Newborn won’t sleep on their back? Here’s Why…
One of the questions that we get asked all of the time is: ‘my baby won’t sleep on their back – what can I do?’.
It’s so hard when you know your baby is tired but they will not settle in their sleep space on their back. And you know from all the online literature – ours included! – that a newborn baby should be sleeping up to around 16-20 hours of sleep per day, and even a 6 month old should be sleeping around 14 or 15 hours over a 24 hour period.
But what do you do if your baby won’t sleep on their back? So many of us have our babies on our chest all night because that’s where they are most comfortable and the only place they will sleep. We would do anything for our babies, but this isn’t always safe and longer-term it can be so impactful to you and your physical and mental health.
Why Won’t your baby sleep on their back?
Firstly, they are not alone – this is one of our most viewed pages across our whole website which shows you how many families are going through this. Additionally, we went through this too with our second child, Rafferty and more so with our third child, Malachy.
So we know how hard it is to watch our little ones in pain, but also be so sleep deprived ourselves and be caught in a place where we need to fix it but simply don’t know how to resolve it, and be too tired to make sense of all of the possible reasons.
This is why we put together this blog – a set of reasons, in a simple to follow format, that you can possibly apply to your baby.
Here are the potential reasons of why your baby won’t sleep on their back:
1. They just want a cuddle! They are new to this world and love being close to you. Our boys have all contact napped and it’s the best thing in the world. But don’t be afraid to try one nap per day independently when you and they are ready.
2. Their body posture isn’t right meaning they’re uncomfortable when they lie on a flat surface. We saw a craneal osteopath for Malachy which he needed because of his birth delivery (emergency forceps after a prolonged stay in the birth canal). It made such a difference to his posture – he always lay with his head looking right and upwards – but ultimately Malachy had silent reflux and so whilst he needed the craneal osteopathy treatment, it didn’t resolve him being able to sleep on his back.
So have a think about your birth delivery and if you had a C-section, an intercepted delivery or a complex birth, it may be worth contacting an osteopath. C-Sections or intervention deliveries can lead to posture/reflux issues as they don’t pick up the beneficial bacteria from the vaginal canal, they may have taken in antibiotics from their Mum during the process, and/or they may have been in uncomfortable positions in the birth canal (which is what we had with Malachy).
Even if it doesn’t resolve the issue fully, there will likely be posture adjustments which will help your baby’s comfort levels which is what we got for Malachy. If you speak to any reflux or craneal osteopaths, they would all tell you that every baby would benefit from some osteopathy after they were born.
3. They may have reflux. We know this one better than most with all 3 of our boys having had it.
And it’s hard; really hard. They are clearly uncomfortable, aren’t sleeping well and you’re struggling because you’re also shattered but you don’t want your baby in pain.
Sometimes putting your hand firmly on their tummy when you lay them down can really help with them lying on their back contently. At the beginning of the night, our boys could be soothed by this as the reflux isn’t as strong at this point.
Later in the night, they just wouldn’t sleep on their back and this led to them intermittently sleeping on Mummy or Daddy’s chest until the reflux symptoms reduced.
With reflux, it generally is feeding related, whether that be a tongue tie or there’s a latch issue.
4. They aren’t full up. If you lay a baby on their back after a feed but they still aren’t full they will certainly let you know about it! With our boys, we often laid them down to encourage them to feed more because they’d just got a bit comfortable and lazy with the feed.
Once they went on their back but weren’t completely full, they soon looked for more milk! This can be a little more obvious with breastfed babies when breastfeeding is still being established, but do look out for some key points around this including:
- Is their breastfeed latch OK?
- Is the milk supply coming through ok?
- Are the bottles right for them? We used Dr Brown’s bottles for our first two, and MAM bottles for our third boy as it worked better. With our first son, it was the change over to Dr Brown’s, and their anti-reflux design, that helped him keep his milk down and stopped the reflux.
5. On that previous point, if feeding is an issue – bottle or breast – there could be a tongue tie which could be causing latching issues. All of our boys had tongue ties but we were told by health specialists that they didn’t, and it was only with Malachy that we challenged that opinion and actually saw a tongue tie specialist.
She immediately identified a tongue tie and his feeding improved straight away, and once his tongue was functioning better, the reflux disappeared quickly too.
So even if you have been told there is no tongue tie, if you have a baby who has challenges with feeding, it might be worth reaching out to a tongue tie specialist for a consultation. In fact, our middle son Rafferty had to have his tongue tie cut at 3 years old as he had a reliance on sucking his thumb and had a speech delay (probably related to the tongue tie).
6. Wind and are uncomfortable with it. This is one of the most common ones, and often linked to a tongue tie too.
We didn’t realise how much wind a baby should be getting up after each feed. Sometimes we would think our wee man’s tummy was lovely and soft, we’d lay him down and there was still more wind!
So to be sure, look out for a really squidgy tummy, where you feel no excess air at all, before lying them down and don’t worry about waking them up more by winding them – a content baby will go to sleep easier and sleep longer.
7. Habit! The initial reason for a baby not sleeping on their back may have been driven from one of the factors in the list above, but it might be that your baby has got so used to sleeping like this, they don’t want to sleep in any other way. This can be tough to resolve for parents without external help and support, but we have helped many families go from having a baby sleeping on them all night to sleeping independently in their cot all night, in a very gradual way with our gentle method.
Here Are some great free resources
Sleep is difficult, really difficult. So sometimes getting a little bit of help from a proven and structured course. If your baby is under 10 weeks, watch our top tips for newborn sleep here – it will be great for you for setting up strong foundations in sleep and turning around those nocturnal babies!
If your baby is over 10 weeks, you can access some great free resources here, including a webinar with our top sleep tips.
We are a husband and wife business, parents of 3 boys, and are leading sleep consultants based in the UK. We’ve suffered from sleep deprivation, reflux, poor posture, feeding issues, tongue ties and more. You can follow us on Instagram for more content.