Can newborns sleep on their side? How safe is it?

Created May 10, 2024
Can newborns sleep on their side? How safe is it? | Huckleberry

Newborns sleep a lot. Many newborns average around 15.5 hours of sleep in a 24-hour period, making safe sleep habits especially important during their first few months of life. As your little one adjusts to sleeping outside of the womb, they may wiggle into various positions for comfort, such as their side, leading many parents to wonder: Can newborns sleep on their side safely? 

Here, we’ll look at when it’s safe for infants to sleep on their side, the risks of doing so too early, and what to do if your little one rolls to their side while sleeping. 


IN THIS ARTICLE:

Is it OK for babies to sleep on their sides?

Risks of side sleeping

What to do if your baby rolls onto their side during sleep

Tips for preventing side sleeping in the first 12 months

When is it safe for babies to sleep on their sides?

Are there any advantages to side sleeping?

Takeaway

Baby side sleeping FAQ


While it’s normal for babies to roll onto their sides during sleep, the safest position for younger babies is flat on their backs. That’s why the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends always placing babies under 12 months onto their backs for sleep. Side sleeping may cause babies to roll onto their stomachs, which puts them at a higher risk of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS) [1].

Infant sleep safety is a delicate topic, and years of research have been dedicated to learning how to keep babies safe! As a result, we now know that SIDS can occur if babies are unable to wake themselves up if they’re not getting enough oxygen [2]. Side sleeping may increase this risk if a baby is unable to roll back (or rolls onto their tummy) and their oxygen intake is affected. 

Along these lines, the potential for choking can occur if a baby spits up while on their side or stomach. Here’s why: The tube that leads to a baby’s stomach sits above the tube leading to their lungs. Due to gravity, this causes any fluids coming up from the stomach to gather at the entrance of the lung tube, which can increase the likelihood of choking.

Thankfully, by following AAP safe sleep guidelines [3], including always placing your baby to sleep on their back and keeping their sleep space free of suffocation hazards like pillows and blankets, you can significantly reduce the risk of SIDS.  

If it seems like your newborn likes to sleep on their side, you may be dealing with the “newborn scrunch.” This is when a baby curls onto their side after being placed on their back — an involuntary reflex during the first two months that is not a sign of rolling. (It’s just a comfortable position they learned in the womb!) Since the safest position for babies under 12 months old is on their backs, you can gently reposition them if you see it happen. 

The good news? If your little one is able to roll both ways (tummy to back and back to tummy), it’s generally okay to leave them on their side if they roll that way while sleeping [4]. Only if you’re comfortable, of course! 

Note: If your newborn is swaddled and is able to roll over, we recommend that you stop swaddling immediately.

It’s natural for babies to toss and turn while sleeping. While you can’t prevent them from moving around, there are steps you can take to help keep them as safe as possible!

Tummy time is an important tool in building your baby’s core, neck, and arm strength. This helps them develop the ability to roll from tummy to back and back to tummy. Once rolling both ways is established, side sleeping becomes much safer — and, if you wish, you can stop moving them to their back whenever it happens. You can introduce tummy time from birth. Once your little one reaches 7 weeks old, try aiming for 15 to 30 minutes of tummy time each day [5]. 

It’s also important to have a conversation with any caregiver responsible for putting your baby to sleep — especially those from previous generations who were taught to put babies to sleep on their stomachs before the Back to Sleep campaign in the early 1990s. While well-intentioned, they might not be aware of current sleep guidelines and the risks associated with older practices [6]. It’s helpful to emphasize the importance of placing your baby on their back to sleep and keeping their sleep space free of pillows, toys, stuffed animals, comforters, loose blankets, bumper pads, or anything else that may increase the risk of suffocation if they roll over.

Along these lines, the AAP strongly advises against the use of sleep positioners and inclined sleepers (sometimes called docks, pods, loungers, rockers, or nappers). Sleep positioners increase the risk of suffocation if a baby presses their face into the soft padding, while inclined sleepers may cause them to fall asleep in the chin-to-chest position, which can restrict their airway [7].

In addition to these tips, consider AAP-recommended safe sleep guidelines, including:

  • Always put your baby to sleep on their back on a firm, flat sleep surface (i.e., a crib or bassinet). Back sleeping reduces the risk of SIDS, suffocation, choking, and overheating.

  • Watch for signs of overheating, such as sweating, a hot chest, or flushed skin.

  • Share a room (not a bed) with your baby for at least the first six months.

  • Offer a pacifier at nap and bedtime, as it is associated with a decreased risk of SIDS [8].

Between 4 and 7 months, babies usually develop the ability to roll both ways (back to tummy and tummy to back). Once they’ve comfortably mastered this skill, the AAP advises that it’s okay to leave them on their side or stomach if they roll over during sleep [9]. 

While side sleeping does not offer any health benefits for little ones, some babies find it more comfortable — and that’s okay! As long as they are able to roll both ways, you can let them enjoy snoozing on their side or stomach

If you believe your baby may benefit from different sleep positions because of certain medical conditions, it’s best to seek advice from your medical provider.

