When Can Babies Sleep on Their Stomach? Answers From the Experts
Practicing safe sleep is important when it comes to the safety of your baby. Now that you have followed the back-to-sleep advise, you’re probably wondering when can babies sleep on their stomach.
We begin this article with an in-depth look at why placing a baby to sleep on their back is the safe option.
Next, the medical experts at SafeSleep® debunk why the four common signs that some claim can help you determine when it’s appropriate for a baby to sleep on their tummy, is dangerous advice.
Lastly, we introduce you to a safe way babies can sleep on their belly. Using scientific evidence, we explain why a crib mattress eliminating the buildup of carbon dioxide saves lives.
We begin this article by looking at the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) Safe Sleep Recommendations.
AAP Safe Sleep Policy and Recommendations
Firm Crib Mattress
According to the AAP, your baby needs a firm crib mattress. A firm crib mattress helps reduce suffocation risk. However, they are know to trap high levels of carbon dioxide (CO2).
Fortunately, our Crib Mattress meets all your baby’s sleep needs! It also surpasses all crib mattress testing and regulations. Not only is it firm, but it’s also comfortable, breathable, washable, and recyclable.
There is no fill or core material to block air flow or trap harmful CO2. Our unique design makes it possible for your baby to breathe straight through our mattress should they roll over onto their tummy. It’s the only crib mattress that tests for 100% oxygen rich air while a baby is sleeping on their stomach face down.
If your baby is sleeping face down, check out our article, Baby Sleeping Face Down – What to do.
Creating this unique design, we are able to eliminate foam, latex, springs, waterproofing chemicals, and glue, which are popular toxins and allergens (and no good for your little one). And best of all, it is completely machine washable. There is no bathtub or shower washing needed, unlike other breathble crib mattresses.
Keep Everything Out of the Crib
Keep objects out of your baby’s crib. The only thing in the crib should be a properly dressed baby on top of a crib mattress.
Swaddling is popular for your babies. However, it can be very dangerous once your baby begins rolling over.
If you want more information on when to stop swaddling your baby and how to transition them, read our article, When to Stop Swaddling Your Baby
We all hear the safe sleep warnings against placing babies on their belly. There is a lot of research supporting back sleeping reduces the risk of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS).
On the flip side, there is evidence showing the benefits of baby sleeping on their tummy For example, they are less likely to develop plagiocephaly. And let’s face it, infants sleep better on their tummy. They are less apt to startle and sleep longer. The problem is, it just isn’t safe on most crib mattresses.
When Can Babies Sleep on Their Stomach Safely?
Unfortunately, parents are falsely assured that once their baby is strong enough to roll over, it is safe for their baby to sleep on their stomach.
Using research-based evidence and compelling insight into the following topics, we navigate facts from fiction to determine when it is safe for your baby to sleep on their belly.
- Why Back Sleeping is Safest
- Why Some Infants Who Sleep on their Stomach are at Higher Risk
- Dangerous Advice
- Randomized Case Controlled Studies vs. Retrospective Analysis
- Limitations of Safe Sleep Policy Makers
Why Back Sleeping is Best
Even though there are benefits to a baby sleeping on their tummy, we know back sleeping is safest. But do you know why? According to the AAP Safe Sleep Task Force, “asphyxia is long been considered the primary cause of death in many instances of SIDS. Frequently autopsies find fluid in the lungs of SIDS victims. This is consistent with asphyxia. Asphyxia in young infants is believed to be caused by rebreathing of their exhaled air (CO2). The practice of back sleep is known to protect against rebreathing of CO2.
Rebreathing and Babies Sleeping on Their Stomach
Infants sleeping on their stomach can rebreathe exhaled CO2. CO2 can get trapped in soft bedding, quilted surfaces, soft mattresses, folds of sheets, and fiber filled crib mattresses.
Rebreathing CO2 leads to hypercarbia and hypoxia. Hence, if the environment of infants does not change or infants are unable to escape the dangerous situation, they will ultimately die of asphyxia. (JAMA Pediatrics February 2017 Volume 171, Number 2)
Asphyxia occurs when oxygen is insufficient in the human body. When an infant begins to rebreathe his exhaled air, he slowly deprives himself of oxygen. Eventually, the constant re-breathing of carbon dioxide suppresses the infant’s breathing needs, leading to hypercarbia.
