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Swaddling Newborns: How, Why, and for How Long?

The act of swaddling babies has its roots in thousands of years of human history. Today, it is still a common practice in many parts of the world. However, there has been an ongoing debate as to whether swaddling is good or bad. It can be a confusing time when every person you talk to gives different advice! The general consensus is that swaddling is safe when done properly and supports the baby’s transition from the womb to the outside world.

Why should I swaddle my baby?

The main idea behind swaddling is to help comfort a newborn baby. Think about it: your baby right now is in a completely warm, cozy, dark, calming environment. What she feels in the third trimester is the tightness of your womb hugging her at different angles. She is sleeping in a warm bath of fluid. When she is born, there is no longer that feeling of security. It has been replaced with bright lights, unfamiliar sounds, diapers, and being placed in a bassinet to sleep. You may notice that unswaddling a newborn baby produces the ‘startle reflex’ when her limbs jerk out and she starts to cry.

The benefit to swaddling is to calm a baby and encourage sleep, which is very important during those early weeks of sleepless nights! It allows the baby to feel safe and secure in between feedings. However, you do not have to swaddle your baby at all times. You can also place your baby dressed in only a diaper on your bare chest. This is called skin to skin and promotes bonding as well as breastfeeding.

The dos and don’ts of swaddling

You do want to make sure that you leave a little bit of room in the leg area so that baby can still move her legs around somewhat. Generally babies remain in the fetal position with their arms and legs flexed when swaddled. Do not cover the baby’s head with the swaddle blanket as this can cause overheating, but rather use a hat if you’re worried about the baby getting cold. Remember not to swaddle babies with their arms straight down if you plan on breastfeeding, as infants often show you signs of hunger by putting their hands in their mouths. This is also a basic way most babies like to comfort themselves.

How do I swaddle baby?

There are many swaddling techniques, but loose and ineffective swaddling techniques made using an undersized blanket can generally be kicked off by a wakeful baby. Think of swaddling a baby like wrapping up a burrito — it needs to be secure on the sides or it won’t work! As you get more practice you’ll see what works and what doesn’t for your baby.

The best type of blanket to use for swaddling is one that is relatively sturdy yet does not overheat baby. Cotton is the best material. You will want to stay away from thick fluffy and furry blankets. Many popular types are made to prevent baby from moving the blanket over her face which could interfere with her breathing. They are typically fabric blankets such as a sleep sack, which are shaped like a small sleeping bag, with ‘wings’ that fold around the baby’s tummy and around underneath the infant. Some of these products employ Velcro patches or other fasteners.

How long do I need to swaddle?

Every baby is different even from the start. Some babies are comfortable to never need swaddling, and others will want it for weeks or even months. You will know the time is right to stop when your baby is able to fall asleep without being wrapped tightly in a receiving blanket.

A general rule of thumb is that babies have outgrown the need for swaddling once they are able to roll over on their own at four to five months. This means that they will now need full use of their arms and legs to be able to roll back onto their backs.

Sara Fung is an experienced registered nurse specializing in postpartum, labour and delivery, and prenatal education. Currently she is a prenatal and postpartum nurse doula, providing at-home support for breastfeeding, baby care, sleep, and more. She also offers individualized, private prenatal classes to mothers and their families.

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