Any parent of a newborn baby will tell you that every minute of sleep you can grab in the early days is precious. Although swaddling fell out of favor for some time, this traditional method of wrapping an infant to go to sleep is regaining popularity. Many moms and dads swear by swaddling to help their newborn sleep for longer and more soundly.
However, it’s common for parents to express doubts about swaddling a new baby. Is swaddling a baby safe? Are there any risks attached to the practice? To help you decide if swaddling is right for your little one, our experts have created this handy guide with absolutely everything you need to know about swaddling young infants.
What is swaddling?
Swaddling is a common method of wrapping a young baby up to go to sleep. A thin, highly breathable cloth or blanket should be used for this purpose. Swaddling keeps the arms and legs contained without covering the face or head. Why do parents swaddle their babies? The theory is that the sensation of being bundled in a swaddle is similar to the feeling of being in the womb and that this familiar feeling is very comforting for newborn babies.
Are there any benefits of swaddling babies?
Parents often report that swaddling their babies helps to soothe them and improves the length and quality of their sleep. However, the evidence is anecdotal and there has been very little research carried out on the subject of swaddling.
When babies are very young, they have a natural reflex called the moro, or startle reflex. This reflex causes their arms and legs to flail, which can wake a sleeping baby up. Swaddling a baby keeps their arms and legs very gently restrained, preventing wake-ups caused by the moro reflex.
Pediatricians have not reached a consensus on whether swaddling should be recommended for newborns. It’s up to parents to weigh up the pros and cons to make a decision that’s right for their baby. If you do decide to swaddle, it’s very important to follow guidelines to make sure you’re doing it safely.
What are the risks associated with swaddling?
Although swaddling following recommended guidelines is generally considered to be safe, there are some potential dangers which could occur if the baby is incorrectly swaddled. These include:
Blankets coming loose and covering the baby’s face, potentially restricting breathing
Baby could overheat in thick or tight blankets
Baby may not be able to attract the parents’ attention as effectively when swaddled
Can I swaddle my baby during nursing?
Swaddling is not recommended during nursing. So, if your baby is swaddled and wakes in the night for a feed, you should unswaddle them before you feed.
While this may seem inconvenient, there are several reasons why nursing a swaddled baby isn’t a great idea. Firstly, a nursing baby can become very warm. If they’re swaddled as well, this could lead to overheating. Swaddling can also make finding a nursing position that’s comfortable for mother and baby difficult. The restriction in the baby’s movement could also cause problems with their latch, which can affect the amount of milk they take and your supply.
What’s the safest way to swaddle?
- Swaddling your baby is safe and shouldn’t cause any health issues as long as you follow the following guidance:
- Leave your baby’s neck and head unswaddled to prevent their swaddle wrap from riding up over their face
- Don’t swaddle your baby tightly. The swaddle should be firm but still allow good movement of their hips and legs. Tight swaddling could lead to dangerous overheating
- Use a fabric to swaddle your baby that’s light and breathable. You could use a light receiving blanket, a very large muslin or specifically-designed swaddle wraps
- Place your baby on their back in their cribs. Front or side sleeping increases the risk of SIDS
- Dress your baby appropriately under their swaddle to prevent overheating. In very hot weather, they may only need their diaper under their swaddle. Check your baby isn’t too hot by feeling the skin on their chest or back. Babies usually have cool hands and feet, so feeling these areas doesn’t give you an accurate idea of your baby’s body temperature
There may be occasions where another family member or a sitter puts your baby to bed instead of you. Take time to share this swaddling guidance with them to ensure that they understand how to put your baby down to sleep safely.
Swaddling and hip dysplasia
If you swaddle your baby tightly in a way that restricts the movement of their legs and hips, they may be more likely to develop a condition called hip dysplasia. When a baby has this condition, the hip joints fail to form properly. So, it’s important to make sure that your baby can move their hips and legs freely while they’re wrapped in their swaddle.
An easy way to tell whether your baby is swaddled correctly in regard to their hips is to look at their leg position when lying on their back. A young baby’s knees should fall to the side like a frog’s legs.
Does swaddling increase the risk of SIDS?
There’s no clear evidence that swaddling affects the likelihood of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS) one way or the other. Recently, the number of baby’s succumbing to SIDS has fallen dramatically. This is unlikely to be related to whether their parents are swaddling them or not, but rather to the updated recommendations that babies should be placed flat on their backs for every nap and night-time sleep.
In theory, swaddling may have some protective effect against SIDS if it stops them from rolling onto their front during the night. However, were the baby to somehow roll onto their front while swaddled they may be at higher risk as their ability to life and turn their head, and therefore avoid suffocation, would be compromised. For this reason, you should stop swaddling once your baby begins to roll over.
When should I stop swaddling my baby?
You should stop swaddling your baby as soon as they start rolling over. This means that they will be able to lift and turn their head without restriction if they roll onto their tummy. Babies develop the ability to roll at different ages, but some do so as early as three months.
If your baby suddenly starts escaping from their swaddle in the night, this is another sign that it’s time to move on. Some babies will start to resist swaddling once they reach a certain age. Once the startle reflex diminishes, your baby shouldn’t wake themselves up by flailing their arms and legs even without their swaddle.
How do I transition my baby out of their swaddle?
Many parents are understandably concerned about transitioning out of the swaddle, especially if their baby is sleeping well in it. They may worry that their baby’s good sleeping habits will go out the window without their swaddle to comfort them. However, many babies accept sleeping without their swaddle far more easily than expected as they are at a developmental stage where they are less likely to startle themselves awake. Some babies though will need time to adjust to the change in their bedding.
When transitioning your baby, you may simply decide to go cold turkey with the swaddle. While you may have a few rough nights, some parents prefer to do it this way and deal with the issue quickly.
In time, your baby will adjust and be able to fall asleep without swaddling. Replacing the swaddle with a wearable blanket may ease the transition as your baby will still feel warm and enclosed in their bedding. Wearable blankets are a good next step in any event as they are very safe and can’t ride up over your baby’s face while they sleep.
Alternatively, you could gradually wean your baby off the swaddle by first leaving one arm unwrapped while still giving them the familiar snug feeling. Once they’ve adjusted to this change, try leaving both arms free and swaddling your baby under their armpits. If they get used to this after a few nights, you’re probably ready to ditch the swaddle altogether and move on to a different type of bedding such as a wearable blanket.
The bottom line
Hopefully, you now understand clearly the pros and cons of swaddling. Whether or not to swaddle your baby is a personal choice, but it is a safe way of putting your baby down to sleep as long as you adhere to safety advice and don’t continue to swaddle once your baby is capable of rolling over independently. Whatever your decision, be sure to put your baby down to sleep on a firm, flat mattress in a suitable crib or Moses basket. They should always lie on their backs to reduce the risk of SIDS.