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Should I swaddle my newborn?

Swaddling can help to make your baby feel secure and less likely to be disturbed by the jerks he does in his sleep, known as his startle-reflex. It may also help your baby to calm down if he is over-stimulated.

Swaddling creates a slight pressure around your baby’s body, which may give him a sense of security. The sensation mirrors the pressure he once felt in your womb (uterus). It may help to encourage your baby to sleep. But bear in mind that some babies don’t enjoy the sensation of being swaddled. Your little one will soon let you know!

Stop swaddling your baby as soon as he shows signs of being able to roll over on to his side or tummy. If he’s swaddled, he may not be able to turn himself back over. This may make it difficult for him to breathe, increasing the risk of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS). Always put your baby down to sleep on his back.

New parents often learn how to swaddle their infant from the nurses in the hospital. A blanket wrapped snuggly around your baby’s body can resemble the mother’s womb and help soothe your newborn baby. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) says that when done correctly, swaddling can be an effective technique to help calm infants and promote sleep.

But if you plan to swaddle your infant at home, you need to follow a few guidelines to make sure you are doing it safely.

Whether you’re expecting for the first time or have just welcomed your first baby, it’s likely you have been overrun with parenting advice from all angles. Just about every piece of gear comes with a ten-page Google search worth of articles. This advice also changes, it seems, every few months. While you’re wrestling with a tiny human, blurry-eyed from joy (and sleep deprivation), the common first question is, should I swaddle or not?

Babies born in America come to you neatly wrapped in a sweet little burrito. Almost everyone takes that quintessential first photo of a baby in a traditional hospital blanket. Same goes if you give birth in the UK. Canada, however, has slowly moved away from the practice, although many hospitals still teach it to new parents. Why? It turns out there are well-researched pros and cons to the practice.

Don’t swaddle your baby too tightly, as this may affect his physical development. Always make sure he has plenty of room to move his legs up and out at the hips. If you swaddle him too tightly, with his legs pressed together and straight down, he’s more likely to develop problems with his hips (hip dysplasia).

Don’t cover your baby’s neck or face with the sheet and make sure that he doesn’t overheat. Use a thin sheet or a muslin for swaddling. Check his temperature frequently to make sure he’s comfortable. The idea is to make him feel secure and not use swaddling as a way to keep him warm.

Don’t introduce swaddling when the risk of SIDS is highest, at two months to three months. If you decide to swaddle, it’s safest to do it from birth, and for every-day and nighttime sleep.

If your baby is cared for by someone else, make sure they know how to swaddle him correctly too. Take some time to show them how you do it and make sure they know to put your baby down to sleep on his back.

How long your baby stays in his swaddle each time is up to you, as long as his hips and legs have plenty of room to move, and he seems happy and content. You may prefer to remove his swaddling during breastfeeding so that you can both enjoy some special skin-to-skin time.

Look for your baby’s cues for when it’s time to stop too. If your baby begins to kick off his swaddling day after day, it’s probably a sign he no longer appreciates it!

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baby sleeping in pink swaddle blanket

Back to Sleep

To reduce the risk of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, or SIDS, it’s important to place your baby to sleep on his back, every time you put him to sleep. This may be even more important if your baby is swaddled. Some studies have shown an increased risk of SIDS and accidental suffocation when babies are swaddled if they are placed on their stomach to sleep, or if they roll onto their stomach, says Rachel Moon, MD, FAAP, chair of the task force that authored the AAP’s safe sleep Recommendations.

If babies are swaddled, they should be placed only on their back and monitored, so they don’t accidentally roll over.

Why Swaddle?

Swaddling is tightly wrapping your baby in a blanket to restrict the movement of his limbs. Wrapping in a swaddle is said to re-create the feeling of being in the womb and can calm a crying baby. When you carefully wrap a very young newborn, it can help her to sleep without startling herself due to the more, or “startle reflex”.

The main reason for swaddling is to try and get baby to sleep a little longer by keeping themselves from startling awake. Parents cherish the extra sleep that swaddling might offer.

What are the benefits of swaddling my little one?

Often people say swaddling seems to help calm their little one, helping them settle more easily and sleep for longer. Yet there is little research to support these theories.

It’s also thought that swaddling prevents unnecessary wake-ups caused a baby’s startle reflex. This is because a swaddled baby’s arms and legs will be contained as they’re wrapped gently in a blanket. That means they will be less likely to startle themselves awake with their flailing limbs.

A growing parenting trend considers the first three months of your baby’s life to be a transitional fourth trimester. The idea is that the first three months of your baby’s life is a complex transition period for them after they emerge from the womb to the outside world. Considering this, it makes sense that babies would enjoy being wrapped gently (not too tightly) so they feel secure like they did in the womb.

Medical opinion on whether swaddling is a good practice or not is divided. So, if you’re considering swaddling your baby, make sure you always follow safe swaddling guidelines to protect your little one.

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happy swaddled baby

Swaddling Concerns

As simple as it may seem, swaddling comes with risks as well as benefits. There are some major safety concerns that every parent should be aware of if you are swaddling your baby. These risks include SIDS, hip dysplasia and over-heating. However, if swaddling is done properly and safely, many of those risks can be avoided.

Know the Risks

Parents should know that there are some risks to swaddling, Dr. Moon says. Swaddling may decrease a baby’s arousal so that it’s harder for the baby to wake up. “That is why parents like swaddling – the baby sleeps longer and doesn’t wake up as easily,” she said. “But we know that decreased arousal can be a problem and maybe one of the main reasons that babies die of SIDS.”

