Often thought of as the perfect way to soothe a newborn, swaddling has been used to calm and comfort babies for centuries. Swaddling involves wrapping baby loosely in a breathable blanket. With the shoulder and head left free, babies allegedly feel calmed by the feeling of warm, gentle enclosure which swaddling can give.
With the benefit of modern knowledge regarding the practice, we take a look at whether it's of benefit, as well as consider how best to swaddle baby for optimal comfort and safety. Our team also tell you when to stop swaddling, making sure baby has the freedom to develop their motor skills when the time is right. If you are considering swaddling, this could help you make the decision that works for you and your little one.
When to stop swaddling?
When should I stop swaddling? Stop swaddling if child is able to roll or move around while swaddled (3-4 months mark most likely) .
Swaddling is intended to recreate the warmth and security of the womb, making it a good option for newborns if parents are able to swaddle safely and baby gains benefit from the process. Once babies start to be able to turn their heads and move their upper body, it's time to stop swaddling
As the neck and shoulders strengthen, babies need the freedom to be able to start moving themselves around independently. Swaddling can delay this process. As babies can begin trying to turn over and lifting their head as early as eight or nine weeks, swaddling should be gently phased out at around this time.
What is the idea behind swaddling?
The theory behind swaddling is that it shares some characteristics with the womb. By lightly confining the baby's movements in a warm, secure manner, the idea is that babies experience the same feelings of warmth and safety they felt in the womb.
This should lead to a diminution in distress, as well as helping to promote healthy sleep. The science is inconclusive regarding whether swaddling is effective in its aims or not. Some parents say their children gain real benefit from the process, others feel it makes little or no difference to how calm and/or settled their baby appears to be.
As no two babies are the same, it's probable that the technique will work for some, but not others, like many other parenting techniques!
How should I swaddle for safety?
There are a number of different techniques used for swaddling. Whilst each has its merits, it's vital that the baby's safety isn't compromised in the process. Some of the potential swaddling hazards are discussed below, as well as the solutions which can make a difference:
- Overheating. Overheating is a common problem for babies, for all sorts of reasons. Because they're not able to indicate that they're too warm, it's all too easy for them to end up dangerously hot. For this reason, it's vital that swaddling is loose enough to allow some air circulation. The swaddling should also be light and breathable: a small cotton blanket or muslin sheet is ideal. Make sure they're wearing the right amount of layers for the season and external temperature. Remember to check baby's temperature regularly.
- Hip problems. Some studies have shown that if a baby's legs are wrapped too tightly, they are more likely to suffer from hip displasia (the hip is more prone to painful dislocation). Hip-friendly swaddling techniques, ensuring swaddling isn't too tight and allowing the knees and hips to adopt a natural position within the swaddling can all help to minimise the risk of this issue.
- Always make sure a baby's head and shoulders are free. This is vital to reduce the risk of suffocation and overheating.
When should I swaddle?
Many parents choose to swaddle at night, during nap time or if baby is agitated during the day. Some studies suggest that swaddling during breast feeding could be detrimental: babies need to move in order to latch on correctly. There is also evidence that they need to be able to flap their arms, in order to better access the milk and remain alert enough to feed successfully.
What are the alternatives to swaddling?
If you choose not to swaddle, your baby will still need some form of covering at night, as well as some added warmth during nap times. If you're considering what type of bedding is going to be best, it's worth remembering that any layers used for baby should be light and thin.
The main risk with heavier bedding is that baby will get too warm, but won't yet have developed the strength and ability to kick off the covers in order to cool down.
Overheating can cause fits and seizures (and has also been shown to increase the risk of SIDS), so it really is important to use lighter layers. When the thermometer starts to plummet, you can always add additional layers!
A sleeping sack or similar is ideal for newborns
Newborn babies don't have the capacity for movement which older children have. This means it's vital that their sleeping environment is as safe as possible. A sleep sack reduces the risk of a baby's head accidentally getting trapped beneath the covers, as the head and shoulders remain free from covers.
If baby turns in the sack, it turns with them, providing continuous warmth without the risk of suffocation. If a sheet or cotton blanket is used, it should be tucked in firmly at the sides and foot of the crib, to avoid it accidentally being pulled over baby's head.
Arms should be tucked over the blanket, which should only reach to armpits. Shoulders, arms and head should remain uncovered.
Natural, plant-based fabrics work best
Newborns have delicate skin, which can easily become irritated by harsh, synthetic fibres or chemicals.
Unfortunately, even regular cotton sheets or blankets can contain chemicals which have been used as part of the colouring, cleaning or processing operations. The best material for any baby bedding is 100% organic cotton .
Look for a fabric that's been ethically sourced, and which has been coloured using dyes which are non-toxic. If bedding is Oeko-Tex or GOTS certified, this is usually a good indication that it's of a suitable purity and quality to be safe for baby bedding . Given how long babies spend in bed (newborns sleep for up to seventeen hours a day or more), it's vital that their sleeping environment is as safe and gentle as it possibly can be.