Do you swaddle your baby or are you considering it? Can swaddling be harmful to your baby?
There are many different techniques for parents to try with their new baby, some more common than others. Swaddling has become popular, but many parents don’t take the time to research the topic.
It is important to educate yourself swaddling before using it on your baby in case there are any risks involved or warning signs you need to look for.
All babies are different, so if swaddling works for one baby, it doesn’t mean it will work well for another. Let’s look at this in a little more depth and see what it entails.
Why Do Babies Like Swaddling?
Your newborn baby is not quite used to this outside world yet, and a swaddle can remind them of the time in mommy’s womb. Most babies are comforted by swaddling because it is similar to the security they experienced before birth.
Many parents choose to swaddle if their baby has a strong startle reflex that often wakes them when sleeping.
Another time swaddling can be very helpful is when it helps to calm babies who are fussy and crying.
Benefits of Swaddling
Swaddling is now a popular technique that has, in many ways, proven to be effective. There is an entire market just for swaddle blankets and items to help you wrap your baby, making them feel safe and comforted.
Swaddling is so popular because it has many benefits (1):
- Helps babies sleep longer: Your baby will feel more secure like being held close to mom. The swaddle helps your baby feel contained in an enclosed environment when they stir, which helps to lull them back into sleep.
- Creates less anxiety: The extra weight that is applied by the swaddle can somewhat resemble being held, which has a calming effect and helps your baby relax.
- Limits the startle reflex: Your baby doesn’t quite have the motor controls figured out yet. This means they could be sleeping one minute and then experience a jerking motion the next. Whether your baby jerks an arm or leg, it’s enough to wake them up from even a deep sleep. The gentle pressure from swaddling helps to contain their extremities, keeping unexpected movements to a minimum.
- Eliminates blankets: Many parents want to make sure their baby is as comfortable as possible. But a blanket, while it might seem comforting, can pose a serious suffocation threat for your baby, so a swaddle is a great alternative. The swaddle keeps your baby warm, but should never cover your baby’s face.
- Prevents face scratching: Your baby will have nails like little razors, which always seem to make their way to the face. Many babies scratch themselves in their sleep, enough so you notice dried blood on their face the next day. A swaddle keeps the arms secure, and thus prevents face scratching.
- Maintains a safe sleeping position: A swaddle helps keep your baby on their back (until they learn how to roll over), which is the safest sleeping position. Not only does it keep your baby comforted while in the best position for sleep, but a swaddle reminds an overtired parent to lay their baby on their back.
- Decreases crying: If your baby seems never to be pleased no matter what you do, swaddling may be your answer. In babies eight weeks old or younger, it can potentially decrease crying by 42 percent. Swaddling may be the key to some relief.
- Soothes colic: Parents who have babies with colic almost always resort to a swaddle. The extra comfort and security a swaddle provides, along with other calming measures, have been known to soothe a colicky baby.
Like most things in life, even something as simple as swaddling has risks. Some are much more severe than others, but it’s best to know what to look for and what to avoid (2).
- Breastfeeding interference: Swaddling immediately after birth has been shown to make breastfeeding a little more difficult. Babies who rack up more skin-to-skin time with mom shortly after birth tend to take to the breast more often. This can be addressed easily if you voice your opinions to the hospital regarding immediate swaddling. It’s essential to keep your baby warm, but a simple blanket over mom while snuggling with baby will suffice in those early days.
- Effect on healthy weight: The delay with breastfeeding in swaddled infants could be a reason that some don’t put on enough weight at first. It’s also believed infants need touch to thrive, and a swaddled baby is not receiving that vital skin-to-skin touch, so choose to limit swaddling a bit in the beginning.
- Body heat: Swaddling with a warm blanket can cause your baby to overheat. You can dress your baby in light clothing or choose a swaddle that consists of light cotton or similar materials.
- Hip dysplasia: The position required for swaddling causes your baby’s hips and knees to be fully extended in an unnatural position. This can lead to hip dysplasia or dislocation of the hips. By choosing blankets specifically designed for swaddling, and making sure they aren’t too tight over the legs, you can limit the chances your baby will develop this condition. If your baby was born with hip dysplasia, it is important you avoid swaddling altogether.
- Decreased arousal: Swaddling is preferred by parents because it helps keep their baby asleep longer, but it can also cause babies to have decreased arousal making them slow to wake up. Some studies show that decreased arousal may actually increase the risk of SIDS (3).
- Risky when rolling over: If a baby is swaddled and rolls over to sleep on their stomach, there is a risk of suffocation. All sources say to discontinue swaddling when babies show signs of learning to roll over (source).
- Sleep dependency: If used long enough, it’s likely your baby will become accustomed to being swaddled before bedtime. You could view this as a habit or a sort of crutch your baby requires to fall asleep. This isn’t a bad thing, but it can create some difficulty as your baby will eventually need to be “weaned” off of the swaddle (4).
How to Safely Swaddle
Here are step-by-step instructions that will describe a basic technique to swaddle your baby in the safest manner possible. You may watch the video linked below to see three different methods of swaddling your baby.
