As a new parent, there are many things to learn about caring for your baby. But one thing you probably have already learned is that she needs plenty of sleep. Babies don’t come with an instruction manual, but fortunately, their brains have special wires connecting them to their parents’ brains which help parents figure out what babies need. For many newborns, getting enough sleep means swaddling.
Swaddling is wrapping your baby snugly in a blanket or cloth so that her arms are close to her body and aren’t flailing around. There are several ways to baby swaddle, but the goal is always the same: keeping your little one warm and comfortable while also preventing movement that could wake her up.
Although swaddling isn’t a modern invention, there is new research about how sleep patterns have changed over time, which sleep research can help explain why swaddling helps babies.
For the past hundred years or so, parents have been advised to let their baby “cry it out” when she’s trying to fall asleep. But in recent decades, scientists have realized that this advice isn’t good for babies’ brains because they need human contact while falling asleep. It turns out that all mammals need some comfort when falling asleep—it’s even true of lab rats! One study found that when lab rats were put in an unfamiliar area and left alone with no cuddles at all for three hours, 50% died. And although humans are more self-sufficient than lab rats, babies are still mammals with basic needs. They need human contact when they feel lonely or stressed to feel safe and comfortable enough to fall asleep.
So how does this help us understand why swaddling helps babies sleep? If newborns’ brains have special wires connecting them to their parents’ brains, one of the messages parents send through these connections is, “I’m here! Everything’s okay!” Babies don’t even have to see their parents send this message—newborns can recognize mothers by smell alone. This cue from the mother tells the baby that she doesn’t need to cry because everything is fine, so it’s logical that being swaddled would help calm her down.
But this isn’t the whole story of why swaddling works. The arms are also part of how babies sleep, so making sure they are restrained helps keep the baby asleep. And if your baby sleeps better with being wrapped up tightly all night long, that’s okay too. Love is enough reason for swaddling, but understanding how it can help makes good sense.
After all, there’s nothing like a good night’s sleep to make for a happy and healthy baby.