Swaddling. Is it a “crutch?” No, but even if it is, parents need crutches

It never ceases to amaze me how, for almost any parenting technique or strategy you could name, it’s possible to find a professional naysayer.  The latest example is swaddling, which several professionals came out against in an article in yesterday’s Globe and Mail.

I’m not an expert on swaddling. We actually tried this with our first child many years ago. I could never master the technique. I can’t fold a T-shirt, so swaddling an arm and leg-waving baby is way beyond me.  But I really hope that parents who find swaddling helpful won’t start to worry, feel guilty or abandon a practice that they find helpful because some nurse or doctor can quote you chapter and verse about how it went wrong, sometime, somewhere.

Yesterday it was also suggested that swaddling can cause babies to overheat, that it keeps them from putting their hand to their mouths, that it cause Sudden Infant Death syndrome (SIDS), or that might even prevent Sudden Infant Death.

Any parenting strategy can, theoretically, be done poorly or be over-used.

So like…

If you’re a swaddler, don’t swaddle your baby in layers and layers of polar fleece whilst the thermostat is turned up to 27.

Don’t swaddle incredibly, incredibly tightly.

Don’t leave your baby swaddled 24/7. They do need to move their arms and legs. Tiny infants (and parents) also benefit from from lots of physical contact especially skin-to-skin contact.

Please don’t swaddle your baby because you think it will prevent SIDS. And if you do swaddle, don’t worry that it will cause SIDS. With SIDS the main proven risk factors are sleeping on the front, exposure to tobacco smoke and poverty/social deprivation. Nothing else matters nearly as much.

In the ever-burgeoning expert parenting advice game I have noticed a recurring phenomenon that I call tunnel vision. That’s when experts say that all parents should do, or not do, something based research or bad outcomes that are primarily relevant in their area of knowledge or practice, without considering the big picture about why some parents might find the technique helpful. I’ve seen orthopedic specialists recommend against swaddling because they’ve seen hip problems in a few babies. I’m sure they’re telling the truth, but does that mean nobody should ever do it? No, they should show parents how to swaddle properly and figure out which babies might be at risk for hip dysplasia.

And let me say this about the notion, expressed by one professional in the Globe article, that swaddling is a crutch for parents. To dismiss a something like swaddling as a crutch is offensive, and few parents are going to listen to anybody who talks like that. Swaddling is not a crutch! It’s a coping mechanism – in some cases as much for the baby as the parents. Don’t we want parents and babies to cope? I sure do.

But, even if we wanted to call swaddling, co-sleeping, baby carriers, infant swings, extended nursing, pacifiers, bottlefeeding – you name it – crutches, then I’d say, well, parents need crutches, lots of them. Better to use a crutch than to fall on your butt because you can’t cope.

However, the trick with parenting crutches is to use them sensibly. Think about your child’s overall needs, not just the one or two things that the “crutch” helps with. Few crutches last forever and believe me, 20 years from now you’ll look back and wonder what all the fuss was about.

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About uncommonjohn

I am one of Canada's top parenting writers. My areas of expertise and interest include debunking bad parenting advice (especially about sleep), self-regulation, fatherhood, child development, children's mental health, childbirth and breastfeeding.
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6 Responses to Swaddling. Is it a “crutch?” No, but even if it is, parents need crutches

  1. Juliette says:

    Agreed. This seems a lot like the co-sleeping criticisms – and the same solution – teach parents how to do it safely. Don’t just say “don’t”. It seems like some experts are hell-bent on taking away time-honoured techniques (didn’t I read somewhere that Jesus was swaddled?) that might make a parent’s life easier (like co-sleeping – far better to get out of bed several times a night to tend to an infant, apparently).

    (oh – and back sleep reduces the incidence of SIDS – you’ve got a typo there I think)

  2. Jennifer says:

    Hmmm, telling people “don’t” instead of teaching them how to do it safely…doesn’t that sound like a conservative (small ‘”c”) view of sex education as well?

  3. Kristilyn says:

    Great post! I’m currently dealing with swaddling my little one who is 8 weeks old. He was swaddled for the first few weeks of his life and then not until recently. He seems to be going through a sleep regression, so I’ve taken to swaddling him for his nap and at night and it’s working wonders. He slept for 7 hours straight last night and is finally napping longer than 20 minutes. Of course, I don’t plan to use it all the time … I love using my carrier and walking around with him, and he’s really good at going to bed on his own, usually sleeping up to 4 or 5 hours without being swaddled. With the sleep regression, I had to try SOMETHING since he was so tired, but still wouldn’t sleep. I read the Globe article and I feel like people are always trying to scare parents no matter what parents are trying to do. I agree with you, sometimes you need a clutch. If it works, it works.

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