Friday, October 22, 2010

Sleep Tight . . . Right?

Millie writes:

Swaddling – also called “bundling” - is the practice of wrapping a baby up tightly with his arms and legs bound to his body so that he can sleep. Swaddling has been going on for centuries, with many parents swearing it was the only way they could get their newborns to sleep.

There are many theories about why it works. Some people say that it keeps a baby from “startling” itself away (you know that galvanic “sleep jerk” you get when you're about to nod off? Well, babies get that, too), and some say that it's comforting because it mimics the feeling of being in the mother's womb and makes the baby feel secure.

I bundled my wee ones occasionally (not that they'd stay that way, my babies were all big limb-wavers) and so did just about every other parent I know. However, recent research has shown that it may be time to find alternatives to bundling.

In the September 2010 issue of the International Journal of Childbirth Education, Nancy Mohrbacher (breastfeeding specialist and author of The Breastfeeding Answer Book) cited several studies that seem to show that swaddling at birth not only delays the development of good nursing habits, it can retard overall growth and be stressful for babies. There have been studies overseas which indicate that the enforced lack of movement caused by swaddling can contribute to an increase in lung infections, potentially fatal overheating and SIDS. Parenting magazine's Dr. Williams Sears says that swaddling babies too frequently or after about 3 months of age can contribute to hip dysplasia (deformity and dislocation of the hip joint).

Well, obviously these are extreme worst-case scenarios chosen to illustrate the authors' points; I'm not trying to use scare tactics here. Still, finding alternatives to swaddling seems like an idea whose time is coming, especially when you consider that nothing works all the time for any baby.

Skin Contact

Holding him skin-to-skin is one of the easiest, most convenient, most effective ways to soothe a cranky babe. Tuck a half-naked baby (it's just lunacy to do this without a diaper!) on your naked chest and let them soak up the closeness. It works just as well for daddies as it does for mamas; if you're in a semi-public situation wear a spaghetti-strap tank or a bathing suit top, anything that lets the baby lay his skin against yours. Oh, and dads – if you're furry, you can expect to lose a tiny handful or two of hair to that “grasping” reflex.


My ex-mother-in-law calls it “elephanting” - that reflex parents have of rocking back and forth when they're holding a baby. (Experienced parents elephant when they're holding babies, puppies, chicks, dolls or 10-pound bags of sugar – this is how we recognize each other in the grocery store.) It's automatic because it works; babies spent nine months sloshing around in amniotic fluid whenever Mama moved, and they like motion. Rock Baby to sleep in a rocking chair, carry him in a sling, walk around the house or take him for a ride in the car. Many parents swear by wind-up swings; there are even after-market attachments that can turn an entire crib into a rocking bed.


Singing works wonders, so sing away and don't worry if you don't hit all the notes – most babies don't know any better. (Well, Red knew better, but he was a special case.) Hum, read the sports page in a soothing voice, or walk around pointing out the sights - “. . . and here we find ourselves in the famous Living Room. If you look out the right side of the father, you will see the mantel clock, which is a major tourist attraction in our town.” White noise works for some babies, so try static (tune the radio or TV to a spot between stations) or a fan aimed away from the baby.


Establishing a bedtime ritual isn't just for older kids; even for babies, a bedtime routine will signal that sleep is coming and it's a good thing. Make sure the baby is fed and clean, and then experiment until you find what works for him. Some things I've used are scented-water baths, special bedtime songs, stories, rocking and back rubs. Kisses and hugs should definitely be in there somewhere, too! Of course, with a swaddling-aged baby, feeding will probably send them off to dreamland most often; then the challenge is getting them into bed without waking them back up again, but that's another story!

Parenting: Ask Dr. Sears: Alternatives to Baby Swaddling, Dr. William Sears
International Journal of Childbirth Education: Rethinking Swaddling, Nancy Mohrbacher


  1. wow, and to think just an hour ago, I was wishing I had known about these:

    I read about it on the blog of Katie Allison Granju who wrote a book about attachment parenting with Dr. Sears.

    I dunno. I can see how overbundling could be a concern, but Emme couldn't sleep without swaddling for 8 months--which I thought was excessive until I read all the comments on KAG's post. Evan could have stood with swaddling at least until 4 or 5 mos, but was so big we couldn't keep him in a swaddle at all by then.

    I was trained (and have seen it bear out time and again) that swaddleing HELPS the newborn with breastfeeding, as the deep pressure input helps them to calm down and organize, so I find that really interesting that point was made.

  2. I didn't use swaddling as a calming technique. After reading Ashley Montagu's book "Touching, the human significance of skin" I found that skin on skin snuggling is usually the best remedy for restless baby syndrome.

    check it out at

  3. I always felt claustrophobic about swaddling my babies, and one result was that the older one was constantly startling himself awake. I think in moderation, and only very very early on, it can be OK.


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