Becoming a father is one of the most special and overwhelming times in life. Within the first few hours of her life you will feel every emotion ranging from immense pride to paralyzing fear. One emotion we did not expect to feel was frustration.
Why were we frustrated you ask? Swaddling.
After your baby is born and everything is settling down a bit it’s time to start changing diapers. You unwrap her blanket, change her diaper and now you’re stuck trying to figure out how to swaddle her back up nice and snug. The nurses make it look so easy but you’re worried you’ll do it too tight, and even once you think you’ve finally got it its loose again. You begin to wonder- why do we even do this? Fortunately, there are several positive reasons why swaddling is indispensable.
How Swaddling Helps the Moro Reflex
The Moro Reflex also known as the Startle Reflex is exactly what it sounds like. Newborns are prone to startle easily as they quite literally are new to the world. There are so many new sights, sounds and feelings that they are not used to so naturally they are somewhat jumpy.
According to Christopher Edwards in his article “Moro Reflex” the Moro Reflex is a sudden involuntary response to any unexpected stimulation. In layman’s terms, it is when a baby is started and puts her arms up as if she is trying to regain her balance. Often the baby while feel as if she is freefalling and appear astonished, then she will curl up with her arms and legs close to her body.
Although this is a normal behavior for a newborn, it can be a lit unsettling for parent and baby alike. Swaddling is a wonderful way to help calm a baby (and you) during/after they have experienced this.
When swaddled properly, the baby will be wrapped securely in a blanket or sleep sack keeping her limbs close against her body in order to limit the amount of flailing that occurs when she gets startled. When your baby is settled and more relaxed, she will sleep much better and so will you!
Babies Like the Swaddle Because It Mimics the Womb
At first this seems a little weird, but when you think about it your baby has spent her entire life curled up inside a warm little space in her mommy’s tummy.
Being surrounded with warmth with her arms and legs tucked up against her is the only position she really knows- so it makes sense that she would find that more comfortable than sprawled out in the crib.
In fact the Nested Bean sites that by imitating the mother’s touch newborns are instantly comforted and are less likely to awaken through the night because she immediately feels a calming touch. If she feels like she’s bundled up all cozy and tight it will remind her of the womb- and that is the place she is most used to and thus feels the safest.
Science Says Swaddled Babies Sleep More
Specifically, the American Academy of Pediatricians (AAP) states that a swaddled baby is much less fussy and sleep better and longer than babies that are not swaddled. Since the swaddle lessens the effect of the Moro Reflex which in turn keeps them from constantly startling themselves awake. The AAP even ventures to say that swaddling can add an hour or two to baby’s nighttime sleep. That extra sleep your baby is getting is also priceless for you as well- every minute of sleep you can get with a newborn is sacred!
Science Also Confirms Swaddling is Safe
The AAP also assures new parents that swaddling is a safe way to help baby sleep. Of course it must be done properly. A SWADDLED BABY MUST ALWAYS BE PLACED ON HER BACK. In addition to be on her back it is also important that the swaddle is tight enough so the blanket doesn’t come loose and smother the baby. Since your newborn won’t know to remove items away from her face, she must have her mouth and nose clear of the blanket at all times.
This can be a bit intimidating at first but there is an extremely simple tool to use to make swaddling much safer and easier.
Save Yourself Some Grief and Get a Sleep Sack
A sleep sack is a marvelous invention in which your baby sleeps. There are many options manufactured by many companies but for the most part they consist of a sack that covers baby from her neck down (like big dress that covers her toes as well) and has Velcro wings on either side.
It’s important that you make sure your baby is dressed properly underneath the swaddle. Generally a regular onesie will be sufficient, but it depends on where you live and the time of year. Check her temperature by feeling her fingers and ears- and remember it is safer for her to be on the cooler side than it is for her to be too hot.
If you happen to be a swaddling pro it is perfectly acceptable to continue using a swaddle blanket if you prefer, but keep in mind that after a few days newborns are often able to wiggle out of them if they are not tight enough. The same undergarments can be used as under a sleep sack and the same temperature rules apply. We found that we slept more peacefully with her in the sleep sack since we weren’t worried about the blanket coming loose (neither my wife nor I could swaddle very well). One of the coolest things about the sleep sack is that it makes middle of the night diaper changes much easier. It’s pretty hard to re-swaddle a baby in the dark when you aren’t all the way awake! Once again either method is just fine as long as it is put on properly.
How to Swaddle?
The basiscs of how to swaddle your baby with a proper swaddle sack are pretty simple but the details are very important. We tried eight different swaddles until we found one that worked the best for our wiggly little baby.
And the winner is; the Nested Bean Zen Swaddle.
The purpose of swaddling is to have baby’s arms tight enough on the sides of her body that she can’t wiggle them out, but loose enough that she can still move around a bit.
The Nested Bean gave us the best of both worlds with its perfectly stretchy and soft fabric along with a strong velcro it allowed our little guy to wiggle around but not have his arms escape the swaddle (most of the time). The arm weights also worked great for added support and I believe it helped keep his arms in the swaddle.
Here is an image explaining all of the features of the swaddle:
Check out the instructional video by Nested Bean to see exactly how to swaddle you baby:
How Long Can Babies Be Swaddled?
Longer than you think. Newborns can be swaddled up to twenty hours per day initially. It is important for them to have ample time to stretch out and have some freedom to move and grow. After one or two months most babies can have her time swaddled reduced as they learn to self soothe and become more comfortable with her new surroundings. That seems like a long time to be restricted but once again she is used to being snuggled up 24/7 in the womb so she’s already got much more space than it seems. That being said, as she grows she may be happier with less time bundled up.
Can Swaddles Be Used For Naptime?
Yes! With newborns swaddling can be used for nighttime sleeping, naps and simply calming during the day. It is recommended that after each nap session to remove the swaddle for a period of time to let them stretch out and get more used to being out of the swaddle. Naptime is also a good time for you to practice your swaddle wrapping skills because not only is it light outside, but babies are often a little bit more patient about getting to sleep than they are at night.
Safe Swaddling Tips
Even though swaddling is proven to help newborns sleep better, like anything with a baby there are some safety tips to keep in mind. As stated before a swaddled baby must be placed on her back. Once she can roll over you must stop swaddling because she needs to be able to have her arms free to lift herself up off the mattress in order to breathe and turn her head.
Swaddling Summed Up
Swaddling is an invaluable tool to use when trying to calm a fussy baby. Not only is it safe but it is, I would venture to say, the most beneficial sleep tactic- and as a new parent you know just important that is. Your picture perfect little bundle of joy (literally) will thank you as well, because she feels safe and comfortable just like she did in the womb.
The most important thing to remember is that just because statistics, science or all your friends tell you what works and what doesn’t does not mean that it will work for you. Maybe you baby sleeps just fine with no swaddle, or you prefer the blanket swaddle even though your co-worker swears by the sleep sack. It’s imperative that you remember to go with your parent gut and learn what your baby likes.
Sometimes something that helps most babies won’t work with your child- and that’s ok. There is no better judge for what is best for your family than you, you take care of her and live with her. As long as she is safe, happy and healthy it will be just fine.
Paul is a passionate dad who founded Upside Dad to share his parenting journey with other new parents. He graduated from Concordia University and worked as a test engineer for over a decade. Paul loves dad jokes and craft beer.
Learn more about Paul and Upside Dad here.