Overheating

Babies don’t do a very good job regulating their body temperature. Just like they can get cold quickly right after a bath, they can overheat quickly. Overheating has been linked to SIDS, and experts see an increase during the colder months. Comfortable room temperatures and warm pyjamas are usually enough, so swaddling on top of that can simply be too warm. In warmer climates or seasons, using a fan can help control the temperature too.

Rolling Over

While a swaddled baby on her back is a safe sleeping position, all bets are off once she starts rolling over. Babies start rolling over somewhere between three and six months, although it can take longer to roll from back to front. Once your infant starts rolling—in any direction—swaddling becomes unsafe. At this point, it will be time to transition your baby from a swaddle to a safe option like a sleep sack or just pyjamas.

AAP Safe Sleep Recommendations

The AAP recommends parents follow the safe sleep recommendations every time they place their baby to sleep for naps or at nighttime:

  • Place your baby on her back to sleep, and monitor her to be sure she doesn’t roll over while swaddled.​
  • Do not have any loose blankets in your baby’s crib. A loose blanket, including a swaddling blanket that comes unwrapped, could cover your baby’s face and increase the risk of suffocation. 
  • Use caution when buying products that claim to reduce the risk of SIDS. Wedges, positioners, special mattresses and specialized sleep surfaces have not been shown to reduce the risk of SIDS, according to the AAP.​
  • Your baby is safest in her own crib or bassinet, not in your bed. 
  • Swaddling can increase the chance your baby will overheat, so avoid letting your baby get too hot. The baby could be too hot if you notice sweating, damp hair, flushed cheeks, heat rash, and rapid breathing. 
  • Consider using a pacifier for naps and bedtime. 
  • Place the crib in an area that is always smoke-free.

swaddled baby

Access to Breastfeeding

One possible drawback of swaddling has been the belief that it hinders breastfeeding and skin-to-skin contact with mom. Skin-to-skin contact was first used for preemies but is now generally believed to help all babies regulate their temperature and breathing, adjust to life outside the womb, and help trigger mom’s milk supply. The belief is that if a baby sleeps better when swaddled, he may not be getting frequent enough feedings early on.

That’s a pretty easy problem to solve. Some babies do feed better un-swaddled, and sometimes, swaddling can help calm a baby in order for them to feel better. If needed, swaddle to calm and then loosen or remove the swaddle to breastfeed. Once fed, swaddle your baby for sleep.

Any breastfeeding relationship is the result of mom and baby learning together—a mom learning her baby’s cues is the key to success. Each baby is different, and certainly, it’s possible for breastfeeding an unwrapped baby and swaddling to coexist.

Natural positioning

Some evidence suggests that tightly swaddling a baby could increase their chance of developing hip dysplasia (a developmental problem with a baby’s hip joint). You can help lower this risk by making sure you don’t swaddle your baby too tightly. You can also use hip-healthy swaddling techniques to reduce your baby’s risk of hip dysplasia.

Make sure your baby is able to move their hips and knees freely to kick. A newborn baby’s legs should be able to fall into a natural position in a frog style.

Sudden infant death syndrome risk and swaddling

The effects of swaddling on sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) is unclear. Recent decades have seen a general decline in deaths due to SIDS. This is thought to be because of clear recommendations that it’s safer for babies to sleep on their backs rather than on their front or side.

Swaddling may prevent babies from turning from their back to a face-down position, potentially protecting them from SIDS. Yet once a baby can roll over, they could be at increased risk of SIDS if they’re swaddled. This is because head lifting and turning are crucial to avoid suffocation, and that is impeded when a baby’s arms are restrained by its sides when they’re swaddled.

Hip Dysplasia

Hip dysplasia can be present at birth or can develop over time. Researchers have found that swaddling too tightly, or with legs and arms straight down, puts babies at a much higher risk of developing the condition and requiring treatment. For this reason, the International Hip Dysplasia Institute, while not condemning swaddling, is helping people learn a “hip-healthy swaddle”. Their recommended swaddling technique bends the baby’s legs up and out at the hips, rather than straight down.

How to Swaddle Correctly?

  • To swaddle, spread the blanket out flat, with one corner folded down.
  • Lay the baby face-up on the blanket, with her head above the folded corner.
  • Straighten her left arm, and wrap the left corner of the blanket over her body and tuck it between her right arm and the right side of her body.
  • Then tuck the right arm down, and fold the right corner of the blanket over her body and under her left side.
  • Fold or twist the bottom of the blanket loosely and tuck it under one side of the baby.
  • Make sure her hips can move and that the blanket is not too tight. You want to be able to get at least two or three fingers between the baby’s chest and the swaddle

Alternatives

The nurse makes it look so easy when she comes into the hospital room and swiftly swaddles your newborn. However, it can be a different story when you, your wiggly baby, and your blanket go home. For that reason, many manufacturers have designed pre-made wraps that make swaddling easy and safe.

Most of these baby wraps feature a sleepsack or bag on the bottom, for loose legs and hips, and a wrap-top closure for the arms. Companies like Love To Dream skip the wrap-top altogether and opt for a hands-up zipped sack. And for the baby who manages to escape the swaddle but still has the startle reflex, the Magic Merlin Sleepsuit offers the “input” or pressure of a swaddle with no danger of coming loose, since the arms and legs are free in the suit.

We have the best range of baby nursery blankets to keep your baby just right day and night. 

A Parent’s Choice

Ultimately swaddling is one of the many choices new parents face. Of course, the baby has a say—some will sleep well when safely swaddled, and others won’t. For parents who do swaddle, doing so safely, and knowing when to wean from a traditional blanket, are an important part of the process.

Please keep in mind this information and research is based upon swaddling babies for sleep. It is not recommended that you swaddle your baby during her wakeful hours, as she needs time to move and explore her world and environment. If you decide that swaddling is not for you, there are alternative techniques to help get your baby to sleep at night.

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