Swaddling babies: There's a right way and a wrong way

Swaddling babies is on the rise: Add it to the long list of mixed messages new parents get about infant care. It helps fussy babies calm down, but given some health concerns, your swaddling technique (and frequency) should be checked out.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/The Christian Science Monitor
Swaddling babies: it's a new controversy for new parents. Here, Olga Thembela holds her swaddled newborn in Tshepisong, South Africa.

One of the first things many new parents learn these days is the craft of swaddling their infant children. I, for one, remember with a feeling almost approaching fondness the moment during parenting class when I had to demonstrate for all assembled how to swaddle a doll in a theoretically sound manner. (I did it, more or less, a rare personal triumph over my own lack of spatial relations skills.)

Swaddling is great. It has a way of transforming a wildly flailing, highly annoyed noise-emitting little vortex of fuss into a sweet, restful, convenient-to-carry bundle of joy – the kind you'd always anticipated bringing into your lives, and have been somewhat disappointed to see only intermittently among all the diaper changes and random meltdowns.

But – like basically anything baby related – the practice has a recently renewed sheen of controversy. Via BBC:

Writing in the journal Archives of Disease in Childhood, Prof [Nicholas] Clarke [of Southhampton University Hospital] argued: "There has been a recent resurgence of swaddling because of its perceived palliative effect on excessive crying, colic and promoting sleep.
"In order to allow for healthy hip development, legs should be able to bend up and out at the hips. This position allows for natural development of the hip joints.
"The babies' legs should not be tightly wrapped in extension and pressed together."

Fear of hip damage runs side-by-side with other concerns about infants overheating (ah, the often grandma-instigated temptation of adding that second ... and third ... and fourth blanket) and a raised risk of crib death. Granted that the concerns largely focus on improperly restrictive swaddling (and/or parents who place swaddled infants to sleep on their faces, who are hopefully a small-to-nonexistent percentage of the population) but it's still scary stuff.

So: fantastic. Swaddling is the best way to help your infant sleep and make your lives as parents feel manageable, and it's also, of course, dangerous. Throw it on the pile of stresses of being a new parent, along with exclusive-to-the-point-of-exhaustion breast-feeding, controversy over co-sleeping, and the ambitious and almost certainly overstated diaper-free fad that seemed to be sweeping one small, extremely well-documented part of Brooklyn earlier this year.

The controversy over the safety of swaddling isn't, of course, new – the practice has gone into and out of vogue many times over the years. Early this year, Huffington Post noted a back-and-forth over the practice taking place in day cares, where a pitched battle was and still is being fought about the balance between absolute child safety (fears over hip problems or swaddled babies struggling with loose blankets or ending up on their faces) and child happiness (getting adequate sleep).

All that written, there is, thankfully, some agreement on methods of swaddling that avoid some or all of the risk: If you're a parent of an infant well-and-truly freaked out by all the back and forth there is a nicely written resource on the website of Britain's National Childbirth Trust that provides an overview of the practice, the risks, and (most helpfully) how to do it right, including a video called "How to Hip-Healthy Swaddle your Baby."

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