Swaddling Babies: Ancient Practice Comforts Infants and Parents

Suzanne Tayal of Columbus, Ohio, tried to swaddle her son, Aaron, 6, when he was a baby by copying nurses who tidily wrapped infants in the hospital nursery. “I saw the nurses in newborn nursery do it and I could never wrap it as tight as them,” she says. It was not until she had her daughter, Marisa, almost 2, that Tayal learned the art of swaddling, or snugly wrapping, an infant in blankets or swaddling clothes.

Lowering SIDS Risks

Dr. Bradley T. Thach, a professor of pediatrics at Washington University School of Medicine, says the fact that many parents abandon the practice of swaddling is disturbing because 2 to 4 months is the peak risk period for Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS). “The problem is once a baby reaches 3 months swaddled in the traditional ways that Americans swaddle babies, they can escape and that’s the critical time for SIDS that you want to keep them swaddled,” he says.

Dr. Thach conducted research that showed the practice of swaddling babies lowers SIDS risk.

Along with Dr. Claudia M. Gerard, an instructor in pediatrics at Washington University, Dr. Thach conducted research that showed the practice of swaddling babies lowers SIDS risk. And researchers at the Pediatric Sleep Unit of the University Children’s Hospital in Brussels, Belgium, recently found swaddling does help babies sleep longer and better. That means more shuteye for parents.

Dr. Thach, who developed an escape-proof zip-up swaddle made of cotton, Spandex and Velcro, says his findings somewhat mirrored those of the study published in the May 2005 Pediatrics, where researchers found swaddling increases a baby’s sleep efficiency and non-rapid eye movement sleep.

According to Dr. Thach, swaddling reduces the risk of SIDS by making it easy to keep babies on their backs. “Our swaddling, unlike traditional methods used for centuries, allows the baby to move his leg somewhat into the classic frog-leg position,” he says, adding babies will be at less risk to develop abnormal hip growth if they can flex their legs.

Swaddling Techniques

American Indians and people from the Middle East, who use bands and swaddling clothes, have a more sophisticated way of swaddling babies from which they can’t escape, says Dr. Thach. Traditional swaddling techniques are practiced in Turkey, Afghanistan and Albania. “They use three cloths,” Dr. Thach says. “The last one is wrapped around and tied somewhat in a similar manner as baby Jesus.”

Dr. David Park, a family practice physician and father of four boys from Wesley Chapel, Fla., says he swaddles his newborn son, Noah. “I think there is something to swaddling,” Dr. Park says. “Newborns in hospitals are swaddled tight to maintain temperature. It’s a good idea. It’s a cultural thing in Eastern countries more than Western.”

Swaddling a baby does not take the place of holding the child, although many people speculate babies cry less when they are swaddled because they feel as though they are being held or in the womb, adds Dr. Park.

Tayal says she had to learn by trial and error how to swaddle her baby so she would not wiggle out of it. “My daughter really liked to be swaddled, it was very calming to her,” says Tayal. “And when she was real young swaddling her did help keep her hands out of the way when I was trying to breastfeed her.”

Many parents like Tayal say their babies are fussy when they put them on their backs, but Dr. Thach warns against swaddling a baby and putting him on his stomach since that increases the risk of SIDS.

Also, ask a nurse, physician or midwife to demonstrate the proper way to swaddle a baby. “If you swaddle too loose the baby will escape and the swaddling won’t be effective,” says Dr. Thach. “If you swaddle too tight there’s a danger of inhibiting breathing.” He warns if a baby is old enough to escape from a swaddle, he or she could suffocate in loose blankets. Also, never lay a swaddled baby on a sofa or bed where he or she may roll and fall.

Startled Awake

Dr. Thach says infants sleep better when they are swaddled because they don’t startle themselves awake. “We speculated when a baby is startled his arms go up,” he says. “It’s the sensation of the baby’s arms going up and falling down again that might lead to full arousal and swaddling impairs that. I think the baby is wired and programmed to be alarmed if he feels abandoned, if he is not being rocked or held. He shrieks to alert Mom she needs to be closer to him. It’s a self-protective thing.”

According to Dr. Thach, 30 percent of parents who start off putting their babies on their backs abandon it within weeks or months because they say the baby won’t sleep on his back.

Dr. Alan Greene, says it’s unfortunate 30 percent of babies are placed face down to sleep even though medical professionals have tried to educate parents about the risk of SIDS. “If swaddling babies sleeping on their backs reduces crying and improves sleep, it might help promote sleeping on the back, further reducing SIDS,” Dr. Greene says. He says the results of recent studies, which show babies sleep significantly better when they are swaddled, only confirms the benefits of this age-old custom.