Midwife and founder of the New Baby Company, Vicki Scott advises on the art of swaddling, an ancient practice that helps lull babies in to a peaceful slumber
Having worked with hundreds of babies over the last 25 years, I know that by recreating the womb environment, swaddling for the first eight to 12 weeks helps most newborns settle, sleep and feel safe and secure.
Newborns have no control over their limb movements until around 10 weeks old, so a swaddle prevents any involuntary movements from causing disturbances and unnecessary waking.
Most newborns who manage to suck their fingers to self soothe have only managed it by accident – a one off! They tend to get most frustrated when they can’t find them again, which is why scratch mitts come in handy. However, a swaddled baby doesn’t need them.
Another reason why swaddling works wonders is to prevent your baby being rudely awakened by the Moro reflex and startle response.
These reflexes are a normal part of your baby’s neurological development causing them to suddenly jerk, flinging arms and legs out like a starfish. These responses has ruined many a peaceful sleep, but can be controlled by being cosily swaddled for naps.
Since biblical times, babies have been swaddled in some form or another, with methods varying throughout the world’s cultures. Mothers have long known the calming qualities a swaddle can have as their little ones adjusts to the outside world.
Swaddling came back in to fashion in the UK towards the end of the last century. I imagine one of the reasons was because parents were now being advised to put babies on their backs to sleep – this left those flailing limbs free to disturb the sleeping baby, and meant that startle reflexes woke the baby more easily.
Babies quickly learn what the swaddle means and come to love the comfort it offers.
How do I swaddle my baby?
Newborns who miss the womb environment can be swaddled from day one. However, many newborns are fine without for the first couple of weeks, but when they start to become more aware of their surroundings and don’t settle as easily swaddling may help.
Always place your swaddled baby on his or her back. A review of swaddling in relation to SIDS found that a swaddled baby is safer on their back than on their front or side – as in general safe-sleep guidelines.
Swaddle your baby for all naps if needed, day and night. One of the best tips is to swaddle your baby then pick up for a cuddle, or rock in your arms.
Swaddling first means that when baby relaxes and gets sleepy he is already cosy and easier to put down happily. My preferred method is a simple wrap, such as a large muslin square, or thin cotton jersey sheet in cooler weather.
Fold a large square double into a triangle, lay baby with the back of the neck along the long folded edge, place one of her hands on her tummy, and bring the cloth over her shoulder and wrap under her hip. Do the same on the other side.
The fabric should be away from her face, making a V-neck sweater shape. Leave it loose around her legs and feet – no need to fold over or under – just let the fabric hang down.
There are many newer style swaddling wraps and bags on the market. Look for cotton with an appropriate tog rating, depending on the time of year and temperature of your home.
Specially designed products can be a lot easier to use if you don’t have the swaddling ‘knack.’ More like a bag than a wrap, the use of a zip or Velcro makes the process very easy, meaning a very wriggly baby is less likely to escape, and the swaddle effect is looser around the hips.
When is the best time to stop swaddling?
Around 10 to 12 weeks, babies are starting to have much more control of their hands and arms: they thrash around a lot less and are starting to be able to find their fingers or thumbs to self soothe.
It’s also recommended to remove the swaddle before the baby is able to roll. It isn’t easy to predict, but 12 weeks is a good benchmark to move away from it, as by then the practice has served its purpose.
I’ve found that the best way is to gradually remove the swaddle, starting with the naps your baby settles easiest, then moving on to a half swaddle, before introducing a sleeping bag, or sheets and blankets.
Half swaddling simply means that you leave babies hands and arms out of the swaddle, continuing to wrap around the tummy. If your baby finds that too much at first, try a three-quarter swaddle with just one arm out.
Once baby is settling well half swaddled for the easiest naps, then gradually start to half swaddle at other sleep times, replacing the material with a sleeping bag shortly after.
The pros and cons of swaddling
Many babies settle more easily and sleep better when swaddled from birth to 12 weeks.
It calms the Moro and startle reflexes, so the little one is less disturbed by them, and recreates the womb environment, making baby feel secure and reassured.
However, overheating can be a cause for concern if inappropriate products are used, making the tot too warm. Swaddling too firmly around the hips can cause problems.
There’s also potential for damage to normal hip development (hip dysplasia) if legs are firmly swaddled together in a straightened out position. A newborn’s hips are usually in a flexed position – opened out like a frog’s – which helps hip development.
Is swaddling safe?
The latest safety advice, as detailed by The Lullaby Trust (formerly FSID) is to use thin materials for swaddling, to not swaddle too tightly and to not let the swaddle come above the shoulders.
They advise not letting baby get too hot, not covering the head, and keeping an eye on her temperature, checking this by placing your fingers on her chest or the back of the neck.
Avoid swaddling your baby during feeding, as they can get too hot and their natural movements are restricted.
The Lullaby Trust also stresses that parents must be made aware of the risk of wrapping baby too tightly and restricting the hips.
The Royal College of Midwives generally advise parents to avoid swaddling, but note that individualised advice should be given to mothers to ensure they’re aware of how to keep their babies safe and free to move, as well as how to avoid overheating.