Newborn Photo Shoot Safety Tips

Photos of sleepy newborns with whimsical backdrops are all over social media, but experts warn parents not to attempt these set-ups at home.

father laying on couch with baby taking photos
Photo: Getty Images

In April 2010, a pediatric cardiologist named Sam Hanke fell asleep with his 3-week-old son on his chest. When he awoke several hours later, his little one had died, a victim of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS). The heartbreaking story has become a cautionary tale that experts want parents to bear in mind when cooing over images of a newborn snoozing on their stomachs on their parent's chest—or on any surface. But unsafe sleep positions are just one of experts' concerns about newborn photo shoots.

Read on for what every parent should know about keeping their little one safe when looking to capture this special time in their lives.

Beware of Pinterest-Popular Positions

Photoshoot set-ups that pop up on social media sites like Pinterest and Instagram are often the result of careful photo editing.

Take, for example, seemingly serene photos of a baby lounging in a hammock or laying on a swing. A responsible, professional photographer will not actually position an infant in a dangerous hammock or swing. Instead, they shoot the baby on a safe surface, separately photograph the props, and edit it together as a composite image.

"The hammock one is fairly popular, and for that one, they're actually not hanging at all," explains Cassie Clayshulte, a newborn photographer in Bluffton, South Carolina. "They're laying flat on what we call a poser, which is usually a very safe, soft surface for them to lay on, and the hammock is stretched backwards." Clayshulte then takes the photo from a "bird's eye view" and edits it, making it look like the little one is lounging in the hammock.

With a similar set-up involving a swing, Clayshulte says the baby and the swing are shot separately and then edited together.

Cassie Clayshulte newborn photo safety graphic
Cassie Clayshulte

Clayshulte points out that often, a baby is positioned in an entirely safe way. For example, perhaps they're being held by their parent, and then the parent's hands are edited out in post-production.

"There are a lot of poses with their head on their wrists or with their little head in their hands with their hand on their chin," she notes. "With those, you've usually got mommy's hand on them."

So, if you see these and want to recreate the aesthetic, keep in mind that staging them as seen could be very dangerous.

Don't DIY a Photoshoot

From specific props to Photoshop, many "tricks of the trade" go unnoticed by people who only see the final product and assume it's safe to DIY these setups. Some examples of unsafe positions include:

  • Dangerous sleep positions (like lying on their stomachs or lying on a "sleeping" parent)
  • Positions that strain the airways, spine, and neck
  • Situations that could result in a fall

"If you're doing those poses without the safety training, and you're not doing it as a composite, you really can strain on baby's joints," Clayshulte says. "You can put strain on their airways and even on their circulation. And you can also put strain on their spine and neck if you're not doing things correctly because they really are so fragile. They're still developing and still growing, and so we don't want to pinch any of those nerves or block their airways or hurt their circulation system or anything like that."

Daniel Ganjian, M.D., a pediatrician at Providence Saint John's Health Center in Santa Monica, California, couldn't agree more. He says it is always important to ensure your child's airway is open and clear so they can breathe easily. "When the head is flexed too much, it makes it more difficult for a baby to breathe. There are too many images showing babies with their chins on their chests which makes it difficult to breathe."

Another issue: Photos of babies in wrap-around carriers that show their heads "too flexed," Dr. Ganjian says.

Apply "Back to Sleep" Rules to Photos

With an eye toward the SIDS risk associated with a prone sleep position, Dr. Ganjian discourages both parents and photographers from creating an image in which a baby is sleeping on their stomach—or appears to be.

"This will teach viewers that babies are allowed to sleep on their stomachs, which is not true—prone sleeping is very dangerous," he says, pointing to the AAP's recommendations on safe sleep, which advise the following:

  • Placing a baby on their back on a firm sleep surface such as a crib or bassinet
  • Avoiding sitting devices for sleep
  • Avoiding bed-sharing
  • Avoiding soft bedding, including crib bumpers, blankets, pillows, and soft toys

There's a huge issue with the way newborn sleep is portrayed both in traditional media and social media, says Benjamin Hoffman, M.D., chair of the American Academy of Pediatrics Council on Injury, Violence and Poison Prevention. "We almost don't even see it anymore. I often refer to it as the 'Anne Geddes effect.' We're so used to seeing babies sleeping in pumpkins. But it is so important that we acknowledge how crucial safe sleep is for babies and what a big deal sleep-related death can be."

Pose Newborns in Safe Positions

Behind-the-scenes tricks allow photographers like Clayshulte to create an artistic rendering safely. But the safest approach is to steer clear of sensationalized images that portray hazardous situations and only photograph newborns in safe positions, according to Dr. Hoffman.

"The more that people see these images that are potentially dangerous, the more it normalizes it, and then, the likelihood is that babies are going to be put in dangerous situations," he says, noting this holds even if the scene is Photoshopped. "So, what's the cost of cute then?"

When planning a photo shoot, he advises parents and photographers to use common sense and ask themselves, "Where is a safe place for baby to be doing something that a baby would normally do?" They'll also do well to consider set-ups that show babies in situations where a parent or caregiver would be comfortable with the level of supervision that's portrayed in the photo Dr. Hoffman notes.

Sure, photographing a baby in an AAP-recommended position—alone on their back—might make you think, oh, that baby looks so alone and sad. But Dr. Hoffman says, "We project our feelings around that and our sense of what makes us feel cozy as adults when we sleep." So parents need to recognize that there's a fundamental difference between that and what's safe for a newborn.

How to Find a Trustworthy Newborn Photographer

When booking a professional photographer, Clayshulte recommends researching photographers to see what kind of safety practices they adhere to and their experience level.

Review their portfolio

Dive into their entire portfolio—and then some. "It's important to look at their portfolio, look at an entire session, look at several sessions, and you should be able to see the photographer creating the same poses over and over again," she notes.

Ask about safety

Make sure the photographers you consider are actively talking about newborn photography safety. You don't necessarily want to just ask about certifications because they don't necessarily carry much weight since photographers might pay a fee to acquire those, Clayshulte notes. Instead, she says, "don't be afraid to ask them who they trained with and then look at the portfolio of the person who trained them."

Remember that you get what you pay for

Experience will increase your photographer's rate. "The number one reason that new photographers charge low prices is because either they're not educated in what they should be charging, or they're not confident in their work, and you want to hire someone who is confident in their work, period," Clayshulte says.

"You do want to hire a photographer with experience who is priced professionally." Concerned that will mean breaking your budget? Ask for a payment plan, and book as early as possible, which can give you several months to save. You might even be able to register for a session as a baby shower gift.

Hire a photographer that specializes in newborns

Clayshulte says photographers trying to do it all are often newer to the field and less experienced. On the contrary, a photographer focused on newborns is likely to have more experience and safety training.

The Bottom Line

No matter how many likes a newborn photo might get on social media or even how beautiful an image might look framed on a gallery wall, safety must come first. Dr. Hoffman implores parents to remember, "Babies are not show horses. It comes down to common sense and not taking pictures of your baby in a situation where it represents the baby in any peril."

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