Baby having trouble sleeping? Crazy as it sounds to new moms, putting baby to bed in a burrito-style wrap—also known as swaddling—just might do the trick. Swaddling has been around for thousands of years. Parents have wrapped up babies in a swaddle to not only help them sleep but also simply to hold them, protect them or calm them down. It fell out of favor in the 18th century, but interest in its soothing powers returned around the 1970s. Today, as parents are finding a new appreciation for natural and age-old methods of caring for their child, swaddling is enjoying what pediatrician Harvey Karp, MD, is calling a “renaissance.” Read on to find out how to swaddle baby and why a swaddle might help calm your little one (and maybe even help you get more sleep too).
What Is Swaddling?
Swaddling simply means tightly wrapping up baby in a blanket in such a way that makes her feel secure, like being back in mama’s belly, all warm and cozy. But is swaddling safe? The swaddle wrap is snugly fastened burrito style, so there’s no way it will come undone. As a result, swaddling—when done properly—is safe; doctors, including Karp, who wrote the national best-seller The Happiest Baby on the Block, strongly recommend the practice as a way to soothe babies.
Why Swaddle a Baby?
“Swaddling creates the snug, familiar, soothing feeling a baby experienced in the womb before being born,” says Melissa Gersin, RN, a Boston-based maternity nurse and inventor of the Tranquilo Mat. It makes baby feel safe, “because in the last few months before birth, baby didn’t have much space in the womb and could only make small movements, as he tries to reposition his hands and feet,” she explains.
Babies can be swaddled anytime they are fussy or seemingly crying for no reason (no dirty diaper, and you know he’s not hungry because you just fed him). “Being swaddled is like receiving a big hug,” Gersin says, and that snug, swaddled feeling can help keep a baby calm, especially when combined with other baby-soothing techniques, such as swaying and making a loud ‘Shh’ sound. When done correctly, she adds, swaddling can also help a baby fall asleep and stay asleep longer.
Some parents might wonder: Does swaddling cause Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS)? Not directly. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, swaddling allows baby to sleep more soundly (which is why parents swaddle!); but decreased arousal has also been linked to an increased risk of SIDS. A 2016 Pediatrics journal study reports that the current recommendation to avoid having baby sleep on her side or stomach is especially important to keep in mind when babies are in a swaddle. So if you’re swaddling, make sure baby is on her back, and when she’s old enough to roll in her sleep, it’s best to stop swaddling (see “ When to Stop Swaddling Baby,” below).
How to Swaddle a Baby, Step by Step
The easiest way to swaddle a baby is to find a ready-made Velcro or zipper swaddle, in which you simply can tuck in your newborn or infant. But you can also swaddle baby using any large, thin, soft blanket. (To find your best options for baby, check out our swaddle blankets shopping guide).
Ask a nurse to help you at your first pediatrician’s exam, or take a newborn-care class with your partner, where both of you can receive hands-on instruction on how to swaddle a baby. At home, follow these steps—and for extra help, check out our video on how to swaddle):
Step 1: Lay a square blanket down on a flat surface so it looks like a diamond. Fold the top corner down toward the center of the diamond; the top now forms a straight line.
Step 2: Place baby faceup on the blanket so her neck is along the top edge. (Don’t let the blanket touch the baby’s cheek. She may think it’s a breast, which would set off a rooting reflex and make her cry in confusion at not being fed.)
Step 3: Gently hold baby’s left arm down along his side. (If baby’s arms are bent, he can wriggle out of the swaddle.) Take the blanket about 4 inches from his left shoulder and pull it down and across his body tightly, tucking it snugly underneath him on the opposite side.
Step 4: Now take the bottom corner and lift it up over baby’s legs and right arm, tucking that corner behind her right shoulder. Here, we’re keeping it loose so baby’s legs and feet can move around.
Step 5: Finally, take the remaining corner, pull it tightly across baby’s body (again making sure the arm is straight), and tuck it snugly underneath her on the opposite side. Double-check to make sure the swaddle is nice and tight and won’t unravel. If the tuck-in loosens easily, secure it with duct tape.
What If My Baby Doesn’t Like to Be Swaddled?
“Keep in mind that most babies resist swaddling—or so parents think,” says Gersin. “That’s because when babies were in the womb, their resting position was with their arms up by their faces—so when a parent tries to bring their arms down by their sides, they may resist. But this doesn’t mean a baby doesn’t like to be swaddled.”
Hilary Thompson, a health and wellness consultant for Sleep Train, a Houston-based mattress company, suggests starting baby on swaddling right away. Otherwise, she says, “introducing swaddling weeks down the road may not be as successful.”
If a baby is resisting, Gersin suggests providing a gentle but constant pressure on baby’s arm to to straighten it. “After a few seconds, the baby’s muscles will relax, and it will be easy to get his arms straight along his sides,” she says.
Some newborns and babies may be content on their own with no swaddling at all. But the fussier baby is, the more a swaddle may become an indispensable calming tool. Don’t give up if baby doesn’t stop crying immediately. As Karp points out in his book: A swaddle may initially make a baby cry more, not less, but once you follow it up with other calming techniques, such as swaying, shushing and other soothing motions, she will likely calm down more readily than if you hadn’t swaddled her.
When to Stop Swaddling Baby
As babies get older, their need for a swaddle will diminish. That’s when you’ll start wondering how to stop swaddling. Gersin explains that you can test whether baby is ready to move on at around 2 to 3 months old. Do this by starting to swaddle baby with one arm up and out of the swaddle. “If she gets fussy and doesn’t sleep as well, then your baby still needs a swaddle,” she explains. But if baby takes to the one-arm swaddle for a week, she’s ready for Operation Swaddle Transition.
Slowly wean baby from the swaddle by swaddling him with the second arm out. Typically, Gersin says, most babies are ready to transition from the swaddle by 3 or 4 months. If you notice that baby can already roll over with the swaddle or escape the swaddle, it’s time to transition from the swaddle completely. (Sleeping facedown or with loose blankets can increase the risk of suffocation and SIDS, Thompson says.) These are signs that baby is growing, and he’s ready to sleep freestyle like a big kid!
Updated September 2017