Do you prefer to feel tucked in tightly under your Tencel sheet set, or be able to move freely in bed? The “tucked or untucked” debate has been the topic of popular TV shows and news outlets for decades. TODAY even had sleep experts weigh in on the subject, with one host proclaiming adults who prefer to be tucked in tightly prefer it because it reminds them of being in the womb – just like babies who are swaddled.
Talk show hosts aren’t the only fans of swaddling. Internationally renowned artist and photographer Anne Geddes experienced a great deal of success thanks to swaddling. She photographed adorable newborn babies wrapped tightly in swaddle cloths, fast asleep in cute settings. Having babies pose as bumblebees in flowers or in a basket of puppies isn’t easy – unless they are fast asleep!
Swaddling uses a thin cloth or blanket that wraps snuggly around the baby, limiting the limbs movement and is believed to have a soothing effect. The practice of swaddling has a long history and, just like many other infant-care beliefs, has fallen in and out of favor.
Historians believe that swaddling originated in the Paleolithic period. Statues of Ancient Roman and Greek women show women holding babies tightly wrapped in swaddling cloth. Many people are familiar with swaddling because of its reference in the New Testament, as Jesus was dressed in a swaddling cloth.
During these early periods swaddling cloth consisted of bandages or strips of cloth tied together. It was believed that by swaddling a baby, their limbs would go straight, and physical deformity would be prevented. It wasn’t until roughly 1598 that the practice of swaddling began to face criticism. This criticism continued, and the act became associated with neglect, and by the late 1600s, some public figures were calling for the ban on swaddling. These sentiments continued into the 18th century, with many in the Western world forgetting the practice altogether.
Many cultures have continued to swaddle babies through time and maintain traditional swaddling practices today. In some cultures, a baby is also fastened with ribbons to a supportive board or a cradleboard. These are protective baby carriers used by many indigenous cultures.
In more recent decades, swaddling has rised in popularity in the Western world. A more modern take involves using soft blankets and wraps to provide a snug feeling rather than casting limbs straight. Modern swaddling uses cotton muslin wraps or blankets to wrap the baby snugly. In the 1990s, medical professionals and government officials started urging parents to put their babies to sleep on their backs. By limiting movement with swaddling, babies aren’t able to easily roll over and instead maintain the back position.
Swaddling and Sleep
Many people choose to swaddle to keep their baby on their back while they sleep and because it helps keep their baby sleep. Plenty of parents happily report that swaddling calms their little ones and settles them to sleep. It is also believed to reduce wake-ups as their flailing limbs won’t startle them awake.
Sleep struggles often accompany the joys of being new parents, and although these struggles are common, there are ways to overcome them. We wrote a blog post on the sleep struggles as a new parents and how to overcome them here. One way for parents to sleep better is to get their baby to sleep more through the night. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), when swaddling is done correctly, it can be an effective technique to promote sleep.
Some believe this technique works because it mimics the feeling of the womb. One study looked at 16 healthy babies. The infants had their sleep and position recorded during the night, and they were successively non-swaddled and swaddled. In both conditions, the infants were exposed to white noise that increased in intensity. The study results found that their quantity of sleep improved when the babies were swaddled. They had fewer spontaneous awakenings and increased sleep efficiency. Interestingly, when infants were swaddled, they required less-intense auditory stimuli to be aroused than when not swaddled. The researchers concluded, “swaddling promotes more-sustained sleep and reduces the frequency of spontaneous awakenings, whereas induced cortical arousals are elicited by less-intense stimuli.”
The Moro reflex is an automatic reflex when babies throw their arms out uncontrollably. The movement is like a twitch or jerk that can happen during sleep and cause the baby to wake up. When their arms are wrapped in a swaddling blanket, this is prevented so they won’t wake themselves up in the night. One study consisting of 26 healthy infants were studied during nap time. Each infant experienced a nap swaddled and unswaddled, and under both conditions, the researchers observed their sleep and movements. The results found that swaddling decreased startles (Moro reflex) and therefore resulted in more REM sleep. The researchers also found that when an infant woke up spontaneously, those who were swaddled were able to fall back asleep faster without parental intervention.
To swaddle your baby, first spread a swaddling cloth out on a bed or changing table. Fold one corner of the blanket down. Next, place your baby face-up on the blanket with their head at the top of the folded corner. You will then keep one hand on your baby and pick up the left corner, bringing it across your baby’s body. Then, tuck the blanket between their right arm and body, going under their lower back and bum. You will then gently hold your baby’s left arm against their body and pull the right corner of the blanket across their body, tucking it under the left side. Lastly, fold or twist the bottom corner and tuck it under the baby. This can sound more complicated than it is. There are plenty of videos online that can slowly go through the steps and provide visual references. With practice, it will come quickly.
Even with swaddling, a newborn needs to feed every 2 to 4 hours and will therefore still need to wake up during the night. In some cases, this can be extended to 6 hours as one long stretch without feeling.
Experts suggest removing swaddling during feeding periods, even during the night. They also recommend babies have more extended period to stretch throughout the day without swaddling and should only be swaddled for short periods.
Generally, swaddling is said to be safe; however, there are some risks if not done correctly. There is a risk of overheating, especially if the baby is swaddled in warm temperatures or under heavy blankets. Breastfeeding while the baby is swaddled can also cause the baby to overheat. Another risk of swaddling is hip dysplasia. Swaddling that is too tight can increase the risk of issues with the hip joint. To prevent this, you must ensure the baby is not wrapped too tightly and is able to move their hips and knees freely to keep their natural frog-style position. One of the most severe risks is when the baby is swaddled and rolls onto its side. This increases the risk of suffocation and Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS).
To safely swaddle, experts suggest the following tips:
- Use thin, breathable materials like cotton, and don’t layer.
- Check the baby’s temperature regularly to ensure they don’t overheat.
- Don’t swaddle too tightly.
- Don’t swaddle above the shoulders. The baby’s head and neck should be free.
- Introduce swaddling when the baby is a newborn, and stop when the baby shows signs of being able to roll over (around 6 – 8 weeks).
It is important to note that when you swaddle your baby for sleep from birth, it becomes a habit. They will feel they need to be swaddled to sleep. So, when it comes to stopping swaddling around the 8-week mark, you may run into some sleep issues. It can be challenging to wean your baby off, and they may have difficulty falling asleep without it.
Some experts recommend sleep sacks as a way to transition from swaddling to free sleep. Sleep sacks are like wearable blankets where the arms remain free, but the torso, legs, and feet stay in the sack. This is an alternative to blankets, as the American Academy of Pediatrics and health professionals strongly advise against blankets in a crib. This will keep your baby warm and provide a snug feeling without being quite as snug as swaddling.
There is still a strong debate surrounding swaddling. Due to the risks when done incorrectly, some experts advise against it altogether. On the other hand, parents who are desperate for more sleep on their lavender pillow are thrilled when they find a way to get their baby to sleep better. Countless reports from parents praise the sleep benefits swaddling has provided, but it’s not for everyone and must be done correctly. If you are considering swaddling, it is best to speak with your pediatrician or expert first.