With the advent of the "Back to Sleep" campaign by the National Institutes of Health, the recommendation that babies be placed on their backs to sleep has significantly reduced the incidence of SIDS, sudden infant death syndrome. However, some parents worry about a baby who learns to roll himself over during the night, maneuvering into what many pediatricians consider an unsafe sleeping position.
Rolling Over Milestones
Learning to roll over by herself is a developmental milestone that each baby reaches at different times. Most babies manage to flip from tummy to back at around 2 to 3 months old and from back to tummy at 5 to 6 months old. Before achieving these milestones, she will probably need to develop head control.
Sudden infant death syndrome, SIDS, occurs when a baby dies during sleep for no identifiable reason. Laying babies on their backs to sleep has reduced the incidence of SIDS by 50 percent since 1998. Theoretically, babies who roll over are more at risk for SIDS, but no studies have specifically looked at babies placed back down for sleep who subsequently rolled over to a prone position. However, the risk of SIDS is highest at 2 to 3 months of age, which is generally before babies are able to roll over onto their stomachs. The risk of SIDS drops significantly after 4 to 6 months of age, around when this developmental milestone occurs. Also, the ability of a baby to lift his head is correlated with a reduced risk of SIDS. Infants usually reach this milestone before being able to roll over.
Since parents are unable to completely prevent their baby from turning over during the night, it is important to make the sleeping environment as safe as possible for the rolling baby. Soft bedding and anything else that could cover the infant's mouth and nose should be removed before the child goes to sleep. Parents should make sure the baby does not get overheated and that there is nothing he can get tangled up in or caught between.
Tummy time is a way to safely monitor your baby's ability to turn over and let her develop that milestone. Parents use tummy time by dedicating specific amount of time each day to lay the baby on her stomach with the parent watching. The baby will use this time to learn to lift her head and push up with her arms, things that will eventually lead to learning to flip over. Another advantage of tummy time is that it helps the baby learn to get herself out of a face down position if she needs to.
Doctors generally recommend that parents not worry too much about a baby who rolls himself over during sleep, but should continue to place their infants back-down when first putting them to sleep. Parents can gently turn their babies over if they find them turned over, but should not worry about needing to constantly check on their baby throughout the night. Care should be taken, however, to make the infant's sleeping environment safe before placing the infant to sleep, especially for babies who have mastered rolling from back to front.