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Swaddling your newborn: Why to do it, and how to do it right

Swaddling re-creates the sensation of being in the womb for infants, which soothes them and helps them sleep. (Video: Patrick Martin, Breanna Muir/The Washington Post)

Swaddling is an art, really, and through two children, I never mastered it. Both of my babes were happy and content in the hospital, when they were wrapped like little burritos by those capable nurses in the postpartum unit. That all went downhill once we got home. I tried to re-create those magical bundles, but no matter what I did, within minutes their arms had busted out, and they were anything but calm. It was my first mom fail.

When it is done right, swaddling can help calm your baby and even make it easier to get him to sleep. It is a great skill to have in your parenting arsenal during those early and overwhelming days. To find out how to do it well (or at least better than I did), I asked a couple of doulas to share their secrets. Here is what they told me.

The first three months of a baby’s life are often referred to as the “fourth trimester,” says Emily Smith, the co-founder of Doulas of Capitol Hill. As they transition from the confined space of the womb to the wide open world, swaddling can help babies feel safe and cozy. “It creates a close, secure environment and keeps their bodies pretty constricted,” Smith says. “That helps decrease the neurological stimulation while their bodies and brains are still immature.”

Michelle Cohen, a birth and postpartum doula and yoga instructor with Savor It Studios, agrees. “When you swaddle, you’re creating a cozy cocoon,” she says. “When they’re in the womb, they’re kicking and pushing against resistance, and a confined space. Having too much space feels very disconcerting to them.”

How to create a bedtime routine for kids that works, in 30 minutes or less

Any blanket will work, Smith says, from the standard hospital-issued small flannel ones to a quilted piece your grandmother made. Many parents gravitate toward muslin blankets, such as these by Aden and Anais. At 47 inches square, they are larger than the old flannel standbys, making it easier to get a good wrap, Cohen says, and they can also be used for tummy time, or as a nursing cover or sunshade on the stroller.

Or you could use one of the pre-made swaddlers that are equipped with Velcro fasteners or zippers, to simplify the process. These are particularly useful, Smith says, for older babies who are rolling over, or active “Houdini-like” babies who are busting out of the blanket wraps. Once a baby is around 3 months old and moving around on his own, consider one of these sleep sacks as he transitions from the full swaddle to freedom. It can still make him feel snug and safe, and he will not be able to get out of it and risk ending up with a blanket covering his face, she says.

Swaddling, step by step

Cohen shared her instructions on how to swaddle:

  1. Place the blanket on a flat surface, turning it so it is a diamond shape. Fold down the top corner to create an even, flat edge.
  2. Position the baby on the blanket with his shoulders lined up with the folded, even edge of the blanket.
  3. Draw one of your baby’s arms down by his side gently, take the left side of the blanket and sweep it across the baby’s body pretty snugly, so there is very little slack, and tuck it under the baby’s body, completely, sliding the excess material under the baby. It should be smooth, not bulky.
  4. Then draw the bottom corner up, leaving a little space for the baby to kick his legs and wiggle a little at the bottom (Smith calls this “froggy legs,” which is the natural position babies are in during their first weeks, as they adjust to being out of the womb). The swaddle should be tighter at the shoulders than at the hip, and tighter at the hips than at the feet if you get it right. Tuck that bottom tip of blanket into the edge you created earlier, across the baby’s chest.
  5. Then take the right side of the blanket, (which is laid out like a triangle after the first two folds are complete), tug it a little to remove any slack and wrap it around the baby. Depending on the size of the blanket and the baby, it may go around once or twice. If there is extra overhang, tuck it into the front.

You will know you have done it right, Cohen says, if your baby settles down (though it may take a bit of swaying and a pacifier to help him along). Never leave your baby unattended while getting ready to swaddle, Smith says, even if you think he is too little to roll off the bed.

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