If you became a parent in the past 20 years, chances are you’ve heard the recommendation that it’s safest to put your baby to sleep on her back. But it seems less than half of parents are regularly following that advice. A new study has found that only 44 percent of mothers in the US exclusively put their babies to sleep on their backs, despite other sleep positions being associated with an increased risk of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS).
The study, which was published in the journal Pediatrics, looked at how 3,300 mothers from 32 hospitals across the US intended to and actually did put their babies to sleep, as well as the factors that influenced their choices. Putting babies to sleep on their backs is one way—along with not using soft bedding or crib bumpers—to prevent SIDS, the leading cause of post-neonatal infant death.
Though 77 percent of moms in the study usually put their babies to sleep on their backs, fewer than half always follow the recommendation. The study notes that this inconsistency of sleeping habits is a concern because “infants who are unaccustomed to prone [belly] sleeping are especially at risk when placed in that position.” It also noted that infants put to sleep on their sides are more likely to roll onto their bellies.
Some of the factors that influence mothers’ intentions for putting their babies to sleep include the advice of their doctors and the perceived comfort or safety of the infants. (Some moms still think babies are more likely to choke when on their backs, but this has been disproven.) Mothers who believe their child’s sleep position is not in their control—perhaps because other caregivers often put them down for naps or bedtime—are also more than three times as likely to intend to put their babies to sleep on their bellies.
In a Pediatrics-published commentary on the study, neonatology specialist Michael Goodstein and SIDS Center of New Jersey program director Barbara Ostfeld write: “The study reveals we have made little progress in terms of promoting the supine [back] sleep position in the past 15 years.” They report that, in the 10 years after the National Institutes of Health first introduced the Back to Sleep program in 1994, the rate of parents putting babies to sleep exclusively on their backs went from 10 percent to 78 percent, and SIDS rates dropped 53 percent. But the latest study shows many parents are going back to old, dangerous sleep habits.
They add, “Mothers who want to practice safe sleep need to be empowered to insist that other caregivers in their lives support their parenting decisions.” That means teaching friends, babysitters and grandparents that it’s safest to put babies to sleep on their backs. Many grandparents raised their kids in an era when people were told it was best to put babies to sleep on their stomachs, before we knew about the risk factors for SIDS.
Goodstein and Ostfeld note that studies show even health care providers in the hospital often ignore safe sleep practices. “If we can’t maintain a safe sleep environment in our birthing hospitals, what message are we sending to new parents?” they ask.