- Lay out your baby’s favorite warm blanket or swaddle in a diamond shape with a corner at the top folded down: This will leave an opening at the top for baby’s head when the blanket is wrapped around the body. Choosing a blanket that isn’t too thick and doesn’t have anything hanging from it can help ensure your baby stays a nice temperature and reduces other risks as well.
- Place your baby on the blanket facing upwards and hold down the left arm: Something to remember when positioning your baby on the blanket is to keep the edge of the fabric away from their face. You should never be rough with your baby when swaddling. If your baby is too upset to stay still enough for a decent wrap, try to calm them down first before attempting again.
- Pull the blanket tightly over your baby’s arm, across and tuck under the top half of their body: By pulling the edge of the blanket over the arm held straight along your baby’s side, you can create a snug, tight wrap around your baby. Make sure your child’s arms are straight down. Bent elbows can help them wiggle out of the swaddle (although they can be left out as a variation when desired.)
- Pull the bottom up and over your baby’s feet and loosely tuck it under their shoulder: Keeping the swaddle looser around their feet is a good idea so they can kick and move their legs, which is important for strengthening their muscles. You want to make sure you tuck the bottom corner of the blanket tightly under their back to keep a secure swaddle. It is important not to have the legs bound up completely straight because that is not an anatomically normal position. See the video at the link below for hip-healthy swaddling.
- Bring the last corner over your baby’s body and tuck it under: Finally, you’ll take the last flap of the blanket left untucked and pull it over your baby while holding the right arm down. Make sure the arm is straight to prevent your baby from escaping. Once pulled tight like a burrito, tuck the corner under your baby’s back.
By following these instructions, you can safely swaddle your infant. Before setting them in a crib or on a playmat, remove any objects near your baby.
Safe Swaddling Tips
Parents use swaddling as a way to soothe and comfort their baby, but when it’s done incorrectly, there are potential risks.
Here are some tips parents can follow that will help to ensure safe swaddling.
- Don’t over-swaddle: Some parents want to make sure their baby is warm, and this can cause overheating. A very young baby isn’t quite able to regulate their temperature yet, but this doesn’t mean you have to keep them excessively warm — overheating can increase the risk of SIDS (Sudden Infant Death Syndrome). Signs of overheating include damp hair and red cheeks. Your baby should only be dressed in one layer more than what you are wearing.
- Secure swaddle: You want to make sure the swaddle is secure. Whether you use one of the blankets with Velcro designed for swaddling, or you swaddle your baby with a regular blanket, it needs to be secure. If the swaddle can come undone, it can potentially make its way over your baby’s face and cover the nose or mouth while baby sleep.
- Not too tight: A swaddle that is too tight can lead to joint problems. It’s recommended you use a blanket designed for swaddling, rather than a typical blanket. Specifically designed blankets are made to ensure proper mobility when swaddled. It’s also been suggested that a tight swaddle may hinder lung function because it limits the amount of oxygen your baby’s small lungs can hold (5).
- Stop at the roll: Before your baby learns to roll over, it’s best you stop swaddling. A swaddled baby sleeping on their stomach creates an increased risk of suffocation.
- Know the limits: Your baby may prefer to be swaddled, but you shouldn’t wrap them all day. Your baby needs time to learn how to move around, learn where their body parts are, and utilize their mobility and freedom.
- Ask for help: It’s important to make sure you swaddle your baby correctly. You should have someone at your birthing location teach you how to swaddle your baby properly. A safe swaddle is key to avoiding potential risks.
Swaddling is popular when babies are in the newborn stage. Babies will generally begin to dislike being swaddled by four months of age, some much sooner. Most experts recommend stopping swaddling well before baby starts to roll over, at around two months of age (source).
The Bottom Line
There are potential benefits and risks associated with swaddling, and you should look into them before you make a decision regarding your baby. If you’re concerned in the least bit, it’s good to discuss swaddling with your baby’s doctor to determine if it’s a good option for both you and your baby.
Not all babies enjoy being swaddled, and this is completely normal. You shouldn’t force your baby into the swaddling position if it’s not comforting. If your baby doesn’t like the arms being enclosed, you can still swaddle with the arms out.
Most of the risks of swaddling can be avoided if it is done correctly. Make sure the swaddle is not too tight, and your baby can move and bend his or her legs rather freely. A swaddle is supposed to be tight enough not to be undone while sleeping, but should not limit your baby’s range of motion completely, especially in the legs and hips.
Swaddles have a tendency to cause a baby to overheat, so make sure you don’t over swaddle your baby. Remember to practice safe swaddling, but also incorporate skin-to-skin time and time for your baby to move around freely.
Swaddling doesn’t have to be an all-or-nothing thing. There may be times when you can use it to comfort your baby when nothing else seems to work. It is a good idea, however, to use it sparingly and not let it become a requirement for your baby to fall asleep. Once your baby is dependent upon anything for sleep, it becomes very difficult to move beyond it as baby grows. The practice should be discontinued before two months of age or just before baby is beginning to roll over.
Like all things with babies, it is good to know the risks and benefits and make a decision based on a balanced use of the technique, avoiding overuse and habit-forming behavior in favor of just having another skill you can bring forward when needed for you and your baby.
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