In the early 1940s, Dr. Harold Abramson, a New York pediatrician, pored over heartrending reports of babies who accidentally suffocated while they slept. As he reviewed case after case, he noticed that a vast majority of the deaths occurred when babies slept on their stomachs. After decades of additional research the federal government, the American Academy of Pediatrics and child advocacy groups formally launched the Back to Sleep campaign, instructing parents to place infants on their backs for sleep for the first year. There’s no question the Back to Sleep campaign has helped save lives. Since 1994 the rate of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS) has declined by more than 50 percent. What this campaign has also effectively done is scare new parents so much that they don’t want to put their babies on their tummies ever.
More research suggests taking away “tummy time,” cuts off a pivotal avenue of development. The less time infants spend on their stomachs, the slower they generally are to acquire motor skills during their first year, which means the potential delay of simple feats like lifting their heads as well as more-complicated movements like rolling over, crawling, and pulling to stand. Doctors have hesitated to sound the alarm about this, since children usually walk shortly after their first birthday regardless of how much tummy time they’ve had. But a growing body of evidence now suggests that the timing of the motor-skill milestones that precede walking is crucial and can even factor into long-term health and cognitive ability. Pediatricians however, have had mixed reactions to this and have passed this off as inconsequential. Others, including the American Academy of Pediatrics, champion of the Back to Sleep campaign, have seen the head shapes and motor hang-ups as a harbinger of future problems and recommended supervised tummy time when a baby is awake.
Here’s where infantile scoliosis fits in. Parents are seeing the potential of death as outweighing the potential of delayed motor skills. What parents aren’t hearing are the increased risks of Infantile Scoliosis, the most challenging orthopedic condition in babies, from not having sufficient tummy time.
Prior to the 1980s the incidence of infantile scoliosis was much higher in Europe where infants were commonly placed on their backs to sleep. During this time babies in the US were traditionally placed on their stomachs to sleep and the incidence of infantile scoliosis was a rare phenomenon in North America accounting for less than .5% of all diagnosed cases of scoliosis. During the 1980s Europeans adopted the tummy sleeping position for children and the incidence of infantile scoliosis dropped to record low numbers.
Now take a look at Scotland before the 80s, where parents were routinely advised to place their infants to sleep on their backs, cases of infantile scoliosis accounted for 41% of all diagnosed scoliosis cases. After 1980 Scotland reversed their stance on back sleeping and the incidence of infantile scoliosis in Scotland dropped to 4%. At the same time there is research going as far back as 1966 that states one of the benefits of stomach sleeping was the prevention of scoliosis.
So what do parents do with this conflicting information? Putting an infant to sleep on his or her back is without a doubt the recommended sleep position for a baby’s first year of life. However tummy time is equally important and recommended for motor skill development and the prevention of scoliosis. The key is getting a sufficient amount of tummy time in. Parents should be encouraged to have their babies spend a healthy chunk of awake time on their tummies. This should begin soon after birth once the umbilical cord stump has fallen off. Several times a day so the child becomes used to it early on and likes it. There are lots of ways parents can practice tummy time, propping a baby on a nursing pillow while on the floor with them or even on a parent’s chest are great ways to get that added tummy time in and keeping everyone comfortable. Baby wearing is also greatly encouraged, as it too also helps promote physical development and decreases the risks of a baby developing infantile scoliosis. When parents choose a baby carrier it’s important to look for one that is comfortable to wear but is also ergonomic for baby.