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What to Do With a Baby Who Won’t Sleep on His Back?

By Amalah

Hi Amy!

I’m a mother of 2 boys (8yo and 2mo). I’m 30, falling apart physically, and just trying to do the best I can to raise my boys to be good men.

I’m at a loss about what to do about my little one’s sleeping habits. He’s not really much of a baby who enjoys sleeping on his back. My fiance insists that he sleeps so much better on his tummy and puts him that way ALL THE TIME! I try, repeatedly, to tell him that we can’t keep doing things that way…he needs to be on his back to reduce the risk of SIDS. I don’t want to wake up one morning and have a dead baby nearby. Do you have ANY tips on transitioning the baby back to his back?? I value my sleep as much as the next mom, but not at the expense of having a SIDS baby. My fiance and I take turns w/ night feedings and I really need to have some cohesiveness with his and my nights.

When I was growing up, it was ok to put the baby on their back. Even my first son didn’t sleep on his back too often…more often than not, he was on his side b/c of the reflux he was blessed w/ at birth. They don’t know what causes SIDS so fear is struck in the minds and hearts of every parent that if they put their babies on their bellies they will die. I’m guilty of the fear but at the same time, I wonder, what’s next…will the moms and dads of the future be advised to hang their children upside down to reduce the risk even further?? I’m just at a loss as to what to do. If he’s on his back, he’s literally awake every 1.5-2 hours. If he’s on his belly he will sleep through the night and seems to be pretty gosh darn happy the next day!

Although you are undeniably busy, I’m begging for some advice. I’m not a fan of going on some forum where a bunch of people are offering their opinions (which vary from highly intelligent to OMG what are you thinking, seriously?!?!) Do I know you, um, no…but upon stumbling across your work, I find myself eager to read everything you write. I can relate to some of the things you write about and the way you go about it.

Thank you for your time and (hopefully) your advice.


What We Know About Babies and Sleep Safety

Obviously — and I think you already know this — I absolutely 100% cannot at all tell you that letting a two-month-old sleep on his stomach is okay or safe or wink wink nudge nudge something we all do but don’t talk about.

The Back To Sleep Campaign — the huge push towards back-sleeping babies that started in the 1990s — effectively cut SIDS rates by more than 50 percent. Sudden Infant Death Syndrome is still the leading cause of death for babies between one month and one year of age, though, and while the EXACT reasons why it happens are still fuzzy (the latest research points to a genetic brain defect), the link between SIDS and stomach-sleeping is absolutely undeniable at this point. 2,000 babies still die of it every year, and many of those babies were placed on their stomachs, either by parents in communities that the campaign did not effectively reach (African American and Native American babies are close to three times more likely to die of SIDS than Caucasian babies), or by grandparents or caretakers who were simply “doing things the way they’d always done it.”

I’ve made jokes already about how many of the “expert guidelines” have changed in just the THREE YEARS in between the births of my children — from vitamins to solid food to pacifiers — and I’ve thrown up my hands in frustration over all the conflicting studies about co-sleeping, which was encouraged three years ago but has once again fallen out of official favor. (For every study that finds a link to co-sleeping and SIDS, another swears it prevents SIDS and claims that those other studies included families that made other, unrelated mistakes, including loose bedclothes, over-dressing or…letting the baby sleep on its stomach.) I fully own up to the fact that I am lecturing you about safety while admitting that we don’t necessarily follow every sleep guideline either, that a middle ground and common sense has to exist in all of this somewhere…and yet I break out in hives when I picture my teenage self casually plopping my infant babysitting charges down on their stomachs and covering them with a blanket and then walking downstairs to raid the fridge.

But. Joking aside, back- vs. stomach-sleeping is an argument that’s pretty much been put to rest (rimshot!), as you know. We all make our decisions the best way we can — we read and research and possibly compromise because lordy, we all want some damn sleep, but not (like you said) at the expense or risk of a dead baby. (In fact, while doing my research for these sleep-related questions, I found several ways to up our own sleep-safety factor.)

