Tired parents don’t always follow sleep guidelines for babies

baby sleeping

For safest sleep, babies should be put on their back in an empty crib. 


When someone uses the phrase “sleeping like a baby,” it’s obvious that they don’t really know how babies sleep. Many babies, especially newborns, are lousy sleepers, waking up every few hours to rustle around, cry and eat. For creatures who sleep up to 18 hours per 24-hour period, newborns are exhausting.  

That means that bone-tired parents are often desperate to get their babies to sleep so they can rest too. A study published in the September Pediatrics captured this nightly struggle in the homes of 162 Pennsylvanian families. And the results revealed something disturbing: Despite knowing that they were being videotaped, many parents didn’t put their babies into a safe sleeping spot.

The risk of sleep-related infant deaths, including those caused by strangulation or sudden infant death syndrome, goes up when babies are put in unsafe sleeping positions or near suffocation hazards. Babies should be on their back on a firm mattress free of any objects. But that wasn’t the case for the majority of babies in the study, says Ian Paul, a pediatrician at Penn State.

As a parent to three, Paul is sympathetic to the difficulties of soothing babies to sleep. “The first few months are really exhausting,” he says. But as a pediatrician, he also sees the risks of ignoring safe sleep guidelines. “Parents need to realize that these risks are real and might happen to them.”

The videos taken for the study revealed that at 1 month of age, nearly all of the babies were put onto a sleep surface that had a loose or ill-advised item. Some of those objects aren’t surprising: Loose blankets, pillows, stuffed animals, crib bumpers and a SIDS monitor turned up in babies’ sleep areas. “The fact that almost every baby had loose bedding in the crib was disturbing,” Paul says. Stranger objects, such as cords, electrical wires and even a pet, were also observed.

Some of these items, such as sleep positioners and the soft bumpers that run around crib rails, are sold at baby stores. “If they’re selling it, parents think it is safe,” Paul says. “That’s just not the case.” Despite public health messages, babies are still suffocating on bumpers or getting trapped between bumpers and their mattress. There are no federal rules against crib bumpers, but several areas have banned them.

The study also spotted lots of bed hopping. Often, babies would start the night in a safe crib, but by the morning, they’d be in a more dangerous place, such as a bed full of pillows with a parent. The nightly shifts usually went from safe to unsafe as tired parents moved their babies around, Paul and colleagues found.

Paul recommends that parents create a safe place right next to their own beds for their babies to sleep, such as a bassinet or playpen. By designing their environment to encourage good habits at night, tired parents may be more likely to put the baby into a safe spot. 

Laura Sanders is the neuroscience writer. She holds a Ph.D. in molecular biology from the University of Southern California.

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