A baby peacefully asleep on a parents chest makes for one of the most sentimental and popular photos of our time. Scrolling through social media, you are sure to come across a picture of a parent asleep on the couch with their baby on their chest. Whilst this creates the image of bonding and a content baby, few know the risks associated with it. This leads us to ask if it is safe for your baby to sleep on your chest?
It is safe for your baby to sleep on your chest provided that you remain awake and alert. This reduces your baby’s risk of suffocation and SIDS as you are able to monitor their breathing and ensure they are in a safe position where their mouth and nose are not covered. Conversely, it is NOT safe to let your baby fall asleep on your chest if you are likely to fall asleep too, due to potential risks to your baby.
Babies thrive on closeness and comfort. Many parents end up falling asleep with their baby on their chest, whether they intended to or not, as it settles their baby and so enables everyone to sleep. Knowing any potential risks associated with this as well as the safety guidelines, empowers you to keep your baby safe at all times.
What are the dangers of a baby sleeping on a parent’s chest?
The American Association of Paediatrics (AAP) recommends that babies are safest sleeping alone, on their backs, in a clear cot/crib/Moses basket. The AAP gives the all clear to have your baby sleep on your chest, however, there are definite strings attached. In order to help reduce your baby’s risk of suffocation and SIDS, it is safest for you to remain awake and vigilant with no chance of falling asleep. This is vital as you are then able to observe their position and breathing and ensure that they do not slip between you and the side of the couch or have their mouth or nose covered in any way. Sadly there have been numerous reports of accidental infant deaths as a result of lying on their parents chest as they both slept.
Since 1994, there has been a huge campaign to encourage parents to place their babies on their backs when they go to sleep as well as making sure they sleep on a firm and flat surface. This is because a baby sleeping on their tummy or soft surface dramatically increases the risk of suffocation and SIDS.
A baby who sleeps on their tummy is likely to enter into a longer period of deep sleep which makes them less reactive to noise and responsive to their environment.
Many will ask if this also applies to a baby sleeping on their tummy on your chest. Unfortunately, a baby sleeping on their tummy up against you still faces the same associated risks. There is no evidence to indicate the risk of SIDS is lessened if you have your baby on your chest while they sleep on their tummy. The main reason for this is that parent’s often unintentionally fall asleep with their baby in this position. A sleeping parent is dangerous for the following reasons:
1. Not only is your baby on their tummy which increases their risk of suffocation and SIDS, but they are also on a soft surface
- Their mouth and nose can easily become covered as the soft surface (pillow, cushion, blanket, clothing, bed or chair) moulds to their face.
- Younger baby’s often do not have the strength yet to reposition themselves which would make it easier for them to breathe.
- While you may think that placing your baby between you and the couch is safer because they won’t be able to roll off, the reality is that your baby can become trapped between you and the couch.
- In addition to suffocation, an entrapped baby can lead to other non-fatal injuries such as broken bones or dislocated joints.
The statistics have shown that sleeping on a couch or chair with your baby increases the chance of SIDS by 67 times and contributed to 13% of sleep-related deaths.
3. Risk of falling off the couch, bed or chair.
What are the benefits of skin-to-skin with your baby?
Skin-to-skin time, also known as kangaroo care, is most often prescribed following the birth of your baby if they are medically stable. UNICEF indicates that this time helps your baby adapt to the outside world and facilitates a bond forming between parent and child.
In addition to this, UNICEF provides numerous other benefits of skin-to-skin, which have been proven, including:
- Calming and relaxing mom and baby
- Regulating your baby’s heart rate and breathing
- Regulating your baby’s temperature
- Stimulating digestion and promotes feeding
- Stimulates milk production
In order for skin-to-skin to be effective and to benefit from it, it needs to be done for an uninterrupted 60 minutes at a time. The AAP encourages that skin-to-skin contact with your baby is beneficial for the first 12 weeks and should be done as frequently as is manageable. It is still possible and advantageous to continue with it past this time period.
HOW TO ensure your baby is safe when they are on your chest?
- Check to see that their airway is clear i.e mouth and nose are not covered
- Watch their chest to make sure it rises
- Listen for any unusual sounds or lack of noise
- Make sure to check your baby’s whole body as colour changes can be subtle
- Their hands and feet begin to discolour first
- Make sure that your baby is not limp or unresponsive
- Check that your baby is warm enough but not overheating
Although these observations are meant for skin-to-skin time they should also be used if your baby sleeps on your chest.
When is it dangerous for my baby to sleep on my chest?
There are important contributing factors which escalate the risks of SIDS and sleep-related injuries and can be linked to your baby sleeping on your chest. These include:
1. The moment a parent falls asleep and is no longer attentive to their baby.
- A parent who is asleep is unable to monitor their child’s breathing and position of their nose and mouth.
- Lying on a comfortable surface such as a couch or rocking chair in a relaxed position makes falling asleep likely. A baby may fall off the couch or chair
Can my baby sleep on my chest while I'm sleeping in bed at night?
The most recent AAP and Lullaby Trust guidelines indicate that the safest place for your infant to sleep at night is on a separate surface which is flat and firm. Read more about what Safe Sleep best practice guidelines are here.
Allowing your baby to sleep on your chest in your bed at night does not fall within these recommendations and can increase the incidence of suffocation, injury and SIDS.
However, UNICEF also adds that falling asleep with your baby on your chest on a chair or couch is far more dangerous than doing so in a bed. Read our article on co-sleeping here
As amazing as it is to have your baby sleep on your chest, a level of caution needs to be used to ensure their safety. If you are awake and alert, it is safe to have your baby sleeping on your chest. But if you are feeling sleepy, it would be safest to put your baby down on his/her back once they have fallen asleep. If that is not possible, it would be safer to fall asleep with your baby, on his/her back, in your bed rather than on a couch or chair, where suffocation, entrapment and falls risks are higher.