When you have a newborn, sleep is a precious commodity - for you as well as baby. Newborn babies need an average of around 16 hours sleep, but when your baby is waking up fussy and keeping you from going to bed, it doesn't exactly feel like you're getting as much as you need!
When you were at the hospital, your baby was likely dressed in a swaddle by a nurse, and this is for good reason; swaddling is a fantastic, safe technique for soothing your newborn baby to sleep, and for helping you get your own sleep routine back.
We're here to help you become a swaddling pro - read on to find out about swaddling, how to swaddle a newborn, the Moro Reflex, types of swaddle, sleep routines, and more.
In this article:
What is swaddling?
Swaddling is a practice that dates back hundreds of years in a range of cultures worldwide, and that all kinds of parents still rely on to this day. It involves wrapping your baby gently but tightly in a light and breathable piece of fabric, leaving out their head and neck, to help soothe them to sleep.
While it isn't known completely why babies love being swaddled, one theory argues that it recreates the comforting feeling of the womb, and also prevents them from waking themselves up through the startle (or Moro) reflex.
When done safely using the medically recommended techniques, swaddling is a brilliant way of getting your newborn to sleep, and to set the foundations of sleep training.
What are the benefits of swaddling?
There are plenty of reasons why it can be beneficial to swaddle a baby - here are just a handful!
- It helps your baby sleep for longer
- It helps your baby have higher quality sleep
- It prevents your baby from scratching their face
- It stops your baby from waking themselves up through their natural startle reflex
- It ensures that your baby will stay on their back during sleep, as is recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics safe sleep guidelines
- It can soothe your baby by mimicking your calming touch
From safety to comfort, there are a whole host of benefits that a swaddled baby can experience - and they can help you get some sleep back too!
What is the startle (Moro) reflex?
One of the many benefits of swaddling is its ability to prevent the startle reflex, or Moro Reflex, from waking up your baby in the middle of the night.
The Moro Reflex is a completely natural physiological response found in babies that causes them to involuntarily extend their arms and legs, throw their head back, and cry out, typically in response to a loud noise or sudden movement. They will then bring their limbs back toward their body, and may have a little cry - after all, they've just been startled!
Perhaps you’ve heard about the general rule of thumb for dressing your baby for sleep: Put them in one additional layer than you would wear at night. This makes sense, as a baby should not sleep with a loose sheet or blanket. Generally speaking, a two-piece cotton PJ set or footed onesie plus a muslin swaddle should suffice. - Healthline
This reflex usually starts to happen less at 4 months before stopping completely at 6 months, but in the meantime, it can be the cause of many nighttime wake ups for your newborn baby. This is where swaddling can really come in handy - by keeping baby's limbs close to their body, you can prevent this reflex from fully happening, meaning your baby can more easily fall asleep again.
What makes swaddling work?
It's thought that swaddling works by recreating how your baby feels in the womb, similar to the idea that the first couple months of your baby's life is like a fourth trimester. Rather than going from the comfort of the womb to a big, cold world, you're letting them feel warm and cozy for a little while longer.
Additionally, various studies have shown that a parent's touch can physiologically soothe their baby and boost their brain development. Swaddling, especially with products like our Zen Swaddle™, can help to recreate this touch, calming your baby and helping them feel secure as they drift off to sleep.
When to start swaddling?
You can start swaddling as soon as you bring your baby home from the hospital - and the hospital will likely already have done it once for you! In fact, introducing safe swaddling techniques from birth is actually the safest way to swaddle your baby, and sets a useful foundation for a potential sleep regression you're likely to come across at the 4 month mark.
How long to swaddle—and how to know it’s time to stop
Swaddling techniques should only be used until your baby can start to roll over independently - at this point, it's time to stop swaddling baby. This is because your baby can roll over onto their front, which leads to a higher risk of SIDS (Sudden Infant Death Syndrome), especially as they may struggle to roll onto their back again with their limbs restricted.
Your baby may also tell you when they no longer want to be swaddled - if you find that baby's legs are kicking around everywhere when you're trying to swaddle them, for instance, it might be time to stop!
What to look for in a swaddle
The goal of swaddling is to make sure that your baby is securely bundled up and comfortable, and there are a few different issues to bear in mind when it comes to getting your technique down:
- Ensure the swaddle fits snugly below baby's neck so that their hands can't get out and loosen it further - you want to make sure that no fabric is sitting on your baby's face
- Don't wrap baby in too many layers or a non-breathable swaddle (signs of overheating include flushed cheeks, damp hair, and a high temperature when you feel their forehead)
- Don't wrap baby up too tightly
- Don't restrict baby's legs - while you want their arms to be tight against their body, restricting their leg movement can lead to problems like hip dysplasia (see the International Hip Dysplasia Institute for more information)
Additionally, you want to make sure you're using the right product to swaddle your baby with - that's where our range of gently weighted Zen Sleepwear™ comes in! Designed to mimic your soothing touch, our products can help your baby learn to self soothe while being swaddled.