And at two months, your baby is at his most vulnerable. The risk of SIDS is the highest between two and four months of age. I know I’m not telling you anything you don’t already know, but reiterating the scary growly facts because your fiance needs to stop putting your son down on his stomach. None of us like being the neurotic nagging partner, but this one might need to be non-negotiable, even if you have to sacrifice your “off” feeding at night and flip the baby back over. (And do this with bare feet, which you will then shove all ice-cold against his butt back in bed.)

Help Your Baby Sleep Comfortably on His Back

You are not alone, though, with a baby who hates to sleep on his back. Neither of my boys particularly loved it either, unless they slept right next to me with their heads propped on my shoulder or upper arm. By six months, Noah could roll over in his crib and that was pretty much the end of the back sleeping, no matter how much I fretted about it. (The SIDS websites admit that once your baby is rolling over, there’s not much you can do about it — no one is expecting you to hold a vigil at the crib and flip a seven-month-old over multiple times a night. Instead, simply purge the crib of all blankets, bumpers and toys and make sure the crib sheets are tightly and properly tucked in.) But until your son is rolling over, you need a solution that will get you through the next four months or so.

One possibly solution is side-sleeping, like you did with your first son. We were told by the hospital to always keep Ezra on his back OR side, and a few of the less screechy SIDS-related organizations out there believe this is a perfectly acceptable option. A baby on his side can pull up into the all-comforting fetal position, but won’t have the problem of “re-breathing” his exhaled air or smushing his face against the mattress and not waking enough to turn his head.

Another is swaddling. And I don’t mean wrapping him up in ill-fitting square receiving blankets. I’m talking the fancy special swaddling blankets that look like little baby straitjackets, like the Miracle Blanket, the SwaddleMe or even just large muslin baby wraps. A tummy-sleeping baby likes that position because it feels safe, secure, constricted. We never had much luck with the SwaddleMe with my oldest, Noah (he was seriously strong enough to pull apart the velcro tabs), but the Miracle Blanket has indeed been miraculous this time around. Ezra will sleep and nap on his own, on his back, for many hours provided he is tightly swaddled up. At nearly 13 pounds, he’s starting to outgrow the foot pouch, but it seems to be his arms that need the binding up more anyway. (Note, however, that overheating is perhaps just as big of a SIDS risk as stomach sleeping, so there’s rarely a need for any heavy fleece blankets or anything underneath the blanket other than a onesie or t-shirt, if that.)

But look, I don’t want you to lose your mind over this, or anything. An hour and a half stretch of sleep will increase your risk of all dying in a car accident when you pass out and drive headfirst into a nail salon. So I get your frustration.

You and your partner need to get on the same page when it comes to safe choices for your baby. You certainly have the experts on your side, so don’t feel like you’re being neurotic by insisting that he respect your fears. Try to make your baby’s sleep environment as safe as you can — tightly tucked-in sheets, no loose blankets, no toys. If you can get him to sleep on his side, add a pacifier — research has found that they reduce the risk of SIDS as well. I couldn’t tell from your email if your son is in your room or not — room-sharing IS all-around recommended, and would possibly reduce some of the risk for a confirmed tummy sleeper if mom and dad are RIGHT THERE to notice any changes in his breathing and intervene if necessary.

Don’t forget to visit Amalah’s must-read weekly Pregnancy Calendar.

About the Author

Amy Corbett Storch


Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy’s daily mothering adventures at Ama...

Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy’s daily mothering adventures at Amalah. Also, it’s pronounced AIM-ah-lah.

If there is a question you would like answered on the Advice Smackdown, please submit it to [email protected].

Amy also documented her second pregnancy (with Ezra) in our wildly popular Weekly Pregnancy Calendar, Zero to Forty.

Amy is mother to rising first-grader Noah, preschooler Ezra, and toddler Ike.

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  • Cecilia

    December 18, 2008 at 11:10 am

    For us the MIRACLE BLANKET was the magic solution to this problem. Our baby slept so well with his miracle blanket – 10 to 12 hours by the time he was 3 months old. He’s just (at 4.5 months) learned to roll over, so we have to stop swaddling him. And now he sleeps on his tummy pretty well, not as well as with the Miracle Blanket, but I’m sure he’ll get there. I swear they should be giving out these miracle blankets to all new mothers in the hospitals – I think it would do a lot for the safe sleeping campaign, and go a long way in preserving the mental health of sleep deprived new moms.

