Swaddling is the practice of wrapping babies snugly, from the neck downwards, in a cotton cloth. But although the technique that has been used by many cultures throughout history, it is still regarded by some as controversial. So what is swaddling? How can it help your baby? And do we need to be cautious about using it?
Why swaddle your baby?
Wrapping your baby snugly can help them to feel secure and calm them down if they are distressed or over-stimulated. It’s thought to have this effect because it mimics the cocoon-like environment of the womb. By restricting the movement of their limbs it also prevents the startle, or moro, reflex. This is a natural, involuntary reflex in all newborns that causes them to suddenly extend their limbs, which can disturb them when they are sleeping.
How to swaddle your baby
- Place a cotton sheet or large muslin on the floor in a diamond shape.
- Fold the top point down to a depth of about 15cm to create a flat edge for your baby’s shoulders to lie on.
- Hold his right arm down by his side, pull the left-hand corner of the sheet across your baby’s body, under his arm and tucking the excess under his back.
- Holding his right arm down, pull the bottom corner up over his left shoulder. Tuck any extra material around his left arm.
- Bring the loose right corner straight out to pull it taut, then pull it across your baby’s front and roll him to your right a bit so you can wrap the corner all the way around his back.
Why the controversy?
Although swaddling has been practiced for centuries and many of today’s parents and parenting experts swear by its positive effects, sceptics warn that the long-term effects of swaddling are not known.
Some studies have suggested swaddling could have implications for an increased risk of cot death, reduced breastfeeding and increased early weight loss. The practice has also been linked to increased risk of developmental hip dysplasia, acute respiratory infections and overheating.
But on further examination most of these studies highlight the dangers of failing to follow the right procedures when swaddling rather than suggesting risks from swaddling itself.
For instance, a study published in the journal Paediatrics, which looked at the link between swaddling and Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, concluded that parents should stick to the advice that’s already out there – that swaddled babies should never be placed on their front or side and that the technique should only be used in infants up to six months.
Similarly, hip dysplasia has been linked to swaddling babies with their legs outstretched, which can be avoided by allowing the legs to sit in the natural ‘frog’ position and giving them room for movement.
Here are a few pointers to help ensure you’re using the correct technique:
Swaddling dos and don’ts
DON’T use heavy blankets as this could cause your baby to overheat.
DO keep checking their temperature, just in case.
DON’T cover their head. We don’t really need to explain this one.
DO ensure his hips and legs have plenty of movement. Limbs being too tightly constricted can lead to health complications, such as hip dysplasia.
DON’T swaddle while breastfeeding. Babies naturally explore with their hands when breastfeeding and can latch on more naturally with the aid of their hands.
DO experiment with having your baby’s arms out to give them more freedom of movement.
DON’T put them on their stomach, as research, suggest this could lead to an increased risk of SIDS.
DO look out for cues he wants you to remove the swaddling, such as getting fussy or trying to roll.
DON’T persist with swaddling if your baby continually gets distressed when you try it.