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Ambrogio Lorenzetti's Madonna and Child (1319) depicts swaddling bands.

Swaddling is an age-old practice of wrapping infants snugly in swaddling cloths, blankets or similar cloth so that movement of the limbs is tightly restricted. Swaddling bands were often used to further restrict the infant. It was commonly believed that this was essential for the infants to develop proper posture.

Swaddling fell out of favour in the seventeenth century. It has become popular again as modern medical studies indicate that swaddling assists babies to sleep, and to remain asleep; and that it lowers the risk of sudden infant death syndrome.


Origin and history

Mothers have swaddled their babies throughout history. Archaeological records suggest that swaddling first developed around 4000 B.C. in Central Asia with use of the back-pack cradle board by migrating peoples. As desertification progressed, migration from region to region became a relatively permanent way of life. Swaddling subsequently became an institutionalized part of child-rearing tradition in those same areas. [1]

Native American baby of the Nez Perce tribe, photographed by Edward S. Curtis, 1911

Votive statuettes have been found in the tombs of Ancient Greek and Roman women who died in childbirth, displaying babies in swaddling clothes. In shrines dedicated to Amphiaraus, models representing babies wrapped in swaddling clothes have been excavated. Apparently, these were frequently given as thank-offerings by anxious mothers when their infants had recovered from sickness. [2]

Probably the most famous record of swaddling is found in the New Testament concerning the birth of Jesus in Luke 2:6-2:7:

And so it was, that, while they were there, the days were accomplished that she should be delivered. And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn.

Swaddling clothes described in the Bible consisted of a cloth tied together by bandage-like strips. After an infant was born, the umbilical cord was cut and tied, and then the baby was washed, rubbed with salt and oil, and wrapped with strips of cloth. These strips kept the newborn child warm and also ensured that the child's limbs would grow straight. Ezekiel 16:4 describes Israel as unswaddled, a metaphor for abandonment. [3]

The Cholmondeley sisters and their swaddled babies. c.1600-1610

During Tudor times, swaddling involved wrapping the new baby in linen bands from head to foot to ensure the baby would grow up without physical deformity. A stay band would be attached to the forehead and the shoulders to secure the head. Babies would be swaddled like this until about 8 or 9 months. [4] In the seventeenth century the opinion towards swaddling began to change. There was an association of neglect with swaddling, especially in regard to wetnurses who would leave babies in their care, swaddled for long periods without washing or comforting them. [5]

John Locke, in his 1693 publication Some Thoughts Concerning Education, became a lobbyist for not bounding babies at all. This thought was very controversial during the time, but slowly gained ground, first in England and later elsewhere in Europe.

For instance Jean Jacques Rousseau wrote in his book Emile: Or, On Education in 1762:

The child has hardly left the mother's womb, it has hardly begun to move and stretch its limbs, when it is given new bonds. It is wrapped in swaddling bands, laid down with its head fixed, its legs stretched out, and its arms by its sides; it is wound round with linen and bandages of all sorts so that it cannot move […]. Whence comes this unreasonable custom? From an unnatural practice. Since mothers despise their primary duty and do not wish to nurse their own children, they have had to entrust them to mercenary women. These women thus become mothers to a stranger's children, who by nature mean so little to them that they seek only to spare themselves trouble. A child unswaddled would need constant watching; well swaddled it is cast into a corner and its cries are ignored […]. It is claimed that infants left free would assume faulty positions and make movements which might injure the proper development of their limbs. This is one of the vain rationalizations of our false wisdom which experience has never confirmed. Out of the multitude of children who grow up with the full use of their limbs among nations wiser than ourselves, you never find one who hurts himself or maims himself; their movements are too feeble to be dangerous, and when they assume an injurious position, pain warns them to change it.

Although this form of swaddling has fallen out of favour in the Western world, many Eastern cultures and tribal people still use it. [6]

Modern swaddling

A modern application of swaddling

A modified form of swaddling is becoming increasingly popular today as a means of settling and soothing irritable infants. [7] The lengthy swaddling cloths of mediaeval Madonna and Child paintings are now replaced with receiving blankets, muslin wraps, specialised 'winged' baby swaddles, or flannelette sheets. The confinement does carry a risk of the baby overheating if the swaddling material is too thick, or the room is too warm.[7] Swaddling also prevents newborns waking themselves with their startle reflex. [8]

Looser wrappings, tucked but not tied, can generally be kicked off by a wakeful baby. They are still useful for keeping the baby warm, without increasing the SIDS risk, because the wrappings stay well clear of the baby's face and airway. This assumes that the baby is put to sleep on its back, as anti-SIDS precautions recommend. By the time the baby is learning to roll over, often around 6 months, it should be sleeping in less restrictive coverings - so it has more freedom to respond when it succeeds in rolling over.