Hypercarbia is a condition of abnormally elevated carbon dioxide levels in the blood. Carbon dioxide is a gaseous product of the body’s metabolism and is usually expelled through the lungs. Therefore, when carbon dioxide accumulates in the body, it leads to hypoxia.
Hypoxia is insufficient oxygen in the tissues to maintain physical function.
The belief is infants who;
- sleep on their stomach,
- sleep on soft bedding,
- use a blanket,
- have stuffed toys in their crib,
- have bumper pads attached to their crib,
- sleep with others,
- have anything close to their face (including their hands and arms),
Are at increased risk of SIDS. These products and conditions trap harmful CO2.
Baby Back Sleeping and Rebreathing
When infants sleep on their back without a blanket, there is a much lower risk anything can trap CO2. Consequently, making it unlikely for an infant to constantly rebreathe his exhaled air.
In order to keep a baby sleeping on their belly safe, we must eliminate the risk of trapping carbon dioxide. If we eliminate trapped CO2, infants cannot rebreathe it.
Unfortunately, most crib mattresses trap CO2. Traditional crib mattress designs contain fillers, vinyl coatings, quilted tops or solid coverings to prevent contamination. These fabrics and fillers all trap deadly CO2.
What is Rebreathing?
Rebreathing is when an infant lies face-down or near-face-down on his stomach, air is trapped around the baby’s nose or mouth. This causes the baby to breathe more CO2 than oxygen. If the baby does not wake up or react appropriately, it can lead to death.
Watch Professor David Greenblatt video for a visual on rebreathing.
After our analysis, we will introduce you to one crib mattress scientifically tested to eliminate the risk of rebreathing carbon dioxide even if an infant is in a face-down position. A crib mattress where the benefits of baby sleeping on tummy can be “safely” achieved.
Why Some Babies Who Sleep on Their Stomach are at Higher Risk
Most of us know the frightening feeling of a heavy blanket or pillow over our faces. This feeling forces a natural trigger to remove the object blocking oxygen. In addition, we do not worry about sleeping on our big fluffy pillows, pillow-top mattresses with our down quilts. Why? Because we have an innate sense to turn our head, even in deep sleep. In short, If our CO2 is accumulating, we fight to get fresh oxygen.
Like adults, most infants turn their heads or fight to get something off their faces when CO2 begins to cause breathing difficulties. But unfortunately, some infants do not!
Newborn Sleeping on Stomach – Serotonin and Rebreathing
In 2010, a group of scientists discovered the first direct correlation between SIDS / SUID deaths and serotonin levels. This finding was discovered by studying the brain stems of infants who died suddenly and unexpectedly.
Serotonin is the brain chemical that conveys messages between cells. It plays a crucial role in regulating breathing, heart rate and sleep. Researchers theorize serotonin abnormalities reduce an infant’s “ability to respond to breathing difficulties. The difficulties include low oxygen levels and high CO2 levels.
The leading scientist suggests SIDS is the result of infants rebreathing CO2 that has accumulated in their bedding and on their mattresses while the baby is sleeping on their stomach.
Dr. Hannah Kinney, “Babies who died of SIDS had abnormalities in serotonin in reigns of the brain stem that control breathing heart rate and blood pressure during sleep.” When a baby is put face down in a bed, it begins to rebreathe CO2, which is toxic.
Several studies have followed, linking high serotonin levels in the blood of SIDS infants and deficiencies in serotonin receptors. These studies report a common result: reflex apnea and arousal reactions that lead to an infant’s inability to respond when they are rebreathing CO2.
In other words, these infants stop breathing because they do not arouse when rebreathing their exhaled air.
Although the link between serotonin and SIDS / SIDS / SUID is a major finding in 2010. More than ten years later, we still have no way of testing live infants to determine their serotonin levels, serotonin abnormalities, reflex apnea or arousal reactions.
Consequently, the risk of rebreathing CO2 remains for all infants sleeping on their stomach. We need a way to remove the build up of CO2 while an infant is sleeping on their stomach to make stomach sleeping safe.
