When babies have trouble sleeping, their parents do, too. And the effects of sleep deprivation can be extremely acute on one’s mental and physical health. A mother may lose up to 350 hours of sleep during her baby’s first year of life, resulting in irritability, added stress, and confused thinking.

Many parents have found relief for their restless infants through swaddling. In fact, the practice of swaddling—wrapping a baby’s body snugly in a blanket to sleep—is not a new concept. It has been around for centuries. Many Native Americans traditionally swaddled their babies. Remember the etching of Sacajawea on the U.S. dollar coin with her baby bundled snugly on her back?

According to Dr. Harvey Karp in his book, "The Happiest Baby on the Block," "For tens of thousands of years, mothers living in cool climates have swaddled their babies. . . . History has recorded that Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar and Jesus were all swaddled as babies. . . . And now, our nation has also rediscovered that babies like being wrapped as snug as a bug in a rug."

Swaddling is practiced widely in hospital nurseries, and parents in countries such as Albania, Turkey and Afghanistan have used traditional swaddling methods for generations. These techniques often include special swaddling clothes and bands, or several cloths positioned in a particular way to keep the baby secure.

Parents have been strongly advised in recent years to place infants to sleep on their backs to reduce the risk of death from sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS), but babies in this position are often afflicted with the startle (or Moro) reflex, in which their arms and legs pop up and jerk spasmodically. Naturally, this wakes them up or prevents them from falling asleep. Exhausted parents may respond by allowing their babies to sleep on their stomachs. Instead, medical professionals recommend simulating a "fourth trimester" for infants, in which womblike conditions are re-created, reducing the likelihood of the startle reflex. Swaddling can be a very effective tool in this regard as it makes the infant feel as if it is still being held tightly in its mother’s body. Studies show that parents are more likely to encourage infants to sleep on their backs when they are swaddled (Pediatrics 141:398–404, 2002).

Swaddling may also make a baby feel as if it’s being cuddled in its mother’s arms. Research has proven that being touched is essential to babies’ normal development. Further, swaddling can help to get babies on a sleeping schedule. For some infants, the mere act of starting the swaddling process acts as a signal that it is time for bed, and their eyes begin to droop in sleep.

Researchers at University Children’s Hospital, in Brussels, Belgium, concluded that, "[W]hen infants between six and 16 weeks of age sleep swaddled and supine, they sleep longer, spend more time in NREM sleep, and awake less spontaneously than when not swaddled" ("Influence of Swaddling on Sleep and Arousal Characteristics of Healthy Infants," Pediatrics, May 2005).

If the benefits are so numerous, why don’t more parents swaddle their babies? It can be a challenge to learn how to swaddle a baby properly using a standard blanket. The blanket must be tight enough to stay fastened and make the baby feel secure, and yet loose enough so that the infant doesn’t become overheated. Once a baby starts moving around, he often kicks off his blanket, and a loose blanket in the crib can increase the risk of SIDS. And most receiving blankets aren’t large enough to properly swaddle a growing infant after a few months or even weeks.

But a wide variety of specially made swaddling blankets designed to overcome the limitations of traditional swaddling are now available. These blankets may be structured to fit a baby’s shape, long enough to wrap around his body, and might have fasteners to prevent an infant from pulling the swaddle loose.

Some parents give up swaddling too quickly because their babies don’t seem to like it, but parents who have swaddled successfully report that it doesn’t take long before most babies realize they love it. True, some babies will never grow accustomed to swaddling, but the vast majority sleep better as a result of being swaddled. If your baby resists swaddling at first, Dr. Karp advises, "Be patient. You may have to practice a few times before [the baby] gets used to it. Try swaddling when she’s already sleepy and in her most receptive frame of mind."

The results of swaddling are likely to be a better-sleeping baby—and more well-rested parents. Proven effective over centuries of parenting and research, swaddling is a practice that really works.

Author's Bio: 

Susan M. Heim is the author of "Oh, Baby! 7 Ways a Baby Will Change Your Life the First Year," as well as two other parenting books. Visit her website at www.susanheim.com.