My first short feature for Slate ran last week, covering the importance of tummy time for infants.
The Back To Sleep Campaign was instituted by the American Academy of Pediatrics in 1992 to battle the number of infants dying each year from SIDS. And it was hugely successful, cutting SIDS cases in the US in half since it started.
Infants are no longer spending time on their stomachs at night, and many are not getting enough belly playtime (called "tummy time") either. New research has correlated tummy time deficits to lags in pre-walking motor skill development, which in turn has been linked in large birth cohort studies to physical and cognitive ability later in life.
Four years after the Back to Sleep campaign launched, its inadvertent effects started trickling into the clinic. Most notably, some infants had disfiguring flat spots on the back soft crowns of their heads. It took a few years for researchers and doctors to realize that the change in sleeping position also affected prewalking motor skills (whether or not a baby had a misshaped head). Then in 2004, a research team led by Bradley Thach at the Washington University School of Medicine studied the difference in head movements between stomach and back sleepers. Thach showed that babies who spent nights on their bellies quickly developed the brain connections and muscle strength to turn their heads from side to side—one of the first motor-skill hurdles. Babies who consistently slept on their backs, on the other hand, were less likely to have sufficient head mobility at 3 to 5 months.
Whether we are talking about tummy time, breastfeeding, or watching Baby Einstein videos, it's important to understand that child development doesn't hinge on one thing. Rather, a multitude of genetic and environmental differences factor in to make us who we are. But I think it's important to get as much information to the public as possible about potential new links researchers uncover.
Photo via Flickr / samgranleese