Hypothalamus and Rebreathing – Their Function When a baby is Sleeping on Their Stomach
Subsequent studies focus on how deficits in the hypothalamus region of the brain can cause infants insufficient responses to CO2 rebreathing
The brainstem and hypothalamus are two regions are two central parts of the brain that play an important role in our fight or flight responses.
As deaths attributed to SIDS occur during sleep, failure to arouse (become conscious) in a stressful situation is a part of the proposed death mechanism. The hypothalamus is a small but complex part of the brain with important roles in the homeostasis of energy balance, circadian rhythms and stress responses, as well as growth and reproductive behavior.
As a regulatory center for so many functions, it receives input and transmits output to various other brain regions.
Therefore, since the hypothalamus controls many physiological functions and is highly interconnected with other brain regions, it is an excellent candidate for abnormalities that contribute to the development of SIDS.
The reduction of CO2 remains a major concern for safe infant sleep, as it leads to:
Dangerous Advice on When Can Baby Sleep on Stomach
Recommendations from medical professionals and popular pregnancy resources appear to have a common theme: Once your baby can roll over, they are safe to sleep on their stomach.
Community Baby Center, a credible baby forum sponsored by Johnson & Johnson, states, “If your baby is strong enough to roll from back to stomach and stomach to back alone, you don’t have to worry about him rolling and sleeping on his stomach”. In addition, Parents Magazine says, “If your baby can flip himself on his stomach while sleeping, it’s okay to leave him that way.”
Unfortunately, this is dangerous advice!
Find out everything you need to know about baby rolling over and what you can do to keep them safe. Baby Rolling Over – Everything You Need to Know
New Zealand researchers report: “Parents and caregivers are often concerned about the appropriate strategy for infants who have learned to roll over, which usually takes place at four to six months of age. As infants mature, they are more likely to roll.
In a study, 6% and 12% of 16 to 23-week-old infants placed on their backs or sides were in the prone (stomach) position; among infants aged 24 weeks or older, 14% of those placed on their backs and 18% of those placed on their sides in the prone position.
Repositioning a sleeping infant to the supine (back) position can be disruptive. Consequently, this could discourage the supine position.
Data to produce specific recommendations as to when can baby sleep on tummy, is lacking.
Infants Paced on Their Back Who Roll to Their Stomach
Further, research shows more than a quarter of infants who died of SIDS while sleeping on their stomach were last put on their back. These researchers suggest an infant’s ability to escape potentially lethal situations during stomach sleep may be impaired by inexperience with stomach sleep.
Dr. Moon later supported their findings (Head of the AAP Safe Sleep Task Force) and colleagues in their review of infant sleep deaths in childcare centers.
Unintended Consequents of Baby’s Sleeping on Their Back
Unfortunately, infant inexperience with stomach sleep is now a common, unintended consequence of the successful back-to-sleep campaign. Babies who roll and are not used to sleeping on their stomach are at a greater risk of SIDS.
According to researchers at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, babies who never sleep on their stomachs do not learn behaviors that can reduce their risk of SIDS. Consequently, the researchers warn infants should always be put on their backs to sleep.
In 2016, these same researchers recognized the safety benefits of air-permeable crib mattresses that do not allow carbon dioxide to accumulate on the mattress.
Babies Who Roll to Their Stomach to Sleep
“The first time babies who usually sleep on their backs or sides roll or are placed on their tummy have a 19-fold increase in the risk of sudden death, We wonder if these babies, who find themselves face down, do not turn their heads to breathe because their reflexes haven’t developed far enough. Or, is it because they simply don’t wake up?” says SIDS researcher Bradley T. Thach, MD.
Additionally, scientific studies indicate a good head-lifting ability when lying on the stomach may not be sufficient to protect a baby from SIDS. “Many parents think if a baby can lift its head, it is okay to sleep on its tummy, but that is a false assurance,” Thach says.
It’s starting to make sense why a crib mattress that eliminates the risk of an infant rebreathing their carbon dioxide is protective against SID!
About Dr. Thach
Dr. Brad Thach, now retired, spent most of his career as a SIDS researcher. His research is still considered relevant. He and Dr. James Kemp are credited with finding the link between rebreathing CO2 and SIDS.
