Swaddling might be bad for your baby. Study finds increase risk of sudden infant death syndrome

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Dr. Shana Godfred-Cato is a pediatrician at Austin Regional Clinic.
Dr. Shana Godfred-Cato is a pediatrician at Austin Regional Clinic.

Dr. Shana Godfred-Cato is a pediatrician at Austin Regional Clinic. Credit: Austin Regional Clinic.

New parents often fret about swaddling. They look for the perfect blanket. They practice the techniques the nurse showed them in the hospital or they learned during the parenting class. They express frustration when their baby burrito doesn’t look as baby burrito as it should.

Parents shouldn’t worry about those baby burritos. “It’s really hard to do,” says Dr. Shana Godfred-Cato, a pediatrician at Austin Regional Clinic, who got her swaddling training when she was a pediatric nurse. “… Really it’s an art.”

Swaddling is known to help full-term newborns sleep more and cry less. It also improves neuromuscular development for low birth weight babies and premature babies experience less stress. However, swaddling might not be the best thing for babies.

A study in the May “Pediatrics” magazine from the American Academy of Pediatrics, found a slight link to swaddling and sudden infant death syndrome.

A lot had to do with how the babies were sleeping. Babies who were on their front or sides and were swaddled had a greater risk of SIDS, even slightly more than if they were in those same positions and not swaddled.

What the study found was that swaddling can cause some babies to sleep so soundly that they don’t arouse easily when in cardiovascular distress.

The study is another reminder, says Dr. Brad Berg, medical director of pediatrics for Scott & White Healthcare-Round Rock, that babies need to sleep on their backs and that swaddling is best for newborns.

By about six weeks, babies want to wiggle around when they sleep, and actually need to wiggle around when they sleep. There is some evidence, Berg says, that all that wiggling is how babies work on neuromuscular development, how they practice what will eventually become rolling over and crawling.

Swaddling also can become dangerous for older babies. If you’ve swaddled a baby and he gets out of the swaddle, that swaddle blanket could cover his mouth, depriving him of oxygen.

At a time when parents know not to put anything in a crib other than a fitted sheet and the baby, all of the sudden, once the baby gets out of the swaddle, you have a loose item in the crib that the baby can suffocate against, Godfred-Cato says.

Dr. Brad Berg is the medical director of pediatrics for Scott & White Healthcare-Round Rock. Credit: Scott &White

Dr. Brad Berg is the medical director of pediatrics for Scott & White Healthcare-Round Rock.
Credit: Scott & White

Many current swaddling products also become dangerous because of their thickness. Berg advises parents to not swaddle newborn babies in anything thicker than the receiving blanket they were given at the hospital — though many hospitals have stopped giving out blankets because of SIDS.

Many of the current swaddling-specific blanket products are thicker than that and could present a danger if a baby wiggled himself out of part of it, but then couldn’t get away from all of it.

Swaddling with too thick a blanket also can cause the baby to become overheated, which increases the risk of SIDS, Godfred-Cato says.

While SIDS is one of those really frustrating things that we don’t know exactly why it happens to some babies and not to others, we do know that babies who use pacifiers have a decreased risk, Godfred-Cato says, while babies whose parents smoke or who are around people who smoke have an increased risk.


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