentally.  And again, I'd like to reiterate that I am not knocking anyone who does things differently.  

Lastly, the issue of SIDS.  Because I'm sure as you read this, you may have been thinking, "What about SIDS?  They say back sleeping prevents SIDS.  Don't know know you're putting your daughter at risk?"  And based on what 'they' say, you'd be right... except 'they' haven't given you the whole picture.  I could talk for hours about this.  But let me give you my 'back to the basics' summary.

If you are pregnant, or have recently had a baby, or pay any attention to baby stuff these days, you will know that we have been inundated with information about "safe sleep" for babies.  And you will know this, thanks to the relentless work of the Back To Sleep Campaign, because all medical professionals are now required to say that the back is the only 'safe' position for baby to sleep.  But safe from what?  If you ask your doctor that question, he will tell you 'safe from SIDS'.  But I have one HUGE problem with this answer: the very nature of SIDS (sudden infant death syndrome) is that they don't know what causes it.  SIDS is, simply put, the unexplainable death of a child under the age of one.  So how can anyone, in good conscience, tell me that sleeping my baby on her tummy would cause SIDS?  But this is exactly what they've done.  They have effectively terrified an entire generation of mothers into putting their babies into a sleep position that is contrary to the nature, and then marketers preyed on that fear by creating hundreds of products that are supposed to help.  

"Well", you might ask, "what about the claims that instances of SIDS has been reduced by 50% since the beginning of the Back to Sleep Campaign?"  Well, despite the fact [that they don't like you knowing] that SIDS was already on the decrease before the Campaign started, so many other variables have also changed in this same time, any good elementary school 'scientist' could tell you that you cannot claim with certainty that any one thing caused the change.  For instance, in that same time frame, industry standards have for cribs and mattresses have increased, so that you would be hard-pressed to find a soft mattress available on the market today.  Education about the importance of breast feeding and the dangers of second-hand smoke have increased.  As has education about soft toys and blankets in the crib.  On top of all that, technology has advanced as well, so that autopsies are more detailed, and deaths that in previous decades may have been deemed 'unexplainable' (ergo, SIDS) are being identified properly, thus not being reported as SIDS deaths.  This fact alone would decrease the percentage! 

By the way, did you know that SIDS deaths affect only 0.05% of the population of babies born each year?  [I did not misplace that decimal point!] There are over 4 million babies born every year in the U.S. alone, and SIDS affects 1 in approximately 2000 babies.  1 in 2000!  So why have we been fear-mongered into worrying about something 1) we cannot control, and 2) is such a small ratio?! 

And one other thing.  Research is beginning to show that there are almost as many SIDS deaths of babies on their backs as on their tummies.  Ultimately, you have to find what works for your baby, for your family, and go with it.  Don't spend your child's growing years worrying about all the what-ifs.  You will miss the beautiful miracle that is your child, growing before your eyes.  Savour every moment, and trust that, if you're doing your best, your baby is going to be just fine. 

If you are interested in reading more, here are links to a couple articles I found useful: 


  1. Another thought about SIDS-

    If a mom is frantic for her baby to stay asleep more than 45 min she will resort to a swing or swaddle blanket or incline or side sleeping or some other suggestion which technically increase the risk of SIDS the same AND don't help with sleep problems, digestion, head shape, and muscle tone.

    It needs to be said. I was shocked to see also that one of my "baby info emails" gave the go-ahead saying that babies can sleep in whatever position they find most comfortable in the 4month email, but caveated that the AAP still recommends back sleeping til 6 months... humm...

  2. I enjoyed reading your article :) PLease continue publishing helpful topics like this. Regards, from beddingstock.

    1. Thanks, Steve! I'm glad you found it helpful. That was my intent in writing it. I really should sit down and write more, as I've had 3 more kids since I wrote this, and have learned a great deal about parenting styles and techniques. Any thoughts at to other topics you'd like to see touched on?

  3. I like the idea you described a lot! But, being honest, I still think that for the first year of your baby’s life, the safest place to sleep is in the child’s own crib, on his back. Sleep and play yards are also a great alternative. By the way, what do you think abut them? I want to purchase one of these models http://www.best-pack-n-play.com/top-5-playards-sleeping/, but I'm not sure which one is the best.

    1. Hi Kate, thanks for commenting! Since writing this article (7 years ago!) I have had 3 more kids, my youngest is now nearly 11 months old. All 4 have slept on their tummies from birth, in their own beds (I used a Moses basket in our room for the first few weeks, but then, usually around a month, moved it into the crib in their room to help them become familiar with the surroundings before they grew too big for the basket and were ready for the crib). All 4 kids have had tremendous sleeping habits and were way ahead of the "norm" for developmental milestones. Like I mentioned several times in this article, you definitely have to find what works best for your family, but I encourage you to assess deeply what is motivating your decisions, and to not be governed by fear in making decisions as a parent. (And for the record, you will be hard-pressed to ensure that your baby sleeps on his/ her back for the entire first year, unless you use restraining devices, which will severely hinder his/ her development, and disrupt sleep cycles... once babies starts rolling over, usually between 3-6 months, they make the decision for themselves what position they sleep in.)
      In regards to your question about sleep/ play yards, yes they are super handy, and function well as a portable sleeping option. But quite frankly, I'd save your money and skip all of these from your link and just get a very basic pack-n-play type, without all the bells and whistles. My only stipulations when purchasing a play yard are 1) does it have a supportive (and flat) base for baby to sleep on (not bending under their weight, or propped up on one side)? 2) Is it easy to assemble/ disassemble? 3) Is it light enough to travel with (by car or plane, as needed)? All that other stuff just gets in the way, and makes it incredibly less portable, which defeats the purpose of these beds... My general rule is "less is more" when it comes to baby stuff (see my articles on "baby gear")
      Hope you find this helpful!