About Safe Sleep Policy Makers
Who are AAP policy-makers? The Committee of the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) on Fetus and Newborn established the AAP Safe Sleep Task Force in the 1990s and currently monitors their work.
The members of the AAP Safe Sleep Task Force write the AAP Safe Sleep Policies and Guidelines. The Task Force consists of five physicians who volunteer their time and expertise to make sense of the available data. Unfortunately, these scientists are not without their bias.
For example, before the updated policy in 2016, a new doctor was added specializing in breastfeeding. There is a new heightened awareness of the importance of breastfeeding to reduce the risk of SIDS.
Even though, there are no gold standard scientific studies to support breastfeeding to prevent SIDS / SUID.
The AAP (including the Safe Sleep Task Force) does not endorse, certify or recommend certain products. In addition, the AAP restricts interactions with manufacturers, making it difficult for manufacturers to ensure that their products are safe for consumers.
Randomized Case Controlled Studies vs. Retrospective Analysis
AAP safe sleep policies are based on a retrospective analysis of infant deaths. These investigations may be flawed. Actual scientific tests are not carried out to prove SIDS theories, as unethical tests would be required.
Dr. James Kemp, who used baby bunnies, carried out the closest test showing rebreathing of carbon dioxide as a probable cause of SUID / SIDS.
The AAP Safe Sleep Task Force use retrospective analyses to determine safe sleep recommendations. Meaning, the best data they have is filtering through thousands of infant death reports.
Next, they attempt to find correlations between infants in a particular age group, gender, weight, etc., to determine why some infants lived and others died. Take, for example, the “back-to-sleep” recommendation.
These scientists found infants with similar profiles were more likely to die when they slept on their stomach than on their back.
Retrospective Analysis Can Be Flawed
Unfortunately, retrospective analysis data can be flawed and is subject to scientific interpretation. SIDS death scene investigations are not currently standardized.
There are considerable efforts in this direction, but we are still not there. It is up to the medical examiner or pathologist to determine the cause of death. These individuals take note of the series of events and the scene.
However, some will be appropriate and complex in their findings and others will not. Consequently, there is a high probability that one examiner will include data that the other examiner will not. Often examiners label a death as SIDS on the single fact the infant was sleeping during the incident.
Limitations of Safe Sleep Policy Makers
The absence of Randomized Case Controlled (Gold Standard) means recommendations are based on retrospective analyses. For example, it is recommended not to use blankets for infants. Instead, it is recommended to use wearable blankets.
There is no scientific study to conclude whether a wearable blanket prevents SIDS deaths.
However, many death scene investigations show infants who died compared to infants in a similar environment who did not have loose blankets in their cribs. This suggests loose blankets in the crib are an increased SIDS risk.
The same applies to back sleep. No gold standard scientific study has been carried out to show whether an infant is at increased risk of dying on his or her stomach. However, retrospective data shows infants who were on their back were much less likely to die during sleep, suggesting back sleep reduces the risk for SIDS.
Retrospective analysis suggests air-permeable sides and surfaces are preferable to air-impermeable sides and surfaces to protect against SIDS. Science also dictates high air-permeability in crib mattresses is preferable.
SIDS and Crib Mattresses
Most of us know the importance of keeping fresh oxygen flowing to a sleeping baby. Additionally, we now know the importance of avoiding anything in the crib that can block fresh oxygen or causes CO2 to accumulate.
Unfortunately, conventional crib mattresses with fiber fill, vinyl covers, quilted toppers, and loose sheets all impede fresh oxygen flow. Further, they cause CO2 to get trapped and accumulate.
According to Dr. James Kemp and Dr. Brad Thach, “These bedding materials prevent the dispersion of exhaled gases (CO2) and keep the gases near a face down infant’s mouth. With each subsequent breath, the infant takes in an air mixture gradually less appropriate to maintain life.
The more prone an object is to rebreathing (to preserve CO2), the more dangerous the object is.”
SIDS experts agree, infants sleeping on their stomach on fiberfill crib mattresses, quilted surfaces, soft surfaces, pillow-like surfaces, vinyl pads, mattresses filled with tea tree bark and other natural fibers, and even surfaces that claim to be breathable, show an increased risk of rebreathing CO2.
