How to Swaddle Baby Like a Pro
August 6, 2021
Baby having trouble sleeping? Crazy as it sounds to new parents, 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 and 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 a baby and why a swaddle might help calm your little one (and maybe score you some more sleep too).
Swaddling simply means tightly wrapping up baby in a blanket in such a way that makes them feel secure, like being back in their mom’s belly, all warm and comfy. You can swaddle baby from Day 1, for naps and nighttime sleep; it helps keep them feeling compact and cozy, and may even deter the jolting startle reflex. 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. Furthermore, the American Academy of Pediatrics also notes that swaddling can help encourage and enhance sleep.
“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 baby-brand product inventor. 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,” she explains.
Babies can be swaddled anytime they are fussy or seemingly crying for no reason (no dirty diaper, and you know they’re not hungry because you just fed them, etc.). “Being swaddled is like receiving a big hug,” Gersin says, and that snug, swaddled feeling can help keep 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 baby fall asleep faster and stay asleep longer.
Some parents might wonder: Can swaddling cause Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS)? The answer is: Not directly. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, swaddling allows baby to sleep more soundly (which is why parents swaddle in the first place); but decreased arousal has been linked to an increased risk of SIDS. A 2016 Pediatrics journal study reports that the recommendation to avoid having baby sleep on their side or stomach is especially important when babies are in a swaddle. So if you’re swaddling, make sure baby is on their back, and when they’re old enough to roll in their sleep, it’s best to stop swaddling altogether (see “ When to Stop Swaddling Baby,” below).
Still, swaddling may sound a bit counterintuitive. Pediatricians advise against giving a baby under 12 months a loose blanket or having any plush materials in their crib. This is among the reasons it’s essential to practice safe swaddling techniques. Here, a few important sleep safety tips to keep top of mind as you learn how to swaddle a baby:
• Always place baby on their back. Baby should be placed on their back on a firm surface for sleep. Once they show signs of rolling, it’s important to stop swaddling.
• Avoid having plush or soft items in baby’s crib. Baby’s sleep space should be free of loose bedding, stuffed animals, blankets, pillows, bumpers and other items.
• Watch for overheating. You’ll want to opt for a soft, breathable swaddle blanket. Using a heavier blanket material may cause baby to overheat. If baby is sweating, flushed or breathing rapidly, they may need to lose a layer.
• Keep the swaddle snug, but not tight. It’s a fine line—you want your swaddle to be compact, but not restrictive. It’s important to ensure it won’t unravel, but it’s also critical that a swaddle doesn’t straighten or bind baby’s legs, as this can cause hip problems.
One of the easiest way to learn how 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 and soft blanket. (To find your best options for baby, check out our swaddle blankets shopping guide).
Ask a nurse to help teach you how to swaddle a newborn at your first pediatrician’s exam (or before you even leave the hospital). You can also 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 thin, lightweight square blanket down on a flat surface so that 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 face up on the blanket so that their neck is along the top edge. One tip as you learn how to swaddle a newborn: Don’t let the blanket touch baby’s cheek. They may think it’s a breast—this could set off the rooting reflex and make them cry in confusion at not being fed.
Step 3: Gently hold baby’s left arm down along their side. (If baby’s arms are bent over their chest, they can wriggle out of the swaddle.) Take the blanket about 4 inches from baby’s left shoulder and pull it down and across their body tightly, tucking it underneath them on the opposite side. It should be snug, but not overly tight, without any slack.
Step 4: Now take the bottom corner and lift it up over baby’s legs and right arm, tucking that corner behind their right shoulder. Here, we’re keeping it a little loose so baby’s legs and feet can move around. While you definitely want a secure wrap, it’s important to ensure that your swaddling is never too tight or restrictive on baby’s legs, as this can cause hip dysplasia.
Step 5: Finally, take the remaining corner, and pull it across baby’s body (again making sure the arm is straight), and tuck it snugly. Double-check to make sure the swaddle is nice and secure and won’t unravel as baby moves. If the tuck-in loosens easily, you may need to start over or try a different blanket. (Don’t get frustrated; learning how to swaddle a baby takes practice!)
“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.”
Even if you have your doubts, it’s worth giving the traditional swaddle technique a try. Hilary Thompson, a health and wellness consultant for a Houston-based mattress company, suggests learning how to swaddle a newborn before baby even arrives—so you can start a routine right away. Otherwise, she says, “introducing swaddling weeks down the road may not be as successful.”
If a baby is resisting, Gersin suggests providing gentle but constant pressure on baby’s arm 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. If baby still seems to prefer an arms-up position, you can try swaddling with their arms free or try a swaddle sack that positions their arms in an upright way. The latter option may still help quell the startle reflex.
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, they will likely calm down more readily than if you hadn’t swaddled them.
As babies get older, their need for a swaddle will diminish. That’s when you’ll start wondering how to stop swaddling.
Gersin explains you can test whether baby is ready to move on with other swaddling techniques. Do this by starting to swaddle baby with one arm up and out of the swaddle. If they start to fuss and won’t sleep, they still need the swaddle, she says. But if baby takes to the one-arm swaddle for a week, they’re ready for Operation Swaddle Transition.
Slowly wean baby by swaddling them with the second arm out. Regardless of baby’s preference, if they start to roll over (or actively attempt!), it’s no longer safe to use a swaddle, and it’s time to transition away from its use completely. (Sleeping facedown or with loose blankets can increase the risk of suffocation and SIDS, Thompson says.) Baby may need to get accustomed to this new sleeping situation, but these are signs that they’re growing and ready to sleep freestyle like a big kid!
Learning how to swaddle a newborn is a skill that takes practice. With a little patience (and the right blanket!), you’ll get the hang of it. Just be sure to use safe swaddling techniques, and you’ll be a wrapping baby like a pro in no time.
About the experts:
Melissa Gersin Hartung, RN, is a Boston-based perinatal nurse. She invented the Tranquilo Mat before joining Baby Brezza as Chief Inventor.
Hilary Thompson is a health and wellness consultant for Sleep Train, a Houston-based mattress company acquired by Mattress Firm.
Please note: The Bump and the materials and information it contains are not intended to, and do not constitute, medical or other health advice or diagnosis and should not be used as such. You should always consult with a qualified physician or health professional about your specific circumstances.