Swaddling a baby (pros and cons) is an in-depth look at why swaddling is a good idea, why it may not work for your baby, how to swaddle a baby correctly and many other aspects dealing with swaddling as a whole.
One of the best books I read before my little ones were born was The Happiest Baby On The Block by Harvey Karp.
Click the link above for Amazon pricing and ranking.
What stood out the most in this book were the “5 S’s of soothing a crying baby. The first S is Swaddling.
When a baby cries you really don’t know why the baby is crying.
You have to go through a checklist of the obvious reasons like; is the baby hungry? Is the baby wet? Is the baby in pain and so on.
If you have gone through the whole checklist and you have addressed the basics then it is time to look to the 5 S’s.
The baby has gotten used to certain environmental preferences based on being in the womb for 9 months and are born with intrinsic soothing habits hardwired within.
When a baby is upset but you can’t figure out why it might be that they need help soothing themselves.
Using the 5 S’s help mimic the self-soothing mechanisms that they were accustomed to in the womb or that they were born with.
The 5 S’s are:
- Side or Stomach Position (Not while sleeping unsupervised)
- Shushing or imitating “white noise”
This information was a lifesaver for my wife and me. While I could write a whole other article about the 5 S’s I will concentrate on the first S- Swaddling.
The main reason for swaddling a baby is to help them sleep longer and to make them more comfortable. If you are having trouble getting your little one to sleep regardless of your amazing swaddling technique then The Baby Sleep Miracle might be just right for you. These techniques are entirely based on ground-breaking research done by Harvard Medical School and the Stanford Center For Sleep Science and Medicine, along with the authors 20 years of experience as a clinical psychologist. Getting your baby to sleep is worth its weight in gold so it is definitely worth investigating. Check out The Baby Sleep Miracle for more information.
Swaddling A Baby (Pros and Cons)
Swaddling a baby has been done for centuries by using a thin style blanket or swaddling blanket to purposefully wrap the baby up tightly with the head exposed in order to constrict the baby’s movement and to help soothe the baby mostly for sleeping purposes.
Some people love swaddling and find it very beneficial for calming down their babies.
As well as helping with napping patterns and improving the length of time while sleeping.
Others either don’t like the idea of constricting their baby ( it does seem odd at first) or don’t like it due to its possible risks which we will go over later in the article.
A large group of people find merit in the philosophy but have a very difficult time doing it correctly.
My wife and I fit into the latter category as we saw some of the benefits of swaddling like minimizing the startle reflex and the calming aspects.
Although, performing the right techniques were always difficult and even if we thought we got it right many times our little one’s hands and feet would squirm out anyway.
It doesn’t help that the nurses in the hospital make it look so easy! When you try it yourself the first time you realize it’s like trying to solve a Rubik’s cube.
Whether or not you choose to swaddle your baby is entirely up to you.
The good news is by the end of this article you will know the pros and cons of swaddling a baby.
1. Mimics The Safety Of The Womb Environment
Swaddling mimics the womb environment or taps into the baby self-soothing mechanisms they were born with.
Swaddling a baby takes the baby back to a restricted and enclosed environment like they were used to in the womb before they were born.
The womb represents safety and it only makes sense that this would calm the baby down enough for them to go to sleep or at the very least stop crying.
2. Limits The Baby’s Natural Jerking Movements
In addition to soothing the baby, swaddling also limits the natural jerking movements that happen during their first months of life called the Moro Reflex or Startle Reflex
The Moro Reflex is a perfectly normal and healthy part of the baby’s nervous system but many times due to the jerking movements they cause the baby to wake up.
The Moro Reflex is caused by:
- A change in the positioning of the baby’s body
- Touching the baby
- Light change
- Putting a baby down (Into a crib or pack and play)
- Loud Noise
- Random or no reason
Swaddling a baby can help prevent these movements and possibly prevent the baby from waking itself up so everyone can sleep a little longer.
3. Swaddling May Prevent SIDS
SIDS or Sudden Infant Death Syndrome or otherwise known as Crib Death is the number one killer of children from ages 1 -12 months old.
It is surprising, in this day and age science has still not uncovered a definitive reason why SIDS occurs.
Although, Studies have found certain high probability causations that do help minimize the occurrence of SIDS.
One of the most important findings that the studies found was it is crucial for parents to place their babies on their backs before naps and bedtime.
