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What is Container Syndrome?

Longer periods of time spent in a baby carrier can contribute to container syndrome.
Tummy time helps babies gain strength necessary for rolling over, crawling, and walking.
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  • Written By: Tricia Ellis-Christensen
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 15 October 2014
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Container syndrome is a relatively new term, first popularly used in mid 2008 to describe a condition observed by a variety of pediatric health care providers. In a survey sponsored by Pathways Awareness, pediatric health care workers have noted an increase in motor delays in infants, that may well be related to the amount of time infants spend on their backs. The broad strokes of container syndrome theory is that children who are not given adequate time on their tummies (tummy time) may be missing opportunities for natural and developmentally appropriate muscle development, especially of head and neck muscles.

There has been an upsurge in the amount of time infants spend on their backs, especially with growing popularity of a variety of infant containers. These include things like car seats, baby swings, rockers, and strollers, where infants are strapped in with five point harnesses to prevent them from falling out of such. While these devices certainly have their uses, babies may be left in them too long, especially by busy moms and if the baby remains content. Lying on the back can result in flattening of the skull and prevents babies from learning how to hold the head upright, which may result in gross motor and developmental delays.

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Another issue that may be part of container syndrome is that most parents are told to keep babies sleeping on their backs. Back sleeping connects to lower incidence of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS) and has been adopted by many parents. Yet this back sleeping means babies may be on their back much more than they would have just a couple of decades ago. The studies thus far on container syndrome don’t recommend that parents change babies to a different sleeping position, but instead advocate for making sure babies get plenty of tummy time on a daily basis.

How can you make sure you’re avoiding container syndrome? Pathways has low-priced materials on ways you can integrate tummy time into a baby’s regular routine, but you don’t necessarily need to order these materials. Recommendations for the first few weeks of life are fairly simple, allowing tummy time for just a few seconds a day at most. Some new babies protest rather vigorously about being left on their bellies for long.

Some parents may ask how they can provide tummy time when they’re very busy. Not all containers are bad. For younger infants, a safe playpen may be a means of keeping baby out of the way of other kids, pets, or the like while still giving them time to explore on their tummies, though it can help to encourage babies to stay in tummy position, since they’re usually able to flip over after a few months.

Other parents advocate using different kinds of containers to avoid container syndrome. For instance, babies in slings, especially when they can hold their heads up a bit won’t have pressure on the backs of their heads. Similarly some back and front packs reduce this pressure and the upright position can help infants gain neck strength.

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