Swaddling


What is swaddling?

Swaddling (also called wrapping) involves snugly wrapping your baby in a blanket or cotton sheet for warmth and security. The desired effect of swaddling is to mimic your baby's experience in the womb, by recreating the comfort and security of slight pressure around his body.

Swaddling babies is traditional in many countries around the world. It fell out of favor in the Western world in previous decades due to concerns about possible adverse effects. However, swaddling is currently making a come back as research confirms what many already knew regarding the many benefits of this age-old technique in calming and comforting crying, unsettled newborns.


Benefits of swaddling

1. Swaddling provides warmth

Swaddling can provide extra warmth in the first few weeks until your baby's temperature control system is functioning effectively.

2. Swaddling provides a sense of security

Your baby has come into a world with many new and confusing sights, sounds, tastes and body sensations. It's no wonder he feels a little overwhelmed at times. Swaddling can help your baby to calm down when he's feeling over-stimulated. (A cuddle will also help him to feel secure.)

3. Swaddling limits a baby's 'startle reflex' response

Swaddling may be useful in comforting your fussy, irritable baby who seems to keep himself awake by waving his arms and kicking his legs about. The slight pressure of swaddling keeps your baby from startling himself.

4. Swaddled babies sleep longer

Swaddling may help your baby to sleep for longer. Research at Washington University School of Medicine in St Louis, Missouri concluded that young babies went to sleep more quickly once they were swaddled, and they were less likely to open their eyes or cry during sleep.

5. Swaddling may reduce the risk of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS)

Research in the US has shown that babies who are swaddled or wrapped tightly in cloth before being put down to sleep are more likely to sleep on their backs; a position that is known to reduce the risk of SIDS.


Problems associated with swaddling

1. Swaddling has been linked with hip problems

Hip dysplasia (dislocated hip) is more common in populations that practice swaddling. However, this is only a problem if a baby's legs are held in a rigid extension position when swaddled. Swaddle your baby's arms firmly but allow room for his legs to flex.

2. Swaddling may lead to over heating

Your baby may become overheated if he is covered with too many layers. In warmer weather use a cotton sheet rather than a blanket. If the weather is particularly warm, dress your baby in only a diaper before swaddling. Never cover your baby's head with anything (hat or bonnet) while he's sleeping, even in cooler months.

3. Some babies become more distressed when swaddled

Like many babies, your baby may resist swaddling initially but find the restraints of the blanket or sheet comforting once he begins to relax. On the other hand, some babies hate being swaddled and will become more distressed when swaddled. If your baby's level of distress grows after swaddling, discontinue the practice.

4. Swaddling can disrupt older babies sleep

Many older babies are great at escaping the confines of a swaddling wrap; however at the same time they want to be swaddled as they fall asleep. This may result in your sleep being disrupted as you are woken numerous times throughout the night to re-swaddle your little Houdini. Try using a larger wrap.

5. Swaddling may inhibit babies mobility and development

Swaddling your a baby, at times other than sleeping may interfere with his muscle and skill development, by restricting his mobility. Your baby may become frustrated when he attempts to practice his new found skills, such as rolling, sitting or standing to find that swaddling prevents him from doing this.


Frequently asked questions about swaddling

1. When is the best time to start swaddling my baby?

Babies can be swaddled as soon as they are born.

2. If I have never swaddled my child when would be too late to start?

Swaddling is probably most beneficial in the first 3 to 4 months; an age when many babies experience the distress of infant colic. It may also be worth trying to swaddle an older baby who has trouble falling asleep or who wakes frequently during the night. The older your baby the more likely he will resist swaddling. Discontinue if your baby becomes more upset.

3. When should I stop swaddling my baby?

Once your baby is about 1 month old you might want to stop swaddling him while he's awake. Most babies are ready to be weaned off swaddling by 3 to 4 months of age. It's fine to keep swaddling your baby while he's sleeping if he seems to sleep better that way; he'll let you know by crying and kicking when he no longer wants to be swaddled.

4. How can I tell if my baby is overheated?

Being able to move freely can be a way of cooling down, so swaddling can lead to overheating if you're not careful. To check that your baby is not too hot, place the back of your hand on his chest. His skin should feel no more than slightly warmer than your hand and not hot or clammy. Use a small cotton or flannelette sheet or light shawl, not a blanket, to swaddle during the day or when the weather is warmer.


How to swaddle your baby

To swaddle your baby, follow these instructions:

  1. Lay the blanket or sheet squarely on a flat surface, such as a bed.
  2. Place your baby on his back centrally on the blanket with the upper edge of the blanket (or sheet) sitting level to the back of his neck.
  3. Gently hold his left arm across his chest in a comfortable position with one hand. Pull the corner nearest your baby's left shoulder diagonally across his arm and body and tuck the edge under his back. Do the same for the right side.
  4.  Fan out the bottom edge of the blanket slightly and pull it up towards your baby's chin, making sure his legs have room to flex.
  5. Then tuck both corners under his back (one corner to the left the other to the right).

If your baby does not like being swaddled firmly, try freeing one or both arms. In this case, follow the instructions as above but fold the blanket under his arm (or arms) rather than over them.

This may require a little practice. If you are experiencing difficulties mastering this skill, your doctor, community nurse or an experienced mother will be able to demonstrate how to swaddle your baby.


How to break the swaddling habit

From 1 month on, swaddle your baby only when it's time to sleep. After he reaches 2 or 3 months of age try to swaddle him with one arm out or try swaddling him more loosely. If he still sleeps well with one arm out, he probably doesn't need swaddling anymore. However, if he starts to fuss, continue swaddling (with both arms in) for a few more weeks.

Written by Rowena Bennett
RN, RM, RPN, CHN, IBCLC, Grad Dip Health Promotion and author of 'Your Sleepless Baby: The Rescue Guide'.

Added July 2004. Reviewed Aug 2008; Sept 2013.