Since the Back to Sleep campaign, which encouraged all infants to sleep on their backs, started in 1994 SIDS rates have dropped by 60%
Some professionals believe by swaddling the baby there is a smaller chance that the baby can roll over on their stomach which is believed to be one of the main reasons for SIDS.
Also, it is believed by some, that swaddling can give the baby a better foundation for back sleeping which helps prevent accidental rollover.
In contrast, you should NEVER swaddle a baby and place them on their stomachs or side while sleeping as studies have shown this increases the chances of SIDS.
Australian doctors found that swaddled babies that were placed on their backs were 1/3 less likely to die from SIDS.
The problem with studies is that it is easy to find a study that proves something is beneficial only to find another study proving the exact opposite.
Studies go back and forth on whether swaddling is beneficial. A recent study in the journal Pediatrics showed an increased risk of SIDS rates even with babies swaddled on their backs.
Critics of the study say because the study was a meta-analysis, which many believe to have scientific shortcomings, the results could not provide proof of causation.
They also had a problem with the fact that the study did not define “swaddling” which also muddied the water.
As well as, the senior author of the study, Peter Blair said: “We only found four studies and they were quite different, making it difficult to pool the results”.
He also states that “Given the weak evidence, we do not conclude that swaddling is a risk factor for SIDS but rather that more evidence is needed.”
As you can see nothing is cut and dry but because it is a concern we will include more information in the Cons section.
One of the biggest takeaways from this study was it is not recommended for your baby to sleep on their stomach and NEVER swaddle your baby and place them on their stomachs for naps or during bedtime.
Just as important is to stop swaddling when your baby gets old enough that they are able to roll over on their own.
This increases the chances of the baby rolling over onto their stomachs while swaddled. We will talk more about this in the When To Stop Swaddling section.
4. Swaddling reduces crying time
Due to swaddling’s ability to mimic a womb-like environment, many babies respond well to the confined and warm space swaddling provides.
Swaddling can help soothe a child when they are excessively crying and particularly when they are a newborn.
One study showed that swaddling reduced the crying time by 10 minutes compared to a non-swaddled baby.
Another study also showed that swaddling reduced crying times in newborns that underwent The Newborn Metabolic Screening Program.
This test is given to each newborn in the hospital. The hospital will administer a heel prick or lancing in order to test the newborn’s blood for rare but potentially serious disorders.
When the amount of time the baby cries is reduced due to swaddling the cascade of unrelated parental benefits increases.
These include better sleep, mothers are less likely to stop breastfeeding due to exhaustion and frustration as well as lower instances of postpartum depression.
Crying is the baby’s way of communicating to the world but if swaddling can reduce the unrelated crying it makes swaddling worth considering.
1. Correct Technique Is Difficult To Perform
One of the biggest problems of swaddling is taking the time to master the correct technique so that you are getting the benefits that come with swaddling.
The nurses in the hospital will show parents the proper technique for swaddling but for many when it comes to their turn to reproduce the same tight swaddle they fall short.
Many times the baby will wiggle out due to your swaddling “tuck-unders” not being correctly put into place.
If you are anything like me, I would spend 10 minutes trying to properly swaddle my baby and it would take my daughter 5 seconds to wiggle out.
Now, having a swaddle that is too loose is frustrating but swaddling too tight can cause real problems.
According to the International Hip Dysplasia Institute, Swaddling your baby’s lower body too tightly with their hips and knees in an extended position increases the risk of hip dysplasia and dislocation.
When you straighten out your baby’s legs into a standing position during swaddling it can loosen the joints and damage the soft cartilage of the hip sockets.
To add insult to injury, no pun intended, some studies show if you swaddle your baby’s upper body too tightly you can increase upper respiratory infections due to restricting the baby’s ability to breath deeply.
If you believe swaddling is not worth the possible risks regardless of the potential benefits then using a commercial swaddling wrap, sack or blanket might be a good compromise.
Here are a few swaddle systems that the International Hip Dysplasia Institute deems “Hip-Healthy”
- Love to dream, Swaddle up Hip Harness Swaddle
- Just Born, Simple Secure Swaddle
- Halo, Sleepsack Products and Deluxe swaddle
- Anna and Eve, Swaddle Strap
Click the links above for Amazon pricing and ranking!
