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10 steps to swaddle your baby safely

Swaddling is one of the many choices new parents face.

Current research and information is based upon swaddling babies for sleep—swaddling is not recommended during wakeful hours when the infant is moving and more active.

Naturally, the baby has a say—some will sleep well when securely swaddled, and others won’t.

A common initial question for many first-time parents is whether or not to swaddle their new baby. In some countries it remains a traditional custom but, in others, parents have gradually moved away from the practice. There are well-researched pros and cons to the practice of swaddling.

What is swaddling?

Swaddling is type of binding a baby with a wrap to restrict free movement of the limbs.

Wrapping in a swaddle is said to re-create the feeling and security of being in the womb and can calm a fretful baby. Carefully wrapping a newborn assists the baby to sleep and prevents being disturbed by their own ‘startle reflex’.

Some studies have shown that swaddled babies wake less frequently and sleep longer than non-swaddled babies. Sleep-deprived parents welcome the extra sleep that swaddling might offer.

The ideal swaddle helps your baby feel like they are having a cuddle and will help contain your baby’s movements so they don’t wake themselves up as easily as they would if not swaddled.

Can swaddling be harmful?

This simple practice comes with risk as well as benefits. There are some important safety concerns of which to be aware.

Overheating

A baby’s body temperature is poorly regulated and they can get cold or overheat fairly rapidly. If your baby does have a period of crying while swaddled they may overheat. Overheating, which increases in the colder months, has been linked to Sudden Unexpected Death in Infancy (SUDI).

Swaddling on top of warm pyjamas and a comfortable room temperature can simply be too warm. Cotton or muslin wraps are preferable to rugs and blankets and the baby should not be over-dressed under the wrap. A singlet and nappy in summer and a light jumpsuit in winter should be sufficient. We all know how hard it is to sleep if we are overheated.

Rolling

As you baby starts to experiment with rolling around 4 months of age, it is no longer safe to swaddle your baby.

The Red Nose Safe Sleeping program recommends that at 4 months of age you no longer swaddle your baby but use a sleeping bag or pyjamas so their arms are free. To help keep your baby on their back while sleeping, until they are rolling both ways confidently in their wake time, continue to position them at the bottom of their cot on their back and use a firm over sheet tucked under the mattress to secure them on their back.

Breastfeeding

Swaddling your baby to feed is not generally recommended. Your baby will be able to breastfeed much better if not swaddled as they can feel your body much better and that help them feed.

Hip dysplasia

Hip dysplasia is a condition that may be present at birth or can develop over time. Wrapping tightly around their legs and held straight puts babies at a far greater risk of developing hip dysplasia requiring treatment.

The correct swaddling technique bends the baby’s legs up and apart at the hips, by doing this action the wrap will be looser around the hips and legs.

10 steps to swaddle safely

There are safe ways to reap the benefits without the risks.

  • Use a lightweight swaddle, such as a cotton muslin wrap
  • Wrap firmly, but not too tightly, in such a way as to try to prevent the baby breaking out. It’s ok if they get their hands up to their face as they may enjoy sucking on their fist or thumb. This is also comforting for a baby. If they break out and are crying, reswaddle and give them a cuddle. If they’re asleep, leave them.
  • Loosen the wrap around the hips and legs. The baby should be able to move their hips and knees up and out but still be wrapped.
  • Wrap arms firmly in a position of comfort across their chest not down by their side.
  • Always place a swaddled baby on its back, never on its side or stomach!
  • Avoid obstacles to breathing.
  • Adjust the thermostat to a comfortable adult temperature and avoid over dressing a swaddled baby. A fan can be used if the baby or the room becomes too warm. A good temperature is around 20-22 degrees Celsius.
  • A baby should only be swaddled for calming or sleeping. Unwrap the baby during wakeful periods as well as for breastfeeding.
  • Immediately wean from the swaddle as soon as the baby starts to show any signs of rolling over, by four months.
  • There are lots of specially designed wraps on the market to make swaddling easy and safe. The best ones that are most likely to help are the ones that help your baby feel like they are having a cuddle.

How to swaddle a baby safely for sleep

About Cheryl Fingleson

Cheryl has completed The Gentle Sleep Coach Program, the first and most extensive professional sleep coaching certification program available. Cheryl works with families across a range of areas, including settling ...

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