Latest Baby Danger: Swaddling

The art of swaddling is something many the father brags about being an expert in, and hospitals often take a newborn, wipe them off, swaddle them tightly and hand them back to mom within the first ten minutes after birth.

We've heard it makes babies sleep longer or better, prevents them from waking themselves up when they startle, and overall, helps babies be more secure.


But the problem is, it has negative health impacts, and even increases the risk of SIDS, but only if swaddling is being done at the wrong times and in the wrong sleep position.


Skin-on-skin contact, a.k.a. Kangaroo Care, is incredibly important to newborns. It can literally make the difference between life and death, as mom's body is designed to hold a newborn to warm them (no need for machines when mom is better, unless there's a medical reason mom can't hold baby right away). When on mom's chest, especially skin-to-skin, baby's breathing begins to mimic mom's respiration and even the heart rate levels out.

Breastfeeding in the first hour, but as soon as possible even in that hour, is optimal for baby's initial health, since after about an hour or two, baby goes into a deep "recovery" sleep, and then will wake up ravenous, which can make the first feeding incredibly difficult. But when baby is swaddled, their senses are dulled and they can't use their hands to help them locate the breast and nipple. Yes, you can raise baby to your breast, but when they are allowed to be an active participant and get comfortable and naturally curl their arms around the breast or even knead it with their tiny hands to encourage letdown and flow, it goes more smoothly.

Swaddling during those hospital days can make can make a huge difference in the baby's health and the success of initial breastfeeding and weight gain.

Swaddled babies separated during their first two hours lost more weight.  

Swaddled babies kept in the nursery were colder and consumed less milk

Swaddled babies in the nursery lost more weight despite consuming more formula. Possible reasons for this that the researchers suggested include:

  • Severely limiting baby’s movements is stressful, which burns more calories.
  • Swaddled babies receive less touch, which can compromise growth in preterm babies.

Pretty major impact, isn't it?

Swaddling, especially the tight swaddles dads pride themselves on, have even been showing evidence of being a significant factor in hip dysplasia. The AAP even recommends that pediatricians who find out their patients swaddle do Ortolani and Barlow examinations to test for a hip click, and that if it's present, they should advise their patients to stop swaddling immediately. The reason some more primitive cultures don't have this issue with their 24/7 swaddled babies is they're wrapped in the frog position, with the legs folded up almost cross-legged, like they are in the womb.

Now, I know a lot of people swear their baby needs to be swaddled to sleep well, and that they sleep better that way and don't wake themselves up as often, but unfortunately, contrary to our country's belief that the most important thing in a baby is making them sleep well, too deep or secure of sleep is actually a bad thing -- it can make babies sleep through feedings they need, causing breastfeeding supply issues, poor weight gain and even delay the drop of bilirubin levels. But most moms would certainly notice if too many hours went by and baby slept through feedings.

The biggest worry is if you swaddle your baby when she is ill, and in a very heated room, and have her sleeping in the prone position (face down). This can increase the risk of SIDS. But swaddling alone when baby is sleeping on her back does not increase the risk.  

After everything I've read about swaddling, it seems the only benefit is less interrupted sleep for baby. With the risk of breastfeeding failure, hip problems, and weight gain problems it's enough to make me re-think swaddling.

Did you know any of this? Do you swaddle your babies?

Editor's Note: This version has been edited to reflect changes in the text. Thank you for your comments.


Image via Swaddle Babies/Flickr

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