Armed with this knowledge and proper technique you can see many of the benefits of proper swaddling if you choose to do so.
2. Swaddling Can Affect A Baby’s Body Temp
Swaddling a baby looks quite comfy and warm and that is one of the perks of swaddling.
Although, If you are not careful you can overheat your baby which can lead to heatstroke. There are a couple of ways that your baby could overheat while swaddled:
- Using too thick of a blanket or an improper swaddling blanket
- Dressing your infant in clothing that is too heavy before swaddling
- Swaddling your baby then placing another blanket on top (You should never put blankets in the crib while infants are sleeping as they can be a strangulation and suffocation hazard)
- Baby is swaddled too heavily along with wearing a baby cap or newborn hat
It is recommended by professionals to dress your baby in one layer of clothing more than you would as an adult or as your older children depending on the indoor/outdoor temperature.
This is due to the fact that infants aren’t as good at regulating heat as we are.
While babies don’t stay as warm as you or me, you have to be extremely careful not to overdo the clothing while swaddling. Your baby should be warm to the touch but not hot or clammy.
A good place to quickly check if your baby is too hot is by putting your hand on their chest, back or neck to make sure they don’t have the symptoms below as they are all signs of overheating.
- They are hot to the touch
- Their skin is red or flush
- They have an overly rapid heartbeat (an infant’s heartbeat is naturally faster)
- They are lethargic
- They vomit without other signs of sickness
- They are dizzy or confused
The good news is that with the knowledge regarding proper clothing, blankets, heat regulation, and good ol’ plain common sense swaddling can be an effective way to keep your baby warm and soothed at the same time.
3. Some Studies Show Increase Of SIDS
SIDS is very scary and according to the CDC, killed around 1500 children in the United States in 2014 and is the leading cause of death in babies younger than one year old.
The meta-analysis study in the journal Pediatrics, we referred to at the beginning of the article, did show a slight increase in the risk to “all babies put together” that were swaddled, even babies that were swaddled and placed on their back.
The study also showed the risks were higher when the infants were at least 6 months old, says Dr. Rachel Moon, co-author and division head of general pediatrics at the University of Virginia School of Medicine.
This may be related to the greater possibility that a baby 6 months or older can roll over onto their stomach which increases the likelihood of SIDS significantly.
Anna Pease, lead study author and research associate at the University of Bristol in England, said in a statement.
“On a practical level what parents should take away from this is that if they choose to swaddle their babies for sleep, always place them on their back, and think about when to stop swaddling for sleep as their babies get older and more able to move,” Pease said.
From all my research into this topic, it seems that the number one take away is that swaddling can be dangerous if:
- the swaddling is covering the babies head which could cause suffocation
- the babies lower body is swaddled too tightly which increases the likelihood of hip dysplasia
- the babies upper body is swaddled too tightly increasing the chances of respiratory problems
- the parents overdress their babies before swaddling which can lead to overheating and heatstroke
- the baby is allowed to sleep on their side or stomach regardless of swaddling which is believed to be the main reason why infants die of SIDS.
- the baby is swaddled and allowed to sleep on their stomach which doubles the possibility of death by SIDS
As you can see, there is a long list of dangers if you swaddle your baby incorrectly.
Like anything in life, if an action is done correctly, there is a greater chance that the action being performed will be more beneficial. Swaddling fits into this category and if done correctly there are proven benefits.
Some people swear by it and others might feel that it is not worth the risks.
My wife and I didn’t swaddle our babies due to the risk factors but because we didn’t see enough benefits to justify the hassle.
Although, with is information we might have thought twice especially swaddling after 8 weeks.
While we didn’t swaddle our babies very often we did use the other parts of the 5 S’s religiously. The swinging, sucking and sound part of the program was a slam dunk.
This article, Swaddling A Baby (pros and cons) will help give you the ability to make the decision whether or not to swaddle your baby and analyses if it is right for you and your little one.
For more information on how to help children see our posts How To Help A Child With Behavior Problems At School and How To Help A Child With Dyslexia At Home
How To Swaddle A Baby Correctly
This is an excellent video from the International Hip Dysplasia Institute demonstrating how to properly swaddle your baby with a focus on proper hip movement and positioning. In this video, you will see the
- Diamond Swaddle
- Square Swaddle
- SleepSack Swaddle
Alternatives To Swaddling
There are many other ways to calm down and soothe your baby other than swaddling. As I mentioned before, the other 5 S’s worked better for us than swaddling.
