You will often hear swaddling recommended as a way of helping your new baby to settle quickly. This is because wrapping your baby up helps to replicate the safe sensation of being in your tummy, where your baby was tightly curled up and snug. If you think about how huge a cot or crib must feel compared to this, then you can imagine how a baby might not feel secure and relaxed enough to sleep when they’re getting used to life outside of the womb.
Babies are also born with a startle reflex, which can often cause them to jerk their limbs when they’re sleeping, startling themselves awake – not what you want when you’ve managed to settle them! By keeping their arms and legs close to their little bodies, swaddling helps to prevent this from happening, keeping your baby soundly asleep for longer.
Swaddling is not a new idea: it’s existed for centuries, across many countries and cultures. In fact, in the section of the Bible concerning the birth of Jesus, he is described as being wrapped in swaddling clothes before being laid down in the manger. Early archaeological finds from Crete and Cyprus, dating back 4500 years, include small figures of swaddled babies, and the practice was seen for centuries across most of Europe and the Mediterranean – in London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, there is an Italian linen baby binding on display from the early 17th century.
It’s thought that the Western world moved away from swaddling thanks to our increasing reliance on prams. Compare this to African cultures, where babies are wrapped up and carried securely on their mother’s backs or fronts as they work, shop, walk – often right through to toddlerhood. Swaddling has also been widespread in China since ancient times; the wrap is called qiang bao and the practice is thought to date back to the Shang Dynasty, as long ago as 1600 BCE.
Swaddling – or baby wrapping, as it’s sometimes called – has again grown in popularity in recent years. Nevertheless, as with any ancient practice, modern knowledge has raised some concerns about swaddling, too. Ultimately, your decision whether to swaddle your baby or not will be a personal choice; but do rest assured it is perfectly safe as long as certain guidelines are followed.
- It is important that your baby does not become too hot, so always swaddle them in a light wrap, muslin, or other thin, breathable material made from natural fibres. Make sure their shoulders, head and neck are not covered and check their temperature regularly.
- Restrictive swaddling has been linked to hip dysplasia, so wrap your baby firmly, but not tightly. Tuck the bottom of the swaddle loosely so your baby’s little legs can fall into their natural bent position – like a frog’s legs.
- Always lay your baby down on their back; never on their front or side.
- Only use swaddling for the first two or three months of your baby’s life. Once they start showing signs of being able to roll over, they need their hands and arms free so that they can reposition themselves if they roll over on to their front or side.
How to swaddle correctly
- Spread the blanket out flat, with one corner folded down.
- Lay your baby face up onto the folded end of the blanket, making sure that her head is above the fold.
- Straighten your baby’s left arm and wrap the left corner of the blanket over her body, tucking it between her right arm and the right side of her body.
- Next, place your baby’s right arm down at her side and take the right-side corner of the blanket and wrap it over the body, under the left side.
- Fold or twist the bottom of the blanket loosely and tuck it to one side of your baby.
- Always ensure that the blanket is not too tight. Your baby should be able to move her hips, and you should be able to fit at least two or three fingers between your baby’s chest and the swaddle.
There are a number of swaddling blankets on the market, which can make the process of swaddling much easier – but be sure to use the tog that’s appropriate to the time of year, so that your baby does not get too hot.
Helping your baby to relax whilst they are swaddled may help them adjust to life outside the womb. Introduce soft movement, such as very gentle rocking and bobbing. Include sound, making soft ‘sssshhing’ sounds close to your baby, matching the sound to their cry. If your baby uses a dummy, allow her to have it. These things help to mimic the experience of being in your tummy, where they felt safe and secure.
Although swaddling may encourage your baby to sleep longer, don’t feel that you must persist with it if they do not like it. It’s far more important for you both if naptimes are gentle, reassuring and comfortable. My first-born didn’t take to being swaddled at all! Remember, every baby is an individual and you will find the soothing method that suits you both best.