  • Marnie

    December 18, 2008 at 11:22 am

    The swaddling was key for my daughter. I swear that girl had a button on her back that caused arms and legs to flail and eyes to pop open the minute her back hit the bed, so I got very good, and very FAST, at swaddling in the crib. She slept so much better that way.
    As a side note, she learned to roll from back to front before she was 3 months old. She slept so much better that way, but every time I found her on her stomach in the crib, I panicked a little. Being the paranoid that I am, I called the Dr’s office to get advice. The nurse told me under no circumstances was I to allow my baby to sleep on her stomach, even if she got that way herself, and that I needed a sleep positioner. WRONG! Once the baby has learned to roll over, do NOT mess with her will to do so. After listening to her scream for 2 nights in a row, I took the positioner back to the store, turned up the volume on the baby monitor, and never mentioned it to the nurse again.

  • Cobblestone

    December 18, 2008 at 11:25 am

    My doctor also said that air circulation via fan is also showing a decreased SIDS risk. It makes me happy becuase along with the animals there are currently 7 bodies in the room and a little air movement goes a long way.

  • Sally

    December 18, 2008 at 11:36 am

    I second both the fan and the swaddling. We did EVERYTHING to get our twins to sleep as long as possible without sacrificing safety. Another plus of the fan is that it creates white noise, which can be soothing and drown out other little noises that could wake the baby.

  • Lori

    December 18, 2008 at 12:48 pm

    doing a tight swaddle and a sleep positioner helped w/ the back sleeping — but when the baby started to roll over (to sleep on her stomach, of cource) our doctor told us to take all blankets, swaddles, positioner out of the bed and just let her sleep the way she wanted

  • Kami

    December 18, 2008 at 8:09 pm

    Our 2nd would only sleep on his back if his fingers were wrapped/covered by a knit blanket. I’m not eve sure how I came to the realization, but for him, a child who didn’t like to be swaddled, it seemed that being able to hold something and/or feel the weight of it on the palms of his hands was the reassurance he needed. To avoid loose blankets we laid him on top of the knit blanket and folded the corners into his hands. Weird but true.

  • Kate B.

    December 18, 2008 at 11:36 pm

    How heavy is the Miracle Blanket? We have a (inferior, I’m sure) thin cotton swaddler ( and I layer on clothing under it. I sleep under a down comforter at night (we don’t turn up the heat too high in our house) and am afraid that a onesie and blanket won’t provide enough warmth… but now, of course, I am paranoid about her overheating!

  • MWAS

    December 19, 2008 at 12:56 pm

    Nice Post! You hit the nail(s)on the head. This phase of parenting shall pass when the baby is old enough to roll over(and over)by himself or herself. Better the baby be a bit restless and back sleeping than the alternative – however mindnumbing the sleep deprivation.

  • Lena

    December 20, 2008 at 11:34 am

    I read about fans reducing the risk of SIDS too and we use one in our baby’s room. We tried all the swaddle listed above and didn’t have good luck with any until we found the Halo sleepsack swaddle(at Our baby could get out of all the others and some were just poor quality and tough to use in my weary state. Also, I know Halo has won some awards from First Candle (SIDS alliance) for design. Plus, the best thing for us about the Halo sleepsack swaddle is that the wings come off so we get a longer use out of it since it will become a regular sleepsack for our little one after we don’t need to swaddle her anymore. Sleep your baby on its back – don’t mess around! this is the most important job you will EVER have!
    good luck!

  • Jennifer

    December 10, 2013 at 6:27 pm

    My husband and I are expecting our first in about two weeks. A few months ago I stumbled across a website dedicated to eliminating SIDS. Basically, this site explains that SIDS is caused by poisonous gases generated by the interaction of ‘common household fungus’ with chemicals in the mattress. The gases are heavier than air, so sleeping face-up is a partial preventative. (I hadn’t heard about fans reducing the risk, but it makes sense that keeping the air circulating would help.) According to this website, the best solution is mattress-wrapping, which prevents the gases from coming in contact with the baby. I’m not a medical expert, but after reading more about this topic I’m convinced the info is worth passing on. The website is