Swaddling, or the practice of wrapping a baby in a soft warm blanket, mimics the comfortable and snug environment a newborn baby had in his mother's womb. Pediatrician Harvey Karp, M.D., author of The Happiest Baby on The Block, calls it the cornerstone of calming since it helps in decreasing startling and increasing sleep in newborns. "Wrapped babies stay soothed longer because their arms can’t flail wildly."
However, a new review of previous research recently published in the American Academy of Pediatics have linked swaddling to Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS). After looking at four studies that span two decades from the United Kingdom, Australia and the United States, it found an increased risk of SIDS when babies were swaddled for "all babies put together," said co-author Dr. Rachel Y. Moon, division head of general pediatrics at the University of Virginia School of Medicine.
There was a slight increase in risk when infants were swaddled and placed on their backs, Moon said in a CNN news report. However, the risk was much greater when infants were swaddled and placed on their sides--nearly double-- and even more when infants were swaddled and on their stomachs, according to the review.
"We already know that side and prone sleeping are unsafe for young babies, so the advice to place children on their backs for sleep is even more important when parents choose to swaddle them," study lead author, Anna S. Pease, a research associate at the University of Bristol in England, said in a statement. The study also found that the risk for SIDS in connection to swaddling increases as the baby grows up (the risk was also higher when the infants were at least 6 months old).
Alarming as it sounds, experts aren't quick to recommend that parents stop the practice of swaddling all together. Parents should simply think about how they are putting their swaddled newborns to sleep—always in a lying position, never on the side or on their tummies—and up to what age they can swaddle their young.
“Babies start to roll over between four and six months, and that point may be the best time to stop.” Dr. Pease advises.
To help you get the full benefits of swaddling without escalating the risk of SIDS for your baby, here is a video that shows a step-by-step guide on how to swaddle a baby. Note that it also recommends to stop the practice of swaddling when the baby’s is beginning to be more mobile.
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If you’re newborn outgrows swaddling, don’t worry. Miko Palo, M.D., pediatrician and former columnist in Smart Parenting magazine, explains, "Some babies tend to sleep better when they are swaddled and not awakened by their randomly jerking limbs, a reflex that babies have until a few months of life," she says. However, she also acknowledges that not all babies like being confined and some wrestle free of their blankets.
"If your newborn does not like being swaddled, you may do away with it especially since it is more dangerous to have loose blankets in the crib," Dr. Palo reiterates. "If you yourself sleep with a light blanket and are worried that your unswaddled baby might be cold, a good alternative would be to use a wearable blanket or sleep sack" she adds.