It seems the rules for how a baby sleeps the best and safest (as well as everything else about parenting) change every few years: sleep sack or blanket, back or stomach, in the crib or sharing the bed. What remains a constant are the benefits of swaddling for sleep: The snug feeling actually mimics how little ones feel in the womb, so it can be especially calming at nighttime (during the day, too, for that matter). “Most babies are happiest and sleep best when swaddled for the first four to five months of life,” says Harvey Karp, MD, pediatrician, best-selling author of The Happiest Baby/Toddler series, and founder of HappiestBaby.com. “Once your baby starts rolling, that’s when you need to stop swaddling—on the stomach, swaddled babies do not have free hands to push up and liberate the face to breathe.”
What Is Swaddling?
Swaddling is wrapping a blanket securely around a newborn baby's body. It can help soothe infants as it makes them feel as though they're still in their mother's womb.
Swaddling is not a new technique. In fact, everyone from Alexander the Great to Julius Caesar was wrapped up that way as babies. Karp says the tradition of “swaddling” began with parents cuddling their babies in their arms before they moved on to using animal skins and then thick cotton bands (aka swaddling clothes), and swaddling differed regionally. In Tibet, nomadic tribes wrapped their infants tightly in a blanket, secured them with rope and then strapped them to the side of a yak, while some Native Americans used papooses—a swaddle-backpack combo—composed of bark and hide.
Parents often complain that it’s difficult to get just the “right” swaddle, while doctors warn of the risks related to improper swaddling technique (overheating, risky rolling, hip problems). This prompted Karp to launch a new swaddle—the Sleepea—this week. It’s modeled after the built-in swaddle in Karp’s award-winning smart baby bed, Snoo, only now it can be used during the day (or in a non-Snoo baby bed). The Sleepea is so simple it’s been dubbed the “five-second swaddle”—the wrap has special mesh to prevent overheating, an inner band to keep “Houdini” babies snug, and “quiet” velcro that won’t interrupt your little ones z’s. Oh, and did we mention it's made of supersoft organic cotton? Whether you choose to use the Sleepea or your own super-swaddling abilities, there’s no doubt that the swaddling benefits for sleep are worth looking into.
Below, Karp has graciously broken down why the swaddle is the key to a better night’s sleep—for both baby and parents. Here’s to sweet dreams for all.
Prepares the Baby to Calm
“Imitating the womb triggers a powerful neurological response in infants called the calming reflex,” says Karp. “Swaddling is the cornerstone of calming because it stops an upset baby from flailing.” Once they are swaddled, you can move on to one of the other five S’s—a method for calming that Karp introduced in his book The Happiest Baby on the Block (the S’s are swaddle, side-stomach position, shush, swing, and sucking on a pacifier). Of note: The side-stomach position is great in your arms, but not safe for the crib. Karp insists that once you swaddle, snuggle, and add two or three of these other S’s, your baby will be transported into a state of deep serenity and will be ready for sleep.
Although it may have been different when we were little, now the only safe sleeping position for babies is their backs. “The problem is, an unwrapped baby feels uneasy on their back,” says Karp. Why is that? It’s because this position triggers the Moro reflex, which makes your baby feel like they’re being dropped. In response, they’ll often fling their arms out and cry, making it a challenge for them to get to sleep. This is why swaddling (with the arms down) reduces these involuntary movements and makes them feel safe, secure, and ready for sleep. Plus, swaddling protects them from themselves because newborns have no control over their arms and commonly whack themselves on the nose or face, which can disrupt sleep.
Limits the Possibility of Rolling
Bregje E. van Sleuwen, the lead scientist of a 2007 systematic review of swaddling, concluded, “The physical restraint of swaddling presumably prevents infants from turning prone during sleep before they have gained experience in turning to prone and back again when awake.” This means that swaddling helps keep your child from turning prone, or on their stomach before they know how to flip themselves back over safely onto their backs. This is important because several studies show that when a baby is unswaddled, they are eight to 38 times more at risk of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS). “As a parent, one of the top things you can do to prevent SIDS is to always sleep your baby on their back,” explains Karp. “And [proper] swaddling will help keep them there throughout the night.”
Reduces the Temptation to Bed Share
Did you know that 70% of infant sleep deaths occur in unsafe sleeping locations, such as an adult bed or sofa? What happens is that parents sometimes bring the baby to an alternate location like the sofa or bed when their little one is crying, and then the exhausted parent accidentally falls asleep while soothing or feeding them. “A swaddle and the five S’s are highly effective tools for reducing crying,” says Karp. “The more we teach parents about these tools, I’m confident we’ll reduce unsafe sleeping practices.”
We all know that both parents and little ones can always use more sleep—for babies, a good night’s rest promotes brain development and reduces their risk for obesity; for parents, it helps fight off postpartum depression, relationship stress, and more. “Swaddled babies sleep better and longer,” says Karp. “It’s important to swaddle snugly, though, otherwise their arms can wriggle free … and sleep will soon fall apart.”