According to new research, only 44 percent of parents are putting their babies to sleep in the recommended position.

Sleeping baby placed on back
Credit: Asia Images Group/Shutterstock

New parents are almost always overwhelmed by all the rules that come along with raising babies—especially vulnerable newborns. Recommendations abound: Feeding, holding, bathing...and they all come with laundry lists of rules that are sure to trip up new moms and dads from time to time.

Baby sleep might top that list. And now, new research from the American Academy of Pediatrics reveals that fewer than half of parents surveyed exclusively follow the safe-sleep recommendation to place babies on their backs.

Let's back it up a bit: Back in 1994, the "Back to Sleep" campaign was introduced, and it had a huge impact. Thanks to the campaign, which helped parents better understand the safest way to put babies to sleep, rates of sudden infant death syndrome in the United States dropped by 53 percent. While just 10 percent of parents were putting their babies sleep on their backs (which is considered the safest sleeping position for babies) before the campaign's implementation, that rate grew to 78 percent thanks to its effect.

But the current research finds something surprising: After studying 3,297 mothers from 32 hospitals, researchers found that while most (77.3 percent) of the moms usually place their children on their back to sleep, many of them are not following that recommendation exclusively: just about 44 percent of the sample said they always put their babies to sleep on their backs, while more than half of the moms involved sometimes have their children sleep in the supine position or on their side.

The researchers asked the parents surveyed to report details about what they always practice and what they intend to practice, and they also observed the attitudes and motivations behind these choices. Based on their findings, researchers found reason to believe new parents of infants are influenced by what others are doing around them, input from other family members, and the desire to let infants sleep on their stomachs or sides if they appear more comfortable.

Researcher Eve Colson, M.D., told Parents she wasn't really surprised that people don't always follow recommendations. "This kind of finding is not unusual," she says. "We found factors strongly associated with sleep position choice include attitudes, subjective norms (what other people do) and perceived control."

But according to Dr. Colson, the researchers have reason to believe putting information in the hands of parents via regular text messages may improve outcomes—and this definitely makes sense. Early parenthood is a time of excess information and too little sleep—and let's not forget that everyone seems to have an opinion about what new parents 'should be' doing.

Of course, it can be difficult to "always" do something as a parent, but this is an important reminder that when it comes to health and safety issues, your doctor’s advice matters—and that medical professionals should be communicating recommended guidelines clearly and frequently to patients.