Swaddling your baby means wrapping or cocooning your baby in a lightweight breathable blanket for warmth and to make your baby feel secure.
This is a safe age-old practice that mimics the environment of your womb. Swaddling can be seen as a transition period from womb to world; however, there are some concerns that are addressed in this article.
Comforting a crying or unhappy baby
An unhappy baby will begin to settle down when picked up and held in your arms but not all babies are so easily soothed. Some may require a little extra stimulation or reward before they settle down.
Dr. Robert Hamilton, a pediatrician practicing in Santa Monica California gives a short video demonstration of an effective way to soothe a crying baby called “The Hold”. This demonstration shows how effective correct human contact can be used to soothe even the most unhappy babies.
Babies cry and become unhappy for many different reasons and mothers or caregivers will go through a mental checklist, eliminating each possible cause along the way. After all the possible causes are ruled out and it appears that the baby is grumpy from being overtired, sleep should be the remedy, right?
But how do you get an overtired baby to fall asleep without simply letting the little one cry himself or herself to sleep?
Swaddling is a great solution as is some quiet skin-to-skin time with mom that has a calming effect and once calm may inspire the little one to feed a little before dozing off. With your little one deep in dreamland, you can gently swaddle your baby and lay him or her down to enjoy that much-needed rest.
Is swaddling necessary?
Yes, swaddling is necessary because it primarily helps to keep your baby warm but it also responds to a baby’s need to feel secure. Swaddling in this sense is a simple way to soothe an infant. A relaxed baby will feed and sleep much better than an unsettled baby.
Having said this, swaddling is not the only, nor the best soothing technique but it does have its fair share of benefits too.
A mother warmly embracing her baby in her arms while speaking or softly singing to her little one is a more effective way to soothe a baby. A baby is already familiar with mom’s heartbeat, scent, and the sound and vibration of her voice so it stands to reason that all these familiar things will have a soothing effect on most babies.
Now the big question is what do mothers do when their baby falls asleep in their arms? You can’t simply put them down to continue sleeping because mom’s body heat is no longer there. So, mothers will inevitably have to use a blanket or covering of some sort to keep their little one warm while asleep.
This is where swaddling comes into play. It is a neat way of wrapping your little ones in a blanket that will ensure their warmth and safety while they sleep. Babies shouldn’t be able to accidentally pull the blanket over their face and the right swaddling technique prevents this type of threat from happening.
In all fairness, we must assume that babies are appropriately dressed for the climate or season which is already one layer of material to keep your little one warm and possibly feeling secure.
Yet babies are not able to regulate their own body temperature as well as adults and we know that our core body temperature drops a little while we are asleep.
Keeping babies warm while they sleep will require using a blanket and swaddling is an effective way to ensure normal body temperature without the concern of overheating. To achieve this the right blanket fabric becomes a vital ingredient in helping to thermoregulate a baby’s temperature.
How to swaddle a baby in a blanket
To begin with, it’s very important to use the right receiving or swaddle blanket, meaning the fabric must be breathable and lightweight like organic cotton.
The blanket folds over the baby in a few layers and the different parts don’t or shouldn’t really fold over themselves. This will result in additional layering that may lead to overheating, especially in warmer climates.
Swaddle blankets are a little bigger than receiving blankets but both are designed and sized to swaddle babies. Receiving blankets being smaller may suit smaller or premature babies.
Incidentally, there are even smaller receiving blankets called preemie blankets for premature babies. Fabric types and sizes have been covered in detail in our article on receiving blankets.
6 steps to swaddle a baby
Swaddling is the only safe way of using a baby blanket in the crib that helps to keep your baby warm and secure. Here are 6 very easy steps to swaddling your baby:
Step one: Spread the receiving or swaddle blanket neatly out in front of you so it forms a diamond shape (a square blanket is the easier option). Pull the top corner down about one-third or a little less of the diagonal length. This step will depend on the size of the blanket as well as the size of your baby. In the next step, you will be able to see if you created the flap correctly.
Step Two: Place your baby on the blanket with your baby’s neck and head over the edge of the folded flap so they remain free as you proceed with the technique. To check the top flap distance, you must be able to fold the bottom of the blanket over your baby so that it reaches just below your baby’s chin without covering your baby’s neck or face.
Step Three: Start with one of the sides; bring it over your baby’s chest and keep the blanket firm but not too tight, wrap over and tuck the last bit under your baby's back. It’s important to smooth out the blanket as you go along as no matter how soft the blanket is if it’s scrunched up it will cause discomfort.
Step Four: Fold the bottom section over your baby’s legs up to the chin area but be sure to leave enough room for your baby to straighten their legs if they wish.
Step Five: Fold and wrap the other side over your baby’s body and neatly tuck under your baby’s back. Your baby’s weight will hold the blanket in place.
Step Six: You can now lift your baby off the bed and put your baby down in the crib or bassinet. Be sure to check that there are no lumps from the blanket poking into your baby’s back.
Things to Watch out for when swaddling a baby
You will notice two things in the above technique; firstly, the baby’s arms are free so self-soothing is an available option for your baby, and secondly, the blanket is strategically wrapped with firmness in the torso area and around the back.
Some believe that a baby’s arms should also be secured under the blanket to minimize a baby’s startle effect. This is said to help prevent unnecessary wake-ups and although it sounds plausible, there is very little scientific research or data that proves swaddling helps to control this baby startle effect.
With the above-mentioned swaddling technique your baby can still move his or her legs and there is very little pressure around the hip area. What you have created is a snug sleeping bag that will keep your baby’s airway open, thus reducing the risk of SIDS (sudden infant death syndrome). You should be able to comfortably slide your fingers between your baby and the blanket.
This swaddling technique is one of many different techniques. It may take a few tries with different techniques to work out which one your baby likes and which one you think is best suited to your baby’s personality. If you have any doubts, speak to your pediatrician for clarity and sound advice.
Which is easier to work with, a rectangle or square blanket?
I personally found the square blanket easier to use but some moms have mastered both with ease. The swaddling technique discussed above is done with a square blanket because when you lay your baby down both sides are symmetrical and you only have what you actually need to secure your little one in the blanket.
Is blanket size really that important?
Yes, using the correct size blanket limits the number of layers to complete the swaddle technique. Remember, the more layers there are, the warmer your baby will be. It’s important to maintain a moderate sleep temperature for your little one and too many layers can cause overheating.
Can you swaddle a baby too tightly?
This is an important question as it deals with a common concern among parents. Yes, you can swaddle a baby too tightly and it can actually increase the risk of SIDS.
By wrapping the blanket too tightly over your baby’s chest area you are applying pressure on your baby’s lungs that may result in breathing difficulties. Placing a young baby under continuous stress like this can lead to devastating consequences.
Another concern is hip dysplasia from swaddling your baby too tightly and keeping your baby’s legs locked together and straight. This is not a baby’s natural leg position and repeated and prolonged tight swaddling like this can cause hip dysplasia or other health-related issues.
Just a few more words
Swaddling is a great comforting technique for newborn babies who are yet to develop their motor skills. Not only is getting the technique right important but the choice of receiving or swaddling blanket is probably just as important.
Both these factors will determine if your baby will indeed be warm and secure, and together, they will promote a healthy sleep pattern going forward.
If you are in any doubt about blanket fabrics, it’s advisable to look at natural organic fabrics like cotton, with its variables that include muslin and gauze fabric.
From a health perspective, it is best to discuss any concerns about swaddling or sleep issues your baby might have with your pediatrician or other suitably qualified medical professionals.