Written by: Nicky Barker, Founder of Little Ones & Paediatric Sleep Specialist
Swaddling is the oldest trick in the book. Really. In Medieval times, babies were actually swaddled to a stiff board because people believed it helped them grow straight and strong.
While we're not quite as hard-out as that these days, we have seen time and time again how swaddling young babies helps them to be calmer, settle easier and sleep for longer.
But why?! What is this ancient magic?
Think about where your baby has come from - a dark, warm, very cosy world where they are squashed into a little ball and "held" very snugly. They burst (quite literally) into the big wide outside world and suddenly everything can move and flail and they have instantly lost that snug tightness they were used to.
Imagine how terrifying that would be!
As you will know, newborn babies have what's called a "moro reflex" and this is a leftover, some say, from a more prehistoric time. The moro reflex is the thing that makes your baby's arms shoot upwards and grab on when they're laid on their backs or startled. It's supposedly the same sort of reflex that baby monkeys have that stops them falling off their mothers; they reach out with the reflex and grab their mothers hair to prevent certain death from falling out of the tree.
What it means for our less arboreal offspring is that whenever they feel like they're falling, ie, when they're laid quickly onto their backs or picked up too rapidly, they startle. For a sleeping baby this can happen when you transfer them into their bed or when they enter light sleep at the end of their sleep cycle; they'll startle themselves awake.
And so we swaddle.
What swaddle do I choose?
There are a few different swaddling options and loads of different swaddle products out there, so choose one that your baby finds suitable. All my own babies preferred the tighter hands-down swaddles like Miracle Blankets, whereas my friend's kids liked the more flexible Love to Dream swaddles. In any case, you want to choose something that:
- Is made of natural and breathable fibres, so cotton, bamboo or merino. NEVER swaddle your baby with synthetic or man-made fibres like fleece or polar fleece as these fabrics cannot breathe and you risk your baby overheating (a big factor in SUDI).
- Is easy to get on and off! You shouldn't have to be an octopus and need 8 arms to put your baby in a swaddle, so choose a swaddle that is EASY. You also need to think about easy access for middle-of-the-night diaper changes because ideally you won't want to completely remove the swaddle each time - a swaddle with seperate lower-half access is perfect.
- Is safe. We have to think first and foremost about having safe bedding for our little ones and so your swaddle should never have loose fabric hanging off it or be bunched up around your baby's face. Using the right swaddle for their age and size is really important.
How do I swaddle my baby?
Depending on the type of swaddle you're using, there are a few different ways to rug up your little one. Below is an instructional video showing a couple of methods with a few different types of swaddles:
How will the swaddle help my baby sleep better?
As we've said, babies, especially young babies, like to feel snug and secure and a swaddle does this for them. Swaddling can calm a crying baby and for sleep, help your little one settle to sleep quick and sleep for longer as it minimises the startle reflex. If your baby is a chronic catnapper, pop them in a swaddle and it can help them nap for longer than one sleep cycle.
When should I stop swaddling?
You can leave your baby swaddled up until around 5-6 months. However if they're rolling over you need to either unswaddle them or use something like a Safe T Sleep, which holds your baby in place in their bed. For our methods for ditching the swaddle, see further down the article.
My baby doesn't like being swaddled
Sometimes people assume their baby doesn’t like being swaddled, mainly because their baby wiggles or cries while they’re being put in a swaddle, but more often than not, this is simply because the swaddle isn’t tight enough or the baby is already overtired or overstimulated. Most babies prefer to be swaddled.
Can swaddling cause SUDI?
No one knows exactly what causes a baby to pass away in their sleep. The best we can do is try and make their sleep environment as safe as we can by using natural fibres in their bedding and ensuring there are no toys or loose blankets in the sleeping space. Unfortunately there is a bit of a myth out there that swaddles stop the startle reflex which is the thing that wakes babies up and keeps them breathing, and yes, swaddles do minimise the startle reflex, but, ending their sleep cycle is the thing that brings a baby to the surface sleep-wise. The startle reflex happens as a result of this, not instead of it. Your baby is still going to rouse between sleep cycles as they enter periods of lighter and deeper sleep and this in itself causes them to fluctuate their breathing.
Where you do need to be careful with swaddles and SUDI is once your baby starts rolling. If your baby is on the move you have to unswaddle them or use something like a Safe T Sleep, which is a wrap that secures your swaddled baby in place so they can't roll over. A baby who is rolling can easily get stuck on their tummy and, if swaddled, won't be able to wiggle free.
Can swaddling damage a baby's hips?
As long as you're swaddling your baby properly and not too tight around their hips, your baby will be fine. Fitted swaddles like the Love to Dream, Ergo Pouch and Miracle Blanket are all designed to keep your baby's hips safe when swaddled.
If you are looking for advice and methods on how to stop swaddling your baby - read our article here.
If you need a hand getting better naps happening with your little one, or troubleshooting tricky patches like losing the swaddle, with our Sleep Programs you can access not only our world-leading information, but also our exclusive customer support group. Just click here to get started.