Once or twice a week I get an anxious call or message from a sleep coaching client. After they put their baby on his back to sleep, the baby starts rolling over onto his tummy and gets stuck there. What can the parent do?
Is Rolling Over Dangerous?
“Is it dangerous?”, they’ll ask. “Should I be flipping her over onto her back again?” Thankfully, most parents no know that the safest choice is to put infants on their back to sleep.This helps reduce the risk of suffocation and SIDS. This practice, along with others, is part of the Safe to Sleep campaign publicized by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.
While many know how to place their baby down for sleep, they get confused about what to do if baby shifts position later. I tell my clients that once your baby starts rolling over from back to tummy of their own accord it is safe to let them stay there. This assumes that you are following all of the other sleep safety recommendations: keeping all loose items out of the crib, avoiding mattress pads and loose crib sheets, and un-swaddling your baby once they start rolling over.
Ditch the Swaddle
For a baby who can roll, the safer alternative to loose blankets (never use before 12 months) and swaddles (only use before rolling starts) is a wearable blanket. Wearable blankets or sleep sacks like the one pictured below provide warmth and security while staying clear of babies’ airway. They also provide range of motion so that baby can adjust her position while lying face-down.
Once your baby is strong enough to roll from back to tummy, he is strong enough to adjust his head and position himself for safe breathing. Again, this assumes he is unswaddled and with no objects in the crib presenting a suffocation risk.
Practice Makes Perfect
But what about when baby starts to cry, seemingly because she’s stuck on her tummy, wants to roll back, but can’t? I tell concerned parents that they can try helping baby roll onto her back once. But more often than not baby will end up rolling back onto tummy and crying again. When this happens, I encourage parents to allow their baby time to practice getting themselves back over on their own. Plenty of daylight tummy time using a strategic toy or other interesting object to entice baby to try to roll over onto her back will help speed the process. Going in repeatedly to intervene at night prolongs the process by not giving baby the chance to practice and learn.
I want to reiterate that initially putting baby to sleep on his back is the right way to go, even when they start rolling over on their own later. A recent study revealed that as many as a third of full-term infants are not placed on their backs to sleep, and the number was even higher for babies born prematurely. Keep your baby safe by doing the right thing at bedtime. Whatever baby decides to do on her own after that is completely fine.
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