What Is Swaddling?
Swaddling is an ancient practice of wrapping up a baby to help them sleep. It's been gaining popularity over recent years, with an estimated 90% of babies in North America being swaddled in their first few months.
Swaddling recreates the cozy feeling of the womb and can help soothe an infant. Safety, however, is a concern with swaddling because of hip problems or suffocation that can happen when swaddling is not done correctly. So it's important to learn how to do it properly, as well as to know the benefits and risks of swaddling.
Swaddling your newborn can calm them down and help them sleep better and in the right position, on their back. Doctors recommend this sleeping position in babies to lower their risk of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS). Eventually, your baby will outgrow the swaddle. Here's what you need to know.
Is swaddling safe?
Swaddling can be safe when done correctly. It can help babies sleep better and may be especially helpful with babies born with brain conditions, colic, or an alcohol addiction. It's important to remember that babies don't have to be swaddled, but if they are, loose blankets should be avoided. And if the baby is swaddled for longer times during the day or night, a sleep sack that lets their legs move should be used vs. a fitted blanket.
What Are Swaddling Cloths?
You can buy swaddling cloths from most baby stores. There are different types of swaddling cloths. Some of them are simple square or rectangular blankets. Others are sack-like and allow you to zip your baby inside. Some have additional flaps on the side that wrap across your baby's body and are secured with sticky strips.
What is a swaddling bag?
A swaddling bag is like a wearable blanket or sleeping bag that can be worn by your baby once they are able to roll over and have grown out of the swaddling stage. Swaddling bags allow your baby to have their arms free and more control of movements. They are worn over clothing or pajamas and can provide comfort without the suffocation risk of loose blankets.
When to Swaddle Your Baby
You'll most often swaddle your baby before they sleep and to help calm them when they're fussy. It's important to stop swaddling once your baby starts trying to roll over. This can be as early as 2 months of age. Sleep sacks or wearable blankets that don't compress your baby's arms and chest can be worn up to about the age of 2 or about 30 lbs. Once your baby outgrows a sleeping sack, they should be able to use a blanket.
How to Swaddle Your Baby
Follow these simple steps to swaddle your baby safely:
- Spread your swaddle blanket out and fold one corner down.
- Place your baby lying face-up on the blanket, with their head at the edge of the folded corner.
- With one hand on your baby, pick up the left corner of the blanket. Bring the blanket across your baby's body. Tuck the blanket between their right arm and their body. It should go under their lower back and bottom.
- Gently straighten your baby's left arm so it's against their side. Pick up the right corner of the blanket and bring it across their body. Tuck it under their left side.
- Fold or loosely twist the bottom corner of the blanket and tuck it under your baby.
- The swaddle should only expose your baby's head and neck.
- Don't swaddle so tightly that your baby can't bend their legs.
- Place your baby on their back to sleep, not on their side or stomach.
When to Stop Swaddling
You should stop swaddling your baby when they start to roll over. That's typically between 2 and 4 months. During this time, your baby might be able to roll onto their tummy but not be able to roll back over. This can raise their risk of SIDS.
When it's time to stop swaddling your baby and change their sleep routine, you'll need to transition them. Some babies may be used to sleeping in a swaddle. Taking them out of it might upset them and cause them to cry more during bedtime.
Create a brief transition to help them adjust to their new sleeping method. When they're showing signs of rolling over, you should take the swaddle away. You can replace the full swaddle with a wrap that meets your baby's developmental stage. Be sure to keep their arms free while they're sleeping.
You can still wrap your child with the same method you used for swaddling. Just keep their arms out. You can also use a sleep sack as a helpful tool during the transition.
In a sleep sack, your baby can move around a little. This is different from no mobility with their swaddle. Getting to move around and build their strength is good for their growth. But if they roll over in the night, place them back on their back. Using a sleep sack is also helpful for getting your baby ready to sleep with a blanket when it's safe.
Once your child is done with the sleep sack, you can transition them to a wearable blanket. This will get them closer to sleeping with a blanket when they're older. A wearable blanket lets them move their arms and legs freely without hazards.
Advantages and Disadvantages of Swaddling
Swaddling can help a baby sleep but has both pros and cons. The advantages of swaddling your baby include:
- Better sleep. For babies, being swaddled is like being back in the womb. Some parents note that their baby is able to sleep more deeply with less startle reflex. A small study of 16 babies aged 10-16 weeks found that swaddling increases the amount of time they stay asleep and lowers the number of times they startle and wake by themselves, but more research is needed.
- Less crying. Research has shown that when paired with sound and movement, swaddling can help babies cry less. A study on 368 babies who cried excessively found that babies under 7 weeks old cried slightly less after being swaddled.
- Premature babies. Swaddling has been found to help premature babies with improved development of nerves and muscles and better organization of motor movement.
- Sleep position. Parents who swaddle their babies are more likely to place them flat on their back when swaddled, which is the recommended sleep position for babies.
- Increased risk of SIDS. There are about 3,500 baby sleep-related deaths a year in the U.S. Placing babies on their stomach to sleep is considered to be one of the most significant risk factors for SIDS, the sudden and unexplained death of a baby under the age of 1. Swaddling further increases this risk. Some researchers believe that SIDS can be caused by low arousal while an infant is sleeping, which means it's harder for them to wake up. Swaddling a baby may lower their arousal.
- Loose bedding. If your swaddle isn't properly done, your baby can wriggle out. This means that the swaddling cloth is left loose in the crib, which can block your baby's airway. Loose bedding increases the risk of SIDS.
- Overheating. As the swaddle is an extra layer, you should make sure your baby doesn't overheat. Touch their chest or back of the neck to see if they feel sweaty or warm. Remove a layer of clothing or switch to a lighter, more breathable swaddle material such as muslin or cotton.
- Developmental dysplasia of the hip. Improper swaddling can increase the risk of hip dysplasia. This is a problem with the way the hip joint forms. The hip joint is a ball and socket joint. In developmental dysplasia of the hip, the ball of the hip isn't centered in the socket and, in some cases, may slide in and out of it. Studies show a connection between tight swaddling and hip dysplasia. For natural development of the hips, your baby's legs have to be able to move up and out at the hips.
Dangers of Continued Swaddling
There has been much debate around the positives and negatives of swaddling. Ultimately, it is up to you and your family if you choose to swaddle your newborn.
Ignoring the signs of your baby trying to roll over can be dangerous if you continue to swaddle them. If your baby is fussy and moving more, they can overheat while swaddled. Signs of being overheated include:
- Damp hair
- Flushed cheeks
- Heat rash
- Rapid breathing
After 2 months, you should reevaluate your baby’s sleeping situation. Stop swaddling if someone is watching your child for you or they're moving around. Swaddling can be dangerous for babies at any month if it's not done the right way. Because of this, some child care centers refuse to swaddle babies. Some doctors suggest it could be dangerous for children to be swaddled after 2 months.
Another danger of continued swaddling is the increased risk of SIDS. Following safe swaddle practices can reduce these risks.
If you have any questions about whether or how to safely swaddle your baby or transition them out of their swaddle, your doctor can help. Together, you'll decide the best course of action.