The Ins and Outs of Swaddling
Among the tricks and tips that help make being a first-time mom more manageable, why do so many new parents swear by the swaddle?
Ahhh, the newborn phase. A blissful time packed with baby snuggles and sleepy bonding: it’s only tempered by a whirlwind of sleep deprivation, Groundhog Day-like repetition and endless laundry.
Among the varied tricks and tools that help make this torment more manageable, one that many new parents swear by is the swaddle. We’ll walk you through the ins and outs of this ancient practice that we still rely on today.
The fourth trimester
This funny, in-between period right after a baby is born, when they’re still a little bit fetus and not quite a baby, is called the fourth trimester. Imagine spending your entire existence snuggled in a dark, cozy pool with your mother’s warmth, movement and heartbeat being the only constants in your life.
Next thing you know, you’re pushed into a bright, cold world and nothing makes any sense! You too would probably need time to adjust to your new reality.
Comfort is the key thing parents can provide during this time, to help ease the baby into their new life. All the things we think of as necessary for relaxation – peace and quiet, stillness, loose clothing – are not what your baby wants at the moment.
What does your baby find most comforting during the first 12 or so weeks right after they are born? Darkness, warmth, a low level of noise just like the whisper of blood rushing through their mother’s veins, constant movement just like when they were being carried around in their mother’s belly, and being snuggled tight like they were in the womb.
Swaddling provides that last sensation: being wrapped up snug and tight.
All about the swaddle
Many cultures have baby-wrapping traditions that go back hundreds of years. Images of Jesus swaddled in a manger and indigenous people wrapping up their babies and strapping them to their backs show just how far back the origins of the swaddle go.
While the practice has seen its ups and downs in popular opinion over the years, science has advanced enough to give us a modern view of swaddling.
Why do parents swaddle their babies today? The main reasons are comfort and helping a baby to sleep longer. Some parents say that as soon as they throw their crying baby into a swaddle it helps them to calm down.
Babies also tend to sleep longer while swaddled because it inhibits their startle reflex. Very young babies don’t have control over their limbs and sometimes their arms will shoot out, startling them awake. Wrapping them tight stops this from happening.
How to swaddle: the basics
If you’d like to try it, here are a few best practices to keep baby safe while swaddled.
1. Choose the right material
Temperature regulation is important for young babies; you never want to wrap a baby in something that will make them overheat. Choose a swaddle made of thin, breathable fabric like a muslin blanket or a cotton swaddle suit.
Make sure they are wearing climate-appropriate clothing underneath the swaddle and never put a hat on a sleeping baby.
2. Keep it snug, but not restrictive
While getting a snug swaddle is important for recreating the coziness of the womb, you want to make sure their hips and knees can move freely in and out of a froggy position. Swaddling too tight around the legs can cause a condition called hip dysplasia.
Also, make sure that the swaddle does not come up past their shoulders, to keep the material away from their face so they can breathe freely. Look up safe wrapping techniques if using a blanket, or use one of the many preconstructed swaddle sacks out in the market.
3. Put them in the right sleep position
Baby’s sleeping position is always important but is more crucial in a swaddle because they are immobilized. Always lay a baby down to sleep on their back, never their side or front, so that their airways are unrestricted.
4. Know when to swaddle
A swaddle is most appropriate when the baby is sleeping. It helps them to sleep longer and they are mostly still asleep anyway.
Swaddling can also be used as a calming technique when they are awake, but babies should not spend long periods of their waking time wrapped in a swaddle. They need to have time to move freely so their muscles and coordination develop naturally.
5. When to stop
The fourth trimester is temporary. As they grow and learn to use their bodies, swaddling babies becomes less safe and also less comfortable. As soon as a baby shows signs of being able to roll over, stop swaddling as they need their arms to push their face off their sleeping surface. Stopping swaddling can come as a shock to a baby though and usually results in terrible sleep. You can soften the blow by weaning them off swaddling slowly. Try transitioning to the Aussie wrap for blankets, or use a preconstructed swaddle that allows them to move their arms freely.
Your mileage may vary
While swaddling is something most parents try at some point, it doesn’t produce the same results for everyone. Remember that every baby is an individual and that means adjusting to their preferences and needs. Many babies love the classic swaddle, wrapped tight with their arms down. Some babies like to go straight to an arms-up swaddle like the Aussie wrap so they can soothe themselves with their hands. And other babies don’t like swaddles at all. Give it a try, and hopefully swaddling can be a useful trick up your parental sleeve.
• Pregnancy, Birth and Baby, What is the Fourth Trimester? October 2019
• International Hip Dysplasia Institute, Official Site, 2021
• Mayo Clinic, How to Swaddle a Baby, 2021
• BobbleRoos, How to Swaddle a Baby with BobbleRoos Blankets using the Aussie Swaddle Technique, February 2011