The idea is to recreate an environment that they were accustomed to in the womb. Here are the 5 S’s in a little more detail.
- Swaddle- We have covered this pretty well.
- Side or stomach- Putting your baby on their side or stomach is strictly forbidden when putting your baby down for a nap or to sleep for the night. While putting them on their back is a necessity for sleeping it is not the best position for calming a baby. While the baby is with you, you can put them on their stomach over your shoulder or on their side while on your lap.
- Shushing or White Noise- Inside the womb, it is nice and quiet so the baby can sleep right? Actually, the decibel level (the measure of the intensity of sound) is at the same level as a vacuum cleaner. Once new parents understand this it makes more sense why your baby might not like sleeping in silence. Having a sound machine in both our daughter’s room really made a difference when trying to soothe them for naps or at bedtime. We even used an app on our phones that created rain like sound to help while we were traveling.
- Swinging- This is one that is a bit more obvious. While the baby is in the womb, most mothers are very active and the baby gets used to being in constant motion throughout the day. Many times Moms will report that the baby, while in the womb, will be still and sleep during the day but as soon as she goes to bed to finally get some sleep the baby is up and kicking. The common belief is that babies like motion and when they are fussy taking them for a ride in the car, a walk or putting them in a rocker will put them to sleep much more quickly.
- Sucking- Babies have an inherent ability to self-soothe. The sucking a baby does on their fingers, a pacifier or teething toy mimics the calm feeling the baby feels while nursing. Most babies calm down much faster when they have a pacifier or something in their mouth. This helps them recreate the security that the baby feels when they are in their mother’s arms being fed.
Another alternative is to wear the baby out.
By giving your baby many activities during the day your baby will be occupied most of the time.
When it comes time to start calming your baby down for a nap it will be an easier process to get your baby to go sleep because they will be exhausted.
Just be careful not to let your baby get “over-tired” as this can cause the opposite effect and make the sleeping process much more difficult.
You could also use any of the commercial swaddling products on the market.
Many of them make it easier to get a good swaddle by using zippers, velcro, meshing for ventilation and other ways to make swaddling more convenient and safe.
Here are some of the most popular swaddling products:
- Love To Dream Swaddle UP
- Ziggy Baby Swaddle Blanket
- Halo SleepSack
- Pinleck Plush Sleeping Wrap Swaddle
- SwaddleMe Original Swaddle
Click links above for Amazon pricing and rank.
As you can see, there are many alternatives if you choose not to swaddle.
Being aware of the non-swaddling techniques that can help your baby calm down naturally will only help ensure your baby calms down and sleeps well even if they are not swaddled.
Along with the natural soothing techniques, the new swaddling products mentioned above have been engineered to help minimize the risks and maximize the ease and effectiveness of traditional swaddling.
How Long To Swaddle A Baby
This is a very important point and if not understood can increase the risk factors for swaddling and double your chances of SIDS.
It is recommended to stop swaddling your baby as soon as they show signs of trying to roll over.
This is extremely important because one of the biggest theories behind why studies are showing that swaddling, even swaddling while placing the baby on their back, can be risky.
The biggest reason is that parents are swaddling their babies past the appropriate age and their babies are rolling over on their stomachs.
As you have seen from the information above, the risk factors for suffocation, SIDS, and overall unexplained deaths are the highest for babies that are allowed to sleep on their stomachs or roll over onto their stomachs regardless of swaddling.
While it is very dangerous for babies to sleep on their stomachs it is even more dangerous while they are swaddled.
This is because their arms are pinned under the swaddle blanket decreasing the baby’s ability to move from their stomach or assist in preventing suffocation.
The age a baby can roll over can differ greatly for each baby and relies on many factors.
Some experts believe you should stop swaddling around two months or around week 8 all recommend to stop before six months.
Again, the key is to stop swaddling after any signs of the baby trying to roll over regardless of the recommended times.
Should You Swaddle Or Not
Using the information from our article Swaddling A Baby (Pros and Cons) you should be able to choose for yourself whether or not swaddling fits for you and your baby.
You are now able to use the pros and cons of swaddling to analyze whether the benefits outweigh the risks.
Only you can decide what is right for you but either way, you are making a distinction based on facts and not just because they started it at the hospital.