Swaddling is a popular method of baby care where you wrap an infant up in a blanket to help soothe and comfort them. It’s been practised in many societies for centuries as a way of helping little ones sleep safely and comfortably.
If you’re caring for a little one, it’s common to have questions and concerns about swaddling, including how to do it. You may wonder whether swaddling is even safe at all. Well, there’s good news: it usually is, as long as you do it properly.
Here, we’ll take a closer look at swaddling, including the basics of how to do it and how to make sure that everyone who cares for a baby — parents, grandparents, nannies and babysitters — is on the same page about how to swaddle safely and effectively. Discover our tips for swaddling below.
What is swaddling?
Many parents are taught swaddling at the hospital after their baby is born. There are a number of different ways to swaddle, but the basic idea is that you wrap your baby up snugly — but not too snugly — in a blanket, so they feel cosy and secure but still have room to breathe and move.
The main purpose of swaddling is to soothe newborn babies and help them sleep comfortably. When done properly, the practice has a warm and womb-like effect that’s believed to put babies at ease.
Is swaddling safe for babies?
Generally speaking, swaddling babies is safe — but it’s important to do it properly to avoid any risks. Here are some potential concerns to be aware of when swaddling babies, and how to address them.
Proper hip development
Ensure that babies are swaddled loosely enough to move freely. Tight swaddling in the hip area can cause hip instability and even hip dysplasia, which is when the hips don’t develop properly and the thigh bone isn’t held correctly in the hip socket.
Potential feeding difficulties
There are some concerns that swaddling can have a negative impact on infant feeding. For example, a 2023 review found that when babies are swaddled right after birth, they may not breastfeed as readily and could have trouble suckling and taking in enough milk.
Breastfeeding a swaddled baby is possible, but it’s not the ideal position for a baby to feed. Wrapped in their blanket, they lack the freedom to move their hands or lie close to their parent for that all-important skin-to-skin contact.
Whilst the soothing effect of swaddling can sometimes help calm babies who struggle to nurse, this serene feeling can have the counter-productive effect of quieting their feeding cues. If swaddling is interfering with feeding routines, it may be best to reach for the blanket once baby’s needs for nourishment have been met.
Though swaddling can be helpful for infants who are restless during sleep, it doesn’t necessarily make sleep safer or reduce the chances of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS). Additionally, there are risks to babies who are swaddled if other safe sleep practices aren’t followed. Place swaddled babies on their backs at night to lower the likelihood of SIDS.
What are the benefits of swaddling?
While there are some safety precautions to keep in mind, many parents and carers find numerous benefits to swaddling babies, especially in the early newborn period.
Research has found that swaddling does a good job of calming babies, and that it can also help infants sleep better. For instance, a review noted that swaddling encourages more “quiet sleep” in infants, which is the non-active stage of sleep during which babies lie quiet and still. Swaddling also reduces the number of times babies move from one stage of sleep to another, thereby promoting more peaceful sleep.
Settling and soothing
If you’ve ever cared for a newborn, you may have noticed that they tend to flail their little arms around haphazardly at times, and they often startle easily. You can blame this on normal newborn reflexes. Still, babies who are unsettled tend to be fussier. Swaddling can help with this, minimising the startle reflex that may wake little ones up. The womb-like effect of swaddling is also believed to have a comforting effect on newborns.
How do you swaddle a baby?
Many people are confused about how to swaddle a newborn, and that’s understandable. Wrapping up a tiny, squirming baby in a blanket can feel daunting. Plus, there are many different ways to do it, and you might be unsure how to approach it.
A basic approach to swaddling follows these steps:
- Place the blanket down, oriented like a diamond.
- Fold a small triangle down at the top, where the baby’s head will go.
- Place the baby on the blanket, folding one side around them and under their body.
- Next, fold up the bottom of the blanket and tuck it under the baby’s shoulder.
- Finish with the other side, wrapping the blanket fully around the baby.
If you prefer a visual guide, here’s a video showing how to swaddle a baby, according to a registered nurse.
As for the best swaddle blankets to use, the answer may depend on your preference and your individual baby. In general, blankets should be thin, breathable and lightweight. Using a swaddle blanket purchased from a shop is perfectly acceptable, too. The Velcro fastenings can make life easier for busy parents and offer babies freedom of leg movement.
How long should babies be swaddled? Though there’s no recommended limit on how long it can last, experts recommend letting your baby spend plenty of time unswaddled so they are free to grow safely and develop their motor skills.
A safe swaddling cheat sheet for parents and carers
Safety is paramount when swaddling your baby — and it’s important to make sure everyone involved in their care is on the same page. Teach them the right techniques, supervise them as they swaddle and don’t be afraid to share advice and resources.
Here are some top tips for parents and carers to swaddle safely:
- Only use thin, lightweight blankets for swaddling.
- Avoid “cot-sized” blankets, as these will result in excess material.
- Always put your baby on their back for sleep.
- Make sure blankets aren’t too loose, as those can be unsafe during sleep.
- At the same time, make sure the blanket doesn’t restrict movement.
- Keep any blanket material away from the baby’s face.
Remember: the swaddle should be placed at the baby’s shoulder and neck area, and it should always rest below the chin.
Talk to your child’s doctor or health visitor if you have questions about sleep safety, swaddling or the best products to use.
When to stop swaddling
So you’ve got the swaddling thing down, and it’s working for you. But how for long should you swaddle a baby? And how exactly should you transition out of a swaddle?
The NCT recommends that swaddling be stopped once a baby shows signs that they can or are trying to roll over. This usually occurs when a baby is about 3 to 4 months old, but many babies show signs as early as 2 months.
You won’t usually need to use any special techniques to help the baby transition away from swaddling. One of the top swaddle transition tips is to let the child lead the way. After a couple of months, they’ll tend to grow out of finding the swaddle comfortable — and will start kicking their way out! As a post-swaddling step, a sleep blanket can be another wonderful way to keep babies comfy and soothed as they snooze, without the suffocation risks of loose bedding.
The bottom line
Swaddling babies can certainly be confusing, but it’s actually simpler than you might think. Learning how to swaddle a baby only takes a few steps. And, whilst safe swaddling is very important, once you are aware of a few basic rules — like always using a thin, lightweight blanket and practising safe sleep guidelines for infants — you’re ready to try it out.
Of course, not all babies find swaddling soothing, and some seem to outgrow the practice faster than you might expect. Try your best to go with the flow when it comes to swaddling. Use it if it works for you, and feel free to move on if and when it doesn’t.
If you have questions about swaddling — especially about how to do it safely — don’t hesitate to reach out to your child’s doctor or health visitor for advice and support.