Swaddling is an ancient practice that in recent years has become an increasingly fashionable choice for many new parents. When your baby is inside the womb (uterus) they are used to being tightly curled up in a warm, safe and very ‘snug’ environment. By comparison their Moses basket or hospital bedside cot can seem like a vast, unfamiliar space. It’s no surprise therefore, that newborn babies will often settle much better when they are snugly wrapped.
What are the advantages of swaddling?
When a baby is swaddled it makes them feel very safe and secure; swaddling can also help to soothe and settle a crying baby more quickly. It can be particularly helpful if your baby has been over-stimulated (eg your newborn baby has had lots of cuddles from visiting friends and family). Swaddling has also been found to be more conducive to babies feeling more secure when sleeping in the supine position (ie on their backs). Placing babies in the supine has been shown to be a protective factor against cot death (Sudden Infant Death Syndrome – SIDS).
Swaddling has also been shown to promote better sleep in young babies. You may have noticed that your baby sometimes makes small startled/jerking movements while they are sleeping. These movements are called the Moro reflex or startle reflex and are perfectly normal; they can however disturb your baby so that they wake up. Where your baby is swaddled these movements are less likely to bother them and, if your baby does wake, they are more likely to settle themselves back to sleep.
Best practice in swaddling
It is advised that you swaddle your baby for the first couple of months only. After this time, it’s unlikely that your baby will want to be swaddled because they are growing and developing so rapidly. It is also important that when swaddling your baby, their hips are not restricted by being swaddled too tightly. This is because where babies limbs are restrained their legs often extend which causes their hips to straighten and move forward. This can lead to future hip problems. See also our article on ‘Developmental dysplasia of the hips (‘Clicky’ hips)’. Remember: Babies naturally lay with their legs abducted (facing outwards) and at right angles to their body – rather like frog’s legs!
How do I swaddle my baby?
a). Place your baby’s blanket or sheet on a safe flat surface and turn the top edge of the blanket/sheet over on itself to a depth of around four to five inches
b). Put your baby down on their back, so that the fold of the blanket is at the level of their neck/base of their skull
c). Bring the top right-hand corner of the blanket diagonally down across your baby’s body and tuck it under their bottom
d). If preferred, you may wish to fold the bottom border of the blanket up at this stage (this is optional)
e). Then bring the top left-hand corner of the blanket diagonally down and do the same again; tucking it securely behind your baby’s bottom and lower back
f). Ensure your baby’s legs have enough space to rest in an abducted position (ie like frogs’ legs!)
g). Babies sometimes prefer to sleep with their arms free; if this applies to your baby, swaddle them under their arms.
Is swaddling safe?
Studies have raised some health concerns about swaddling babies and the following should be kept in mind:
1. A swaddled baby should always be put down supine; never on their tummy (prone) as this has been linked to SIDS
2. Do not swaddle your baby too tightly around their chest – this has been found to be associated with acute respiratory tract infections (chest infections)
3. Babies cannot regulate their own body temperature, so it’s very important that they don’t overheat. Avoid using heavy blankets or putting your baby in a bonnet. NB. A swaddled baby does not need any extra blankets
4. Swaddling can impede breast feeding because the blanket makes it more difficult for your baby to get a good mouthful of breast (ie a good latch). If your baby isn’t correctly positioned and attached at the breast, they won’t feed adequately and will lose weight. There is also the risk that a swaddled baby lying in such close proximity while feeding could get too hot
5. Babies love warm, soft surfaces and contact with their mother’s skin is important in stimulating the ‘milk let down’ reflex. They also explore the world around them by touch so being physically close and in skin-to-skin contact with their parents is important for bonding. See also our content on ‘Breastfeeding your baby’ and ‘Bonding with your new baby’
6. Finally, swaddling should be baby-led, so if your little one doesn’t actually like it, you shouldn’t force things.