Swaddling - A Lost Art

April 26, 2017

Swaddling - A Lost Art

We’ve all seen itthe classic swaddle. Just about every newborn in every hospital in the U.S. is wrapped up tightly in a blue and pink striped blanket like a cherubic burrito. Parents stand in awe of how quickly and expertly the final swaddle is achieved by maternity nurses after breastfeeding or a diaper change. And baby sleeps so peacefully still tightly wrapped hours later.

You think you’ve mastered this technique in your prenatal classes but once baby is born, you fumble to even hold them let alone try to control their flailing limbs and wrap them up in a blanket.

Perhaps you manage to wrap baby up in something close to a swaddle. But five minutes later, baby has already busted free and is wailing again. You’re sleep deprived, overwhelmed, and exhausted by all the new things you’ve already had to learn baths, breastfeeding, diaper changes, etc. After a while, you start to wonder if proper swaddling is a skill taught in some kind of ninja-esque school only for nurses!

Or maybe you get home and start questioning why you even need to swaddle baby in the first place. It seems like every time to you try, baby screams more the minute you start to swaddle. Or escapes the blanket’s tight confines like a miniature Houdini! You struggle to shower every day and eat three solid meals, and you can’t be bothered with swaddling every hour just so baby might catch a two minute nap.

This blog post will make an expert swaddler out of you and help your baby sleep better so you can sleep better!

Why Swaddle - The Science of Swaddling

During the last few months in the womb, babies have very limited space. Every time they try to move, they’re always bumping up against something. Remember all those “ouch, what are you doing in there?” moments during pregnancy? Well, what felt like baby doing backflips was probably them just moving their leg a little bit and kicking your bladder just enough to help you pee for the four millionth time that day. So imagine what they experience when they are born and experience the sudden ability to freely move their limbs? It can be scary and disorienting.

Now add to this mix the fact that newborns don’t have much control over their arms and legs. Their brain is trying to tell their body to move the hand up to their mouth so they can suck on something but instead they end up punching themselves in the face or just kicking their foot at the air. When they see a hand whizzing past their eyes, they’re wondering what it is and get scared of this unknown flying object not even realizing that it’s their own hand! As babies develop, around the three month mark, their movements are far more coordinated and purposeful so they’re less likely to have a flailing arm clock them in the nose, let alone be afraid of it. But during those first few months? It’s no wonder babies like to be firmly swaddled and protected from any unknown bumps to the head.

How to Swaddle - The Basics

Give your baby a BIG HUG by swaddling him/her in a blanket as shown below:

Swaddling - A Lost Art

Step 1: Place your blanket on a flat, stable surface in a diamond shape and fold down the top corner. Place your baby on the blanket's folded corner so that the base of his/her neck is lying on the crease.

Step 2: Gently apply pressure to your baby's right arm and wait until the arm relaxes down. Then, while holding the arm in place, take the same corner of the blanket and wrap it across the body, tucking the extra fabric UNDER the baby's left side. Be sure to make the swaddle tight by holding your hand on the wrapped fabric (under the baby's left arm) and giving a firm but gentle tug on the open side of the fabric.

Step 3: Take the bottom corner and fold it up, tucking any extra fabric over the baby's left arm and under the body. You do not need to swaddle the legs tightly, although some babies may prefer the security of having their legs tucked snugly into the blanket. For an "advanced swaddle" this corner can be brought up between the baby's legs instead, to give the infant more freedom.

Step 4: Finish the swaddle by applying gentle pressure to the baby's left arm and waiting until the arm relaxes down at the side of the body. Now, holding the arm down, bring the final corner across the body. Ensure this is done snugly and tuck any remaining fabric either into the front of the swaddle (as shown) OR under the baby’s body, thus using the baby's weight to prevent the swaddle from becoming loose with any movements.