  • For the first 12 months, back sleeping is the safest position for babies. 

  • Once a baby is able to roll both ways (tummy to back and back to tummy), it’s okay to leave them on their side if they roll that way in their sleep. If they can only roll one way, you should gently return them to their back if they roll onto their side.

  • Consider following AAP-recommended safe sleep guidelines to reduce the risk of SIDS: Put your baby on their back on a firm, flat sleep surface (such as a crib or bassinet) that is free of blankets, stuffed animals, bumper pads, pillows, or anything else that may increase the risk of suffocation. Watch for signs of overheating, including sweating or a hot chest, and share a room (not a bed) for at least the first six months.

  • To help your baby keep your baby safe when they roll to the side, you can keep their sleep space free of blankets, pillows, stuffed animals, bumper pads, or any product that can increase the risk of suffocation. 

  • Always reach out to your child’s doctor if you have any concerns about your child’s growth and development.

Baby side sleeping FAQ

Q: Does side sleeping prevent the baby from choking?

A:

No, side or stomach sleeping can actually increase a baby’s choking risk. Babies are less likely to choke while lying on their backs, thanks to their efficient gag reflex.

Q: Is side sleeping safe for newborns if supervised?

A:

Even supervised side sleeping is not considered safe for newborns. The safest position for babies under 12 months old is on their backs in order to reduce the risk of SIDS.

Q: At what age can newborns safely sleep on their side?

A:

There is no specific age that determines whether or not a baby can sleep on their side. Once they have mastered rolling both ways (tummy to back and back to tummy), typically between 4 and 7 months old, it is okay to let them sleep on their side if they roll that way while sleeping. That said, you should still always place them on their back until they reach 12 months old.

Q: How do I know if my newborn is ready to sleep on their side?

A:

While you should always place a baby down on their back to sleep until they are 1 year old, it is okay to leave them on their side once they have learned to comfortably roll both ways, from stomach to back and back to stomach. This typically occurs sometime between 4 and 7 months old.

Q: Should I use sleep positioners to encourage side sleeping for my newborn?

A:

No, the AAP strongly advises against the use of incline sleepers or sleep positioners such as baby nests, docks, pods, loungers, rockers, or nappers. These products are considered unsafe because they increase the risk of SIDS, suffocation, and choking.

Q: How can I create a safe sleep environment if my newborn prefers sleeping on their side?

A:

The AAP recommends repositioning your side sleeping baby onto their back if they’re under 12 months of age and haven’t mastered rolling both ways (front to back, and back to front). They also recommend keeping the sleep space free of items that pose a suffocation risk (like loose blankets, pillows, stuffed animals, and bumper pads), speaking with your child’s other caregivers about the importance of back sleeping, and avoiding the use of inclined sleepers and sleep positioners.

Note: The content on this site is for informational purposes only and should not replace medical advice from your doctor, pediatrician, or medical professional. If you have questions or concerns, you should contact a medical professional.

9 Sources

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  1. National Institute of Child Health and Development (2024). About Back Sleeping. https://safetosleep.nichd.nih.gov/reduce-risk/back-sleeping

  2. American Academy of Pediatrics (2022). Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS): Common Questions & Concerns. https://www.healthychildren.org/English/ages-stages/baby/sleep/Pages/Sleep-Position-Why-Back-is-Best.aspx

  3. AMERICAN ACADEMY OF PEDIATRICS (2022). Sleep-Related Infant Deaths: Updated 2022 Recommendations for Reducing Infant Deaths in the Sleep Environment. https://publications.aap.org/pediatrics/article/150/1/e2022057990/188304/Sleep-Related-Infant-Deaths-Updated-2022?autologincheck=redirected

  4. American Academy of Pediatrics (2023). How to Keep Your Sleeping Baby Safe: AAP Policy Explained. https://www.healthychildren.org/English/ages-stages/baby/sleep/Pages/a-parents-guide-to-safe-sleep.aspx

  5. American Academy of Pediatrics (2023). Back to Sleep, Tummy to Play. https://www.healthychildren.org/English/ages-stages/baby/sleep/Pages/back-to-sleep-tummy-to-play.aspx

  6. National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (2024). Campaign History. https://safetosleep.nichd.nih.gov/campaign/history

  7. American Academy of Pediatrics (2023). Inclined Sleepers, Soft Nursing Pillows, & Other Baby Products to Avoid. https://www.healthychildren.org/English/ages-stages/baby/sleep/Pages/Inclined-Sleepers-and-Other-Baby-Registry-Items-to-Avoid.aspx

  8. The American Academy of Pediatrics (2022). Safe Sleep: Back is Best, Avoid Soft Bedding, Inclined Surfaces & Bed Sharing. https://www.healthychildren.org/English/news/Pages/safe-sleep-back-is-best-avoid-soft-bedding-inclined-surfaces-and-bedsharing.aspx

  9. American Academy of Pediatrics (2023). How to Keep Your Sleeping Baby Safe: AAP Policy Explained. https://www.healthychildren.org/English/ages-stages/baby/sleep/Pages/a-parents-guide-to-safe-sleep.aspx