Like many elements of child and infant care, swaddling has gone in and out of style in the western hemisphere, although other cultures have used swaddling for thousands of years for one simple reason: it helps keep newborns contented and quiet. This is because the snug feeling of being swaddled in a blanket mimics the sensation of being in the uterus, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. However, while swaddling can calm a fussy baby, the practice also has several risks.
Sound Sleep Isn't Always Safest
As part of healthy neurological and physical development, newborns naturally startle and jerk, which can wake them while sleeping. By restricting movement, swaddling prevents newborns from waking themselves, thus achieving a deeper level of sleep, according to a 2009 article published in the Journal of Pediatrics. Unfortunately, this deeper sleep also makes newborns less likely to wake up when they hyperventilate or experience other erratic breathing, which can lead to SIDS, according to a 2009 article published in the Journal of Pediatrics.
When done incorrectly or too tightly, swaddling can cause hip dysplasia by forcing the hips into an unnatural position for an extended period, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. Modern swaddling techniques instruct parents to wrap only the infant's arms and torso -- with enough room to slide a hand between the newborn and the blanket -- while leaving the hips and legs free. Still, the risks of incorrectly swaddling a newborn are serious enough for some states like Minnesota to prohibit the practice at licensed childcare centers.
The American Academy of Pediatrics notes that swaddling is only safe if the baby is sleeping on her back. However, as any parent knows, when a newborn begins flipping themselves from back to front isn't always a predictable event. Having her arms restricted in a swaddling blanket means if she flips on to her stomach she can't use her arms to push, lift or turn her head away from any blankets, pillows or a soft mattress covering, according to the Journal of Pediatrics. This is why the American Academy of Pediatrics advises parents to stop swaddling babies at 2 months -- before they begin flipping from their back on to their stomach.
Like any other calming technique for a baby -- from using a pacifier to falling asleep with a bottle -- some parents find swaddling their newborn makes it initially difficult for her to sleep contentedly once she outgrows swaddling age. In addition, as with eliminating any soothing tool or tactic, this may mean several -- or at least a few -- fussy days and nights while your newborn learns to sleep without having her arms and midsection wrapped snugly in a swaddling blanket. You can help ease this transition by dressing your baby in a wearable blanket or sleep sack, according to the book, “Good Night, Sleep Tight” by Kim West.