Updated: Aug 7, 2020
Swaddling your new born baby is a world-wide, centuries old tradition where babies are firmly wrapped in a light sheet or blanket with their arms and legs held closely to their body. But why do we do this?
Babies are born with a set of involuntary reflexes whose purpose, biologically speaking, is to help them survive:
The Moro Reflex, also known as the Startle Reflex happens when your baby is startled by a loud noise or when they are put down faster than they were expecting. Babies will fling both arms out to the side, as if trying to balance themselves and then bring their arms back together across their body.
The Rooting Reflex happens when your baby feels something touch the side of their face and quickly turn their head in the direction of the breast or bottle.
The Sucking Reflex happens when your baby feels something touch the roof of their mouth. This sensation makes them start sucking. Many babies also have a hand-to-mouth reflex alongside this one, which is why they often find comfort by sucking their hand or fingers.
The Crying Reflex is nature's way of ensuring your baby gains your attention when they need it (such as for hunger, discomfort or pain).
The Grasping Reflex happens when any object touches your baby's palm and they firmly close their fingers tightly around it. In nature, this was once a crucial skill to have as baby monkeys had to grasp their mother's fur whilst being carried.
All about the cuddles!
In those early newborn days, almost everything we do to care for our precious bundle is linked to the physical closeness required by our baby's basic survival needs which their reflexes are so amazingly designed to do. Ensuring our babies are fed, are clean and are comfortable are the essentials but we, as humans, also know that a baby's emotional needs are of equal importance to their physical needs, so we spend time holding, stroking, rocking, patting and carrying.
The number one reason behind swaddling is that it is thought that it may replicate the physical limitations of being in the womb and therefore makes a baby who is new to the world feel secure. Those involuntary startle movements are less likely to wake a baby up who is swaddled and anything which gains us an extra few minutes sleep has to be a good thing, right?
There are certainly benefits to be had from swaddling but there is also a downside, particularly if a baby is wrapped up this way for excessive periods:
Your baby needs to explore how their body works and opportunities to build and strengthen muscles by having freedom and space to move;
Being able to get little hands into their mouth is a great sensory experience as well as an opportunity to self-soothe and practise sucking;
Sleeping for longer than they would naturally do without a swaddle may lead to sleep difficulties later when your baby needs to be able to soothe themselves gently back to sleep in the natural breaks between sleep cycles;
Hands that are tucked away are hands that cannot feel the textures around them (whether that be your skin, a furry teddy bear of a smooth cot sheet). Your baby needs to use all of their senses together to make sense of new experiences.
So, what's the answer .... Swaddle or Not?
As with everything you do with your baby, the decision on whether to swaddle or not comes down to personal choice. There are definitely good reasons to do so for short periods when you have a newborn; any way you can give your little one a feeling of security has to be a good thing. However, in this case, moderation is they key so that your baby gets a good balance of security and opportunities to develop and learn.
Here are our top tips to get that balance just right for you...
If you want to swaddle your baby, keep it for night-time sleeping;
During day-time naps try a sleeping bag or a blanket tucked in securely;
When your baby is feeding, dress them in simple, flexible clothing, allow their hands to be free and, if needed, keep them warm with a light blanket or muslin loosely draped over them;
Give your baby plenty of floor time several times a day (the less clothing the better!)
For any decisions related to how your baby sleeps, of course, safety is the primary concern.
Read The Lullaby Trust's latest advice here.