After what feels like forever, you finally get your baby down to sleep. You gaze lovingly at your cuddly cutie before taking a step away from the crib — and right onto a creaky floorboard. The sound startles your child, and he wakes up flailing his arms and wailing. And in your exhausted state, you wonder if babies sleep better on their stomachs, or are you stuck putting your child back to sleep — and getting no sleep yourself?
Of course, you should always put your baby to sleep on his back — and never his stomach. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) urges parents to put their babies "back to sleep" in order to avoid Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS). But here’s the truth: babies do sleep better on their bellies. “Sleep is likely to be deeper and easier to initiate when lying in the prone (on the front) position,” Dr. Denise Gassner Ph.D., a sleep expert, tells Romper. Why? Blame it on biology, and in particular, the Moro reflex.
If you’ve seen your baby suddenly startle, throw their arms and legs outward, and then bring them back to the body, then you’ve witnessed the Moro reflex. It’s most common in babies from the newborn stage up until about 4 months old, Medical News Today reported. “This reflex is thought to be an instinctive embrace left over from our hairier relatives (bats and non-human primates) to cling to their mothers,” says Dr. Gassner. “It may also serve as an internal alarm system to ensure baby responds to danger — loud noises, sudden movement, or falling.”
Now, if your baby is snoozing on her tummy, the Moro reflex is reduced. “It’s hard to flail with your arms tucked up beside or under you,” says Dr. Gassner. Which explains why babies seem to slumber more soundly on their stomachs than on their backs.
But even though biology might dictate that babies sleep better on their bellies, the SIDS statistics don’t lie. Approximately 1,400 babies died from SIDS in 2017, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported. That’s why the AAP recommends that babies be put back to sleep for the first 12 months. Once babies begin rolling from their back to their belly (which typically occurs between 4-5 months of age), you might be shocked to find your baby turning to her tummy to sleep. “This is unlikely to cause danger as the baby has greater strength to control their movements, and the greatest risk of SIDS is in the first four months,” says Dr. Gassner.
Until then, there’s always swaddling to soothe your baby’s startles. “When being placed in the back position, swaddling has been demonstrated to reduce arousals in infants, possibly due to fewer startles caused by the Moro reflex,” says Dr. Gassner. “This also helps them return to sleep more quickly when arousals occur.” But bear in mind that once your baby begins to roll over, swaddling can become dangerous, too, Healthy Children reported. It can impede your baby’s movements and prevent him from pushing himself off the crib mattress.
When your child is little, sleep can be elusive — for both of you. For safety’s sake, put your baby on his back to sleep and swaddle to soothe him. At some point when he’s older, he’ll start sleeping better, whether it’s on his back or his belly — creaky floorboard be damned.
Dr. Denise Gassner, Ph.D., a sleep expert