Imagine a crib mattress with no fill, no quilted topper, no need for sheets. A crib mattress with side opening and an open celled, firm topper that allows air to flow freely up and down through the surface a baby sleeps on.
Baby Sleeping on Stomach in the Face-Down Position
In the 2011 AAP Safe Sleep Policy and Technical Report, it states, “play yards and bassinets with vertical sides of air-permeable material may be preferable to those with air-impermeable sides.” The recommendation to include air-permeable sides in play yards and bassinets is based on retrospective studies by the AAP Chairperson of Task Force Safe Sleep, Dr. Rachel Moon and her colleague Dr. Jody Pike.
According to Moon and Pike, “We have carried out a retrospective review and analysis of deaths in bassinets between June 1990 and November 2004 reported to the CPSC.” Moon and Pike note several infants who died were discovered with their faces near or pressed against the side of a bassinet or play yard that had no air-permeable sides.
In 2010, a pediatrician and her sister, a SIDS content expert, began challenging members of the AAP Safe Sleep Task Force. Eventually, the task force included published studies confirming the safety benefits of air-permeable crib mattresses with no fill materials for infants who end up in a face-down position.
After all, they recommend air-permeable sides in bassinets and play yards. Logic dictates the same should be said for air permeable bottoms.
Finally, in 2016, the AAP Safe Sleep Task Force states, “Crib mattresses were designed with air-permeable materials to reduce the rebreathing of expired gasses (CO2), in the event that an infant rolls to a prone position. These crib mattresses may be preferable to those with air-impermeable materials.”
So, When Can A Baby Sleep on Their Stomach?
After reviewing the following topics:
- Why back sleeping is the best if your infant is sleeping on a traditional crib mattress with fiber fill or quilted surfaces.
- We currently have no way to determine which tummy sleeping newborns or babies who roll over are at higher risk.
- If your baby can roll over on their own from back to tummy and tummy to back, they are “safe” to tummy sleep – which is not only poor advice it could prove fatal.
- Who our safe sleep policymakers are and the scientific limitations they face.
- The issues with conventional crib mattresses that contribute to unsafe sleep conditions.
- The safety benefits of air-permeability.
We can safely say there is no clear age or milestone to determine when it is safe for a baby to sleep on their stomach. There is also no clear age. We do know that SIDS risks seem to decrease with a child’s age.
According to a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, there is no data to support at what age babies can sleep on their stomach safely. Consequently, it is hard for parents to know the appropriate age when a baby can sleep on their belly.
However, the AAP has extended safe sleep guidelines to include Sudden Unexpected Death of a Child (SUDC). SUDC is the sudden unexpected death of a child over 1 year old.
Since there is an “air-permeable” alternative to conventional crib mattresses, recognized by AAP policymakers as preferable for infants who end up on their stomach while sleeping, parents can allow their baby to take advantage of the benefits of sleeping on their tummy without the risk of CO2 rebreathing.
Air-permeable Crib Mattress to Make Baby Stomach Sleeping Safe
A crib mattress that eliminates CO2 before an infant takes in their subsequent breath, was created by two individuals who experienced the loss of a loved one to SIDS. One is a pediatrician.
The test results of the SafeSleep® crib mattress are included in the scientific studies reviewed by the AAP. The SafeSleep® crib mattress is made of air-permeable materials and has no fill or core.
Specifically, the design of the SafeSleep® air-permeable mattress eliminates the risk of rebreathing of expired gases (CO2) in the event that a baby is sleeping on their stomach.
SafeSleep ® does not have any fiber fill or core. Instead, it has a hollow center with side openings and a firm, air-permeable topper to create an oxygen-rich environment.
Scientific testing shows exhaled CO2 is gone before a baby takes in their next breath, eliminating the risk of carbon dioxide rebreathing and suffocation.
To take advantage of the benefits of baby sleeping on stomach, make sure he sleeps on an air-permeable crib mattress. The SafeSleep® allowing an infant to breathe normally, even if your baby is sleeping face down.
Learn more about the SafeSleep® crib mattress
We have no clear answer for when can a baby sleep on their stomach, but there is a clear answer for what a baby should sleep on if they are sleeping on their stomach!