Swaddling goes back more than 2 000 years, when babies were wrapped in bandages to make sure their arms and legs grew straight. Today, newborns are tightly wrapped in receiving blankets and look like little pink and blue cocoons in the hospital nursery. Experienced moms and midwives swaddle babies with ease – but you’re probably wondering if this is really necessary and how to do it. Swaddling is recommended for the first few days or weeks after birth to ‘mimic’ the sensation of being in the womb. While some babies don’t like this and somehow manage to free their hands and arms, others are happy to be swaddled for months and can’t sleep without it. There’s no hard-and-fast rule regarding how and how long swaddling should be done, but there are a few safety measures you should follow.
How to swaddle
A rectangular, slightly stretchy, receiving blanket is ideal.
- Lie your baby on his back, slightly to the right of the middle at the top of the blanket.
- Fold and tuck the corner of the right side of the blanket over your baby’s chest and right arm.
- Take the longer left corner of the blanket and tuck it over his chest and left arm.
- Finally, take the bottom left and right corners of the blanket, fold them over and around your baby’s chest and tuck them into the back.
Your baby’s arms are now tucked tightly at his sides while his legs are free to move. Put your baby into his crib on his side with a rolled blanket tucked into his back and cover him with a light or warm blanket, depending on the weather. If the weather is cold, it’s safer to warm up the room or keep baby in bed with you rather than covering him with too many blankets. Open the blanket so he can stretch his arms and legs when he wakes for a feed – ideally, there should be little to no clothing between his skin and yours during breastfeeding. When putting your baby back to sleep, alternate the side he sleeps on so that he doesn’t get a flat ear and head from sleeping on the same side.
Why did swaddling get a bad name?
In Biblical days, after the cord was cut, the newborn was washed, rubbed with salt and oil and ‘swathed’ with strips of cloth. This was to make sure the baby grew straight. By the Elizabethan era (1500s), babies were swaddled until they were eight or nine months old. Swaddling went from bad to worse in the 17th century when babies from wealthy families were looked after by wet-nurses who bandaged them to boards so that the numerous babies were not a nuisance. Sometimes, babies were so badly bandaged that their limbs grew crooked. Because the babies couldn’t move, their arms and legs became very weak. Back then, they did not realise that a vitamin D deficiency (caused by lack of sunshine) caused rickets and that’s why bones did not grow straight.
In South Africa, a popular way of swaddling babies is on their mothers’ backs. With the baby’s legs stretched around mom’s back, hip sockets are in the correct position and this helps to strengthen the hip joint. The baby is comforted because he is not separated from his mother and moves with her, indirectly strengthening his muscles and spine. However, mothers must be careful not to use too many heavy blankets, especially in hot weather, because babies can overheat. Their heads need to be covered with a beanie when it’s cold and a sun hat in summer. Babies kept on their mother’s backs for too long don’t have the opportunity to reach for things with their hands and this can delay coordination skills. They should also be given time on the floor so that they don’t miss out on crawling and learning to walk. Skin-to-skin contact during the first hour after birth is better than separating baby and mother and swaddling baby. When you’re shown how to bath your baby, you will be taught how to swaddle him. During the first few days after the birth, watch your baby to see how he responds to swaddling so that you understand how your baby prefers this to be done – with his hands up, or down, in or out of the blanket, tightly wrapped or slightly looser. There’s more to swaddling than meets the eye Swaddling can help you to understand your baby. If your baby cries a lot when you swaddle him, perhaps it’s because he doesn’t like feeling so restricted. The majority of babies adapt to the way they’re swaddled, whether tightly or loosely, implying that most tots quietly accept life the way it is and happily do what they’re told.