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What New Parents Need to Know About Swaddling

Did you know that swaddling has been around since the Bible was written?

“And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn” (Luke 2:7, ESV).

So it’s safe to say that swaddling isn’t a new concept, but I get asked by new parents all the time whether they should swaddle or not. Ultimately, the decision is yours, but here’s what you should know:

What is swaddling?

Jokingly referred to as creating a ‘baby burrito’, swaddling means wrapping the baby in a blanket in a certain way that restricts their movements.

How swaddling works to keep baby calmer

The theory is that swaddling helps babies, particularly in the first two months of life, to feel safer and this results in:

  • Better sleep, and for longer periods of time, enabling them to achieve the all important REM sleep cycles,
  • Keeps baby calmer and the fussing to a minimum,
  • Can help prevent SIDS (Sudden Infant Death Syndrome).

For certain, swaddling minimizes the impact of the moro reflex—the startle reflex—on a sleeping baby. When they startle, they extend out their arms and legs, frequently bonking themselves in the face in the process, which makes it so much worse!

The downsides to swaddling

Done incorrectly, there are a couple of ways that swaddling can be harmful. I’m listing them here, along with ways to avoid these issues:

  • Hyperthermia—this is where baby overheats because of the lack of air circulation, particularly in summer. Solution? Use a very lightweight blanket in warmer weather and make sure their heads are uncovered when they’re swaddled. Limit or just avoid swaddling in periods of heat wave.
  • Suffocation—after two months of age, a baby can roll in their bed. If they roll INTO the swaddle, they risk suffocation. When a baby can roll, it’s time to do away with the swaddle.
  • Hip dysplasia—swaddling that forces baby’s legs together and straight can be putting a little too much stress on the hip joints. In 2011, the International Hip Dysplasia Institute started a campaign called ‘Hip-Healthy Swaddling’. Basically, healthy swaddling involves ‘allowing the legs to bend up and out at the hips’. The videos on this site are helpful! Take a look!

Other tips on proper swaddling

The downsides I mention shouldn’t put you off however, as good sleep habits start forming early and the soothing aspects of swaddling can contribute to these.

A good swaddle should allow baby’s legs to move, from the hips down, and should only be tight enough to fit a hand in between the swaddling blanket and baby’s chest. Any tighter is too tight and any looser can create a suffocation risk if the blanket unravels with baby’s movements.

Again, when baby can roll from back to front, you need to stop swaddling. They could wriggle out of it and create a suffocation hazard because they still don’t have the strength or the sense to necessarily push the blanket away.

You can purchase a swaddle blanket that is designed to be easy to use, with velcro fasteners, if you want to be sure that you’re keeping their arms secure, and avoiding the moro reflex, while letting their legs move.

When baby grows out of swaddling blankets

You still have plenty of options to keep them cozy when sleeping!

  • Sleep sacks—these are like sleeping bags with arm and a head hole! Baby fits in snuggly, their legs are free to move, but they can’t kick it off or bunch it up, so there’s no suffocation hazard. If you live in a cold climate, this is an ideal choice!
  • Sleepers—as babies get older, one piece sleepers with feet are not only totally adorable but they’re warm and cozy for baby and keeps them free of loose bedding, which can be dangerous.

Safe sleep is vital for babies to develop properly. They do so much growing while they’re sleeping, including brain development. So help them get to that happy dream world with a minimum of fuss.

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