Watch the following video as further demonstration for proper infant swaddling: How To Wrap A Baby - 3 Ways of Wrapping

Perfecting the Swaddle - Nurse-Style

For the perfect swaddle every time, remember these additional tips:

  • Square blankets are easier for swaddling than rectangular blankets.
  • Lightweight cotton or fleece fabrics make the best swaddle blankets. Keep in mind the current environment and/or temperature when choosing your blanket.
  • Swaddle your baby VERY snugly. A tight swaddle is imperative to ensure your baby feels secure. Ideally, you want it to be so tight that you can only squeeze two fingers in between the swaddle blanket and your baby’s torso, giving him/her only enough room to breathe easily.

Remember all fabrics have a certain amount of "give," so it is difficult to swaddle your baby too tightly. Besides, a loose swaddle could cause a SIDS related hazard. So keep your swaddle snug!

  • Swaddle younger babies with their arms down by their sides. As your baby grows older and needs the swaddle less, you can start swaddling with one arm bent up by his/her face.
  • The legs can be loosely swaddled or excluded from the swaddle entirely, based on your baby's needs or preferences.
  • Use the weight of your baby on top of the blanket to act as a counterweight and prevent him/her from escaping the swaddle, Houdini-style.

To prevent overheating, babies only need one extra layer of clothing than we do. So dress your baby as you are dressed for the current environment and consider the swaddle blanket as his/her necessary extra layer.

    • NEVER use a swaddle in a car seat, as it renders the harness mechanism ineffective and puts your baby at risk of injury in a crash. If you want to recreate a swaddle in a car seat, first strap your baby appropriately into it and then place a blanket over the top, snugly tucking it in all around him/her.

      Swaddling - A Lost Art | Tranquilo Mat

      But My Baby HATES to be Swaddled...

      I hear this so often you’d think nearly every baby hates to be swaddled but 90% of the time, it’s simply a misconception. Parents assume that because baby keeps crying when they are being swaddled or starts crying while they are being swaddled that baby “hates it.” Or in many cases, parents think “he always breaks out of it so quickly and I find him/her peacefully sleeping unwrapped,” so baby must “hate being swaddled.” Sorry to say, but most of the time, especially for babies 0-3 months, this is all wrong!

      All babies can easily break out of a swaddle that’s too loose. As mentioned above, babies are always involuntarily moving their arms and legs, even as they sleep, so if the swaddle isn’t tight enough, sooner or later, they’ll end up un-swaddled but still asleep. But ultimately, being un-swaddled will allow their little limbs to keep zooming around the crib and are bound to wake them up sooner than if they were still snugly swaddled. Of course, as babies get older (e.g., 3+ months), they may still enjoy swaddling but prefer one arm to be out or swaddled up by their chin.

      As for babies crying even after swaddling or starting while swaddling begins? Babies are tricky little creatures. They don’t like to be disturbed so even just the gentle pressure to their arm to get into the swaddle can make them upset. And yet,  once they are inside the snug swaddle, they calm down. Just think of that toddler who is so tired but refuses to nap. Once they finally fall asleep, it’s exactly what they needed but they couldn’t connect the dots and use logic to get there. Babies are even less developed so they think they don’t like the act of swaddling, until they are blissfully swaddled!

      And the babies who keep crying even after swaddled? It’s probably much of the same as above except they just get a bit more upset and require a little extra soothing to calm down before they realize“oh yeah, I like this swaddle thing.” If this is the case, add in some of the other S’s: Sucking, Swaying, Shh-ing or Side/Stomach Lying to get them calm and ready for a nice long nap!

      So to review, because of their time in the womb, almost all babies love to be swaddled and the perfect swaddle has a few key components:

      • A large but lightweight blanket.
      • Baby’s arms down by his/her side.
      • A VERY snug swaddleonly two fingers should fit between blanket and baby’s chest.
      • To keep swaddle snug for hours, use baby’s body weight to hold the blanket ends in place.
      • Add some extra S’s to soothe baby right to sleep.

      Check out Melissa's Facebook Live videos on swaddling!



      Now that you’re an expert, what’s the key to a good swaddle in your household?

      Featured photo credit Anna MacIsaac Photography


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