How to dress your baby for sleep: Types of swaddles
From traditional wraps to modern swaddle pods, there are a range of swaddling products you can try - so let's go over them and see which one suits you and your baby best!
Swaddle wraps are the classic option that everyone thinks of when they think of swaddling - they're versatile, also functioning as burp cloths and blankets, and let you bundle your little one up into a little baby burrito!
Our Zen Swaddle has all the functionality of a regular swaddle wrap, but also features our signature lightly weighted Cuddle Pad, which mimics your touch and makes baby feel comforted even when you aren't holding them in your arms.
Flexible swaddle sacks
Unlike swaddle wraps, which require a little know how when you're wrapping baby up in them, swaddle sacks are much easier for beginners - just put baby in, fasten it up, and you're ready to go!
Our own Zen One™ is a convertible swaddle that can be used even after your baby has started to roll over - just remove the arm sections and it turns into a sleep sack! A simple two way zipper means its's easy to take baby in and out for baths and diaper changes, while the inner band makes sure that their arms are securely inside.
Like swaddle sacks, swaddle pods are a newer invention that makes swaddling a breeze, even if you find the techniques tricky. You only need to put your baby inside and zip them up, and they're safe and snug inside - no tricky folding required!
Our new Zen Neo™ swaddle is perfect for swaddling newborns without a traditional wrap, and like all of our products is gently weighted to imitate your touch and help baby feel calm as they go to sleep.
Swaddle troubleshooting: what’s happening/what it means/what to try
While swaddled babies often experience longer and better sleep, and are able to self soothe effectively, this is only true if they're being swaddled properly - otherwise, you could run into some problems! Here are some of the most common issues parents run into when swaddling their baby:
Baby fighting swaddle
Though there's a chance that your baby fighting the swaddle means they're ready to move on to sleeping unrestricted, it can also mean that you aren't swaddling them correctly, especially when it comes to younger babies. For instance, though it might seem strange, babies are actually more likely to fight a swaddle that's too loose - when they're wrapped up nice and tight, they tend to settle down!
Also, if the swaddle is touching baby's cheek, you might inadvertently be triggering their rooting reflex, leading them to search for a nipple and get frustrated when they can't find one! When swaddling infants, you should always make sure that their face and head are completely uncovered.
Houdini baby (breaking out)
You may not expect your newborn baby to be breaking out of a swaddle, but babies of all ages can be real escape artists! Usually, a baby being able to break out of their swaddle means that it's been wrapped too loosely, allowing your baby to wiggle out.
However, it can also mean that the blanket you're using is too small for your baby, allowing them to undo fastenings and burst out of it - make sure baby's swaddling blanket can wrap all the way around their body, and look into getting a new one or into transitioning into a sleep sack if they've grown out of it.
Wants to suck fingers
Many babies like to suck their fingers or hands for comfort while they're sleeping, and that can sometimes mean that you go to your baby's crib when you wake up only to find that they've broken their arm out! While it's good that your baby is able to self soothe with this technique, it isn't ideal when it comes to swaddling safety.
If this happens, you can use swaddling techniques that allow your baby to have a few fingers out when sleeping to suck on, or even an entire arm - the detachable arms on our Zen One are perfect for when you want to do this!
Baby showing signs of rolling
If your little one is starting to roll over, or showing signs of beginning to roll over like rocking back and forth, it's time to stop swaddling baby. This is because of the potential SIDS (Sudden Infant Death Syndrome) risk associated with babies sleeping on their front - if your baby rolls over onto their front in a swaddle, it may be difficult for them to roll back, leading to a suffocation risk.
At this point, you could try switching to a sleep sack like our Zen Sack™, which lets baby's arms out while still keeping your little one cozy and comforted through the night.
If your baby is still resisting swaddling and you aren't quite sure why, it might not be for you - and that's ok! Every baby is different, and not all of them will respond to swaddling positively.
However, if you're struggling because of the complexities of folding a swaddling blanket correctly, you could give our Zen One or Zen Neo a try - both are easy to get baby in and out of, leaving less room for error, and less of the frustration of dealing with a big square of fabric!
Swaddling: Mom hacks!
'Swaddle blankets, in general, are easy enough to get the hang of, but with the Nested Bean Zen Swaddle, you also get one that’s already shaped to show you the best way to fold the different flaps, as opposed to one large square of fabric, which can sometimes be confusing.'
- Rowan from The Baby Swag
'Don’t leave them swaddled all the time, but use it as a signal for sleep. Even if your little one is tiny and loves swaddles, allow some room for free movement when they are awake and you’re playing.
