Swaddling a baby by wrapping it snugly in swaddling cloths to restrict movement has been practiced since around 4000 B.C. in Central Asia. Migrating people used back-pack cradle boards to carry babies, and thus started the practice of swaddling. As migration continued through generations, swaddling became a permanent part of their lives. In Biblical times, a newborn baby was washed, rubbed with salt and oil, and then wrapped with strips of cloth. This kept the baby warm and was thought to ensure that the child's limbs would grow straight. By the late 15th century, babies were swaddled for the first 8 or 9 months of life. The baby was wrapped in linen bands from head to foot, with a stay band attached to the forehead and the shoulders to secure the head. This was thought to ensure the baby would grow up without physical deformity.
In the 17th century, opinion started to change regarding swaddling. More and more physicians and surgeons began to dispute the idea that wrapping a baby tightly in swaddling helped develop straight limbs. And because babies would be swaddled and then left for long periods without washing or comforting (particularly with wet nurses), it became associated with neglect. This sentiment grew, starting in England and then spreading later to Western Europe. By the end of the 18th century, more and more people in the Western world rejected swaddling. Many Eastern and tribal people, however, continued to use swaddling throughout this period.
Today, the practice of swaddling is coming back into favor. At birth, the sudden freedom of movement can be distressing to a baby. The thought behind modern swaddling is that it simulated the closeness of the womb. Since the early 1990s, medical studies have shown that placing a baby on its back to sleep reduces the risk of SIDS. A swaddled baby sleeps better on its back, so swaddling has been recommended more and more to new parents. Swaddling also prevents newborns from waking themselves with their startle reflex. Studies had described two main effect of swaddling babies: they are calmer with fewer movement and get more REM sleep. Swaddling a crying infant decreases blood pressure and pressure in the brain, both of which become elevated at the onset of distress. A distressed baby calms down and relaxes when swaddled. Colic is alleviated when a baby is swaddled and held upright on the shoulder so that food can be properly digested. Make note however that a swaddled baby should never be left to sleep on its stomach because of the restricted movement.
To be effective, a baby must remain snugly wrapped in the baby blanket while asleep. Modern swaddling is done in cotton receiving blankets, cotton muslin wraps, or specialized baby blanket swaddles. Loose or ineffective wrapping using a too small baby blanket can be kicked off by a restless baby. In these cases, the risk of SIDS increases as the baby blanket can cover the baby's face. There is also a danger when too heavy or multiple baby blankets are used to swaddle a baby. This can cause overheating in the baby and increases the risk of SIDS. By the time a baby is learning to roll over, parents should stop swaddling. When rolling, the baby needs the use of its hand and arms to adjust their head position.
There are several things that should be watched when swaddling a baby.
Tight swaddling can increase the risk of hip dysplasia. Tight swaddling can lead to life-threatening hyperthermia. A study showed a fourfold increase in developing respiratory infections in swaddled babies. Swaddling can be linked with a prolonged recovery from weight loss after birth. This is thought to be caused by the fact that swaddling does not allow skin to skin contact between the mother and child, which reduces the stress of being born and helps maintain the baby's body temperature.
Swaddling is still practiced worldwide, but has more acceptance in some countries than others. It is the parent's choice as to whether they swaddle a newborn. Most hospitals swaddle newborns, so if it seems to calm the baby, life will be much easier if the practice is continued when the baby goes home. There are many baby blankets available now to make swaddling easier, so make sure to find the baby blanket that works best for you.