When is it safe for my baby to sleep on his tummy?

I have seen more than one mom, myself included, get anxious when they find their young baby asleep on her tummy for the first time. We automatically check to make sure she's breathing and wonder how in the world she got there and what can we do to stop it!

Putting a baby under one to sleep on her back is drilled into us like crazy and many of us well, freak out, when baby is found anywhere else. The constant reminders about
'back to sleep' are good and all (the resulting decrease in SIDS is dramatic, even with other variables taken out of the picture), but what we often don't hear about is when to allow a baby under 1 year to sleep on her tummy.

There comes a time when it is OK for baby to sleep on her tummy, and this time, believe it or not, is usually before 12 months of age.

So when is this time? The general consensus (but you should always double check with your child's doctor) is that once a baby can purposefully roll back and forth (from tummy to back and back to tummy) by herself she is fine to sleep on her tummy or whatever position she finds most comfortable. If you're really lucky, she'll be like my son Joshua and sleep better this way! It is still recommended that you place baby to sleep on her back, but if she decides to roll over, you don't need to roll her back or use sleep positioners to keep her on her back. In fact, sleep positioners are now not recommended for sleep with infants.

One distinction I want to make is between those babies that know how to purposely roll and those who just flip around the place. If your baby is new at rolling (or, as I've seen with a couple infants, roll around at a couple weeks of age by complete accident) and only knows how to roll one way or doesn't seem to be rolling very purposefully yet, you may want to return her to her back when she rolls. She may not be strong or skilled enough yet to get herself out of some possibly unsafe positions. The good news is that most babies learn to roll to their backs first and tummy second and that the SIDS risk is generally extremely low by the time they learn to do this (usually around 4-6 months).

For more on SIDS risks (and when it is highest and lowest) take a look at this SIDS post. If you choose to have baby sleep on his tummy before he can roll by himself, I suggest you discuss this with your pediatrician and use a movement monitor.

What if my baby rolls to his tummy and doesn't like it?
Some babies go through a phase where they learn to roll one way but not the other and they don't like to be in that one position they can roll to! They may get frustrated for a few days to a few weeks as they learn to roll better or get used to new sleep postions. As mentioned above, when babies can only roll way one, you will need to decide with the assistance of your doctor if you are going to roll them back.

Your child may also start to roll and suddenly not seem to like any postion she is sleeping in. Or she may wake up in a funny position (possibly rolling in her sleep) and get frustrated to be where she's at. Some babies will not sleep well because they want to practice this fun new skil and sleep is the last thing on their mind. This phase will pass! For your sake, hopefully quickly! For tips on how to make it more easily through this phase, check out this post on sleep disruptions.

When did your baby start to roll to her tummy? Did she sleep better or worse?

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