This is true particularly as newborn when they are only awake short periods.
Play with their arms, legs, kiss their tummies, etc. Anyway, I don’t have to tell you how to enjoy your baby. By keeping the swaddle for sleepy times… you’re creating associations that’ll help your baby sleep better.'
- Rachel Norman from A Mother Far From Home
When it comes to your children, safety is always the number one priority. While swaddling is perfectly safe when done correctly, there are a few risks to bear in mind, as well as some guidelines to follow to ensure that you're minimising the risk of SIDS.
Safety and AAP guidelines
The American Academy of Pediatrics has specific safe sleep guidelines that parents can follow for their baby to keep them safe. The guidelines can be found in full here, but there are two main takeaways for young babies: always put baby face up to sleep on their back, and never put anything in the crib with them (loose bedding, loose blankets, stuffed animals).
These guidelines change as your baby gets older and reaches new developmental milestones, so it's good to check each month to see if your nap time or bedtime routine needs some alterations for baby's safety and comfort.
Risks of swaddling
There are several health risks associated with unsafe swaddling:
- If baby's legs are wrapped up too tightly, hip dysplasia can develop (see the International Hip Dysplasia Institute for more information)
- Bed sharing can be dangerous with a swaddled baby, as they can more easily overheat and may struggle to wiggle away if you get too close to baby's body
- Swaddling with swaddle blankets that are too thick, or using the wrong kind of blanket to swaddle with, can lead to your baby overheating - look out for signs such as flushed cheeks, wet hair, heat rash, heavy breathing, and a forehead that is hot to the touch
Swaddling and SIDS
Swaddling has become a pretty controversial practice over the past few years, with some people mistakenly arguing that a swaddled baby faces a higher risk of SIDS than a baby who isn't swaddled. Studies have shown that this isn't actually the case - when swaddling techniques are done correctly, it actually decreases your baby's SIDS risk.
This is because safe swaddling can prevent your baby from rolling over, but also because it soothes your baby and prevents parents from taking part in unsafe sleep practices out of stress, such as sofa sleeping. Not only that, but calm infants mean calm adults, and calm adults are much more likely to avoid habits like smoking which are hazardous to the health of babies.
How to dress your baby under a swaddle
You'll want to take into account the climate of where you're living when you're dressing your baby if you know you'll be swaddling them. In cold climates and during winter, swaddling is a great way of keeping your baby cosy and warm, especially if it's made from a high quality cotton.
Swaddling in warm climates or during the summer months can be more tricky, though, especially if your baby is a little more cranky from the heat! You can actually swaddle your baby in just a diaper if the weather is too warm, and using a swaddle like our Zen Swaddle Premier made from breathable, moisture wicking bamboo can help baby feel cool while still keeping them comfy and secure.
How to transition out of the swaddle
It's time to stop swaddling when your baby begins to roll over, usually at the 4 or 5 month mark, as this can lead to an increased risk of SIDS. Saying goodbye to swaddling isn't easy, especially if you discovered it later and it's helped you after some sleepless nights, but there are plenty of techniques you can use to transition your baby out of the swaddle and get them used to sleeping with their limbs free!
You can transition baby out of the swaddle by letting an arm out, followed by two arms out while still swaddling baby's body, to get them used to this new feeling of freedom. Our convertible Zen One is perfect for this with its detachable arm sections, which turn the swaddle into a sleep sack when removed. It also has the same gently weighted Cuddle Pad as all of our Zen Sleepwear, which will help soothe your baby by mimicking your calming touch during this transitional period.
You can then move onto the Zen Sack, which is available for little ones up to 24 months old and still provides the same gently weighted comfort!
Swaddling and your baby’s sleep routine
Swaddling is a great way to soothe your baby and create positive sleep associations for a healthy bedtime routine. Sleep associations can be positive or negative, and while negative associations rely on you being there to calm your baby, positive associations are ones that your baby can practice all by themselves.
If you're beginning to sleep train your baby, swaddling can be a fantastic tool, regardless of the method you choose - whether it's Ferber, camping out, cry it out or anything other kind, swaddling can soothe babies to sleep. Here's an example of how you can introduce swaddling into your baby's sleep routine:
- Bathe your baby, lotion them and change their diaper
- Massage baby (check out our baby massage guide here!)
- Put them into pyjamas and their Zen Swaddle
- Dim the lights of their room and play some ambient sounds
- Gently rock your baby
- Feed your baby if you still need to
- Put them into the crib and give them a kiss before you say goodnight!
By making the swaddle a part of your baby's sleep routine, you create a positive association between wearing the swaddle and a calm, sleepy mood. Incorporating swaddling as a little nighttime ritual for you and baby is a great way to gently reinforce when it's time to sleep!
Common questions about newborn swaddling
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