Is Swaddling All It's Cracked Up to Be? A Pediatrician Breaks Down the Sleep Technique

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Swaddling sounds like a made-up word, but when you enter the world of parenthood, it quickly becomes a part of your vocabulary. Swaddling is the practice of using a lightweight blanket to wrap up a baby with their arms and legs close to their body to help them ease into sleep safely and soundly. The practice has been around for generations, but learning how to swaddle a baby can come with a steep learning curve.

There's a reason to put in the effort to learn how to properly swaddle a baby, though. "Swaddling helps mimic the environment in utero, which is very calming for the baby," Preeti Parikh, MD, a board-certified pediatrician and the executive medical director of GoodRx, tells POPSUGAR. And she says for babies and parents to reap the benefits of swaddling, "the key is to do it correctly."

But is swaddling an appropriate practice for all babies? And how can parents get the hang of the intricate wrapping technique? Here's everything you need to know about swaddling — including step-by-step instructions for how to swaddle a baby that anyone can follow.

Why Do Babies Like to Be Swaddled?

"When done correctly, swaddling has a calming effect on infants," Dr. Parikh says. The idea is that babies like being swaddled because it gives newborns a similar feeling to when they were in utero with very little room to move around.

"It re-creates the cozy sensation of being in the womb and helps soothe their moro or startle reflex, which can be very comforting and encourage a restful sleep for the whole family," Dr. Parikh explains. According to Mount Sinai, the moro or startle reflex is one of the reflexes present at birth and will last until around 3 to 6 months. This reflex causes the baby to jolt out their arms and legs when they're startled by quick movements or loud noises, and it can keep them from drifting off.

And parents know that when their baby gets a good night's sleep, that has big benefits for parents, too. "When a baby is sleeping soundly, parents can catch up on their sleep as well," Dr. Parikh says.

Disadvantages of Swaddling a Baby

While swaddling has some great benefits for babies and parents, there are some risks that could be associated with this practice, too. For instance, the American Academy of Pediatrics warns that swaddling "may decrease a baby's arousal, so that it's harder for them to wake up." A baby that's harder to wake up is at an increased risk of sudden infant death syndrome, which is why the association recommends being sure to follow safe sleep guidelines at all times, including when your baby is swaddled.

For example, the AAP's safe sleep practices suggest always putting infants to sleep on their backs, whether they're swaddled or not. When swaddled babies are placed on their sides or stomachs to sleep, the risk of SIDS increases, according to a study published in the journal Pediatrics. AAP also recommends stopping swaddling as soon as a baby can roll over, so they don't end up swaddled and on their side or stomach. (Once they're rolling, you can look for a sleep sack that leaves their arms free, so they still get that coziness without the risk.)

What Type of Blanket Can Be Used as a Swaddle?

Ensuring you're using the right products when swaddling is important. Not all blankets are made the same.

"You can use wearable blankets or sleep sacks that compress the arms, chest, and body," Dr. Parikh says. "You can also use a thin blanket and create the compression." She adds that it's important to choose a thin and breathable fabric, like muslin or cotton, to help keep a baby from overheating.

Dr. Parikh stresses that parents should never use weighted swaddles or blankets, as they could impact a baby's ability to breathe; the AAP just warned against weighted infant products. "No matter what type of swaddle you use, make sure it's loose around your baby's hips," Dr. Parikh adds. "If the swaddle is too tight and the baby can't move their legs, there's concern that it can lead to hip dislocation or hip dysplasia."

How Long to Swaddle a Baby at Night

Dr. Parikh says it's OK to swaddle your baby whenever they're sleeping during the first few weeks of life — which could be for more than 12 hours a day.

"Only swaddle the baby while they are sleeping," Dr. Parikh adds. "When they're awake, make sure the baby gets tummy time and time to move their arms and legs freely."

How to Swaddle a Baby With a Blanket

The key to a good swaddle is to get the blanket wrapped snugly enough that it won't loosen while the baby's sleeping, but not so tight that it restricts breathing. The baby's head and neck should never be covered, and you must ensure their hips can move freely. One good way to gauge this is that you should be able to fit two or three fingers between the swaddle and the baby's chest.

At first, trying to get the best swaddle can seem like a real challenge, but the more you practice, the faster you'll become a swaddle expert.

It's best to ask your pediatrician for help when you're first starting out, so you can make sure your swaddling technique is sound and appropriate for your little one. But these five steps for how to swaddle a baby contain the basics:

  1. Lay the blanket flat, and fold down one corner.
  2. Place your baby on their back on the blanket, with their head above the corner you folded.
  3. Gently straighten the baby's left arm so it's by their side, and wrap the left corner of the blanket over their left arm and body, tucking the blanket under the baby, between the right arm and the right side of their body. It should be snug but not tight.
  4. Bring up the bottom corner of the blanket and bring it over the baby's shoulder, avoiding tightening the fabric too much. (You just want to get the bottom out of the way.)
  5. Then gently straighten their right arm by their side and fold the right corner of the blanket over their body, tucking it under their left side. You can tuck the loose end into the top of the swaddle.

Remember, their head and neck should be totally clear of the blanket, and the swaddle should be secure but not overly tight. It also shouldn't be coming loose, though — safe sleep guidelines call for your baby to sleep with no blankets or loose items in their crib, so if it's unraveling with every tiny movement, it could end up posing a danger to your little one.

Different Ways to Swaddle a Baby

If that seems complicated, there are different ways to swaddle a baby without using a blanket. Brands sell swaddles that Velcro or zip shut and take the guesswork out of the entire process. (One popular option is the Happiest Baby Sleepea 5-Second Swaddle ($30), which uses Velcro and zips.) Many parents find them easier to use, and because they're designed to avoid being overly tight or compressing the hips, they can provide peace of mind.

Just make sure to vet your choice to ensure you're using one that follows AAP guidelines — so no weighted swaddles, and nothing with drawstrings, for instance.

When to Stop Swaddling a Baby

According to guidelines provided by the American Academy of Pediatrics, it's recommended that parents stop swaddling when the baby is around 2 months old or starts to roll over.

"As soon as your baby can roll over onto his or her back, you should stop swaddling," Dr. Parikh says. "If babies are swaddled and flip over on their stomach, it creates a risk of suffocation, which can contribute or lead to SIDS."

How to Transition a Baby Out of a Swaddle

If your baby has been comfortably sleeping swaddled each night and they're nearing the age where it's no longer recommended to swaddle, there are a few steps you can take to make the transition easier, Dr. Parikh says.

"You can start off by taking out one arm for a couple of nights, then taking out the other arm the following nights, and then transitioning into a sleep sack," she shares. "Another way to help your baby is to transition him or her directly into a sleep sack as a cold-turkey technique."

But remember: not all babies are the same, which means swaddling may not be the magic trick to get every baby to drift off into a peaceful sleep. And it's essential to always follow the safe sleep recommendations, including placing babies on their backs to sleep in their own space with a firm, flat mattress and free from loose items like bumpers, toys, blankets, or pillows.