Too Many Babies Are Still Sleeping on Their Tummies

Every child has a different bedtime routine, but one thing they should all have in common is their sleep position. But that doesn't seem to be the case. A recent study finds that, despite the health risks, almost 30 percent of babies in the US are placed on their sides or stomachs when it's time for bed.

"This is very worrisome given the rate of SIDS, which has been stagnant over several years," Dr. Sunah Hwang, the study's lead author and a neonatologist at Boston Children's Hospital, tells NBC News. SIDS, which is the leading cause of death among children ages 1 month to 12 months, has been linked to these particular sleep positions for quite some time. To encourage parents to place sleeping babies on their backs and reduce the risk of SIDS, the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development launched the Back to Sleep campaign in the 1990s. The campaign was effective, as researchers saw a 50 percent drop in SIDS-related deaths during a 10-year period. Over the past few years, however, the rates have remained the same, with more than 2,000 children dying from SIDS in 2010.

So why do parents ignore these numbers? Studies show that parents unnecessarily worry about their children choking when placed on their back.

"I tell parents that their child has a normal airway and a normal nervous system, and so they have a mechanism to prevent the vomit from going into the lungs," Dr. Ari Brown, a pediatrician and spokesperson for the American Academy of Pediatrics, tells NBC News. Brown adds that NICU practices may also be to blame for parents' behavior.

"When I walk into the NICU, many babies are sleeping on their stomachs, and they can do that because there are monitors and oxygen support," Brown says. "But the baby may get used to sleeping in that position, and the parent may be used to seeing that." Both Brown and Hwang believe NICUs need to model safer sleep practices by occasionally placing preterm infants on their backs once they reach 34 weeks gestational age. They also believe the medical community needs to be more involved in spreading the message of proper sleep positions, especially to less educated families.

"The teaching that doctors and nurses do and the messages from the health community may not effectively be reaching these underserved women," Hwang says.