Modern specialized baby swaddles are designed to make it easier to swaddle a baby than with traditional square sheets or blankets. They are typically fabric blankets in a triangle, 'T' or 'Y' shape, with 'wings' that fold around the baby's torso or down over the baby's shoulders and around underneath the infant. Some of these products employ Velcro patches or other fasteners. Fabrics used include synthetic 'fleece', cotton, organic cotton, and cotton/synthetic blends. A Spandex/cotton fabric is widely used, which provides more stretch than cotton alone. The synthetic content of the fabric is not always required to be disclosed.

Medical studies

Medical studies show that swaddling reduces arousal, or the tendency for the baby to awaken through reflex motion;[8] that it can enhance neuromuscular development of the very low birth weight infant; and that it might have a role in lowering SIDS risk. [9] [10] Research has also found that swaddling helps infants stay in REM sleep longer. [11] However, an observational study noted that one fourth of the infants who died of SIDS were swaddled. [12]

Alternative views come from psychologist Arthur Janov, author of The Primal Scream (1970), who claims that swaddling has profound negative effects on the adult emotional health of a swaddled child, [13] though he does not offer a neurophysiological mechanism by which this might take place in humans. Moreover, Janov's "primal therapy" techniques have never achieved acceptance among mainstream psychotherapists. [14]

See also


  1. ^ DeMeo, James (2006). Saharasia: The 4000 BCE Origins of Child Abuse, Sex-Repression, Warfare and Social Violence, In the Deserts of the Old World (Revised Second Edition ed.). Natural Energy Works. ISBN 978-0962185557.  
  2. ^ Thompson, Charles John S. (March 1922). "Greco-Roman votive offerings for health in the Wellcome Historical Medical Museum". Health (Wellcome Library, London, UK: Hazell, Watson and Viney).  
  3. ^ Bromiley, Geoffrey W. (1995). "Swaddling" (in English). The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (reprint, revised ed.). Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co. pp. 670. ISBN 9780802837844. Retrieved 12/15/2009.  
  4. ^ Sim, Alison (1998). The Tudor Housewife. McGill-Queen's Press. pp. 26. ISBN 978-0750937740.  
  5. ^ DeMause, Lloyd (2002). The Emotional Life of Nations. Other Press. p. 322. ISBN 9781892746986.  
  6. ^ Odent, Michel (12/23/2007). "The Future of Suicide" (html). Birth Works, Inc.. Retrieved 12/15/2009.  
  7. ^ a b van Gestel, Josephus Petrus Johannes; Monique Pauline L’Hoir, Maartje ten Berge, Nicolaas Johannes Georgius Jansen, and Frans Berend Plötz (6 December 2002). "Risks of Ancient Practices in Modern Times" (in English) (html). Pediatrics 110 (6): e78. Retrieved 12/15/2009.  
  8. ^ a b Gerard, Claudia M.; Kathleen A. Harris and Bradley T. Thach (6 December 2002). "Spontaneous Arousals in Supine Infants While Swaddled and Unswaddled During Rapid Eye Movement and Quiet Sleep" (in English) (html). Pediatrics 110 (6): e70. Retrieved 12/15/2009.  
  9. ^ Franco, P; Scaillet S, Groswasser J, Kahn A. (December 2004). "Increased cardiac autonomic responses to auditory challenges in swaddled infants" (in English) (pdf). Sleep. Retrieved 12/15/2009.  
  10. ^ Short, M.A.; J.A. Brooks-Brunn, D.S. Reeves, J. Yeager and J.A. Thorpe (June 1996). "The effect of swaddling versus standard positioning on neuromuscular development in very low birth weight infants" (in English). Neonatal Network 15 (4): 25-31. Retrieved 12/15/2009.  
  11. ^ McNamara, F; Lijowksa A and Thach BT (January 2002). "Spontaneous Arousal Activity in Infants during NREM and REM sleep" (in English). Journal of Physiology: 263-269. Retrieved 12/15/2009.  
  12. ^ Blair, Peter; Peter Sidebotham, Carol Evason-Coombe, Margaret Edmonds, Ellen M A Heckstall-Smith, and Peter Fleming (October 2009). "Hazardous cosleeping environments and risk factors amenable to change: case-control study of SIDS in south west England" (in English). British Medical Journal. Retrieved 12/15/2009.  
  13. ^ Janov, Arthur (2008). The Biology of Love. Prometheus Books. ISBN 9781573928298.  
  14. ^ Kohl, James V. (November 2001). "The Biology of Love. - book review" (in English) (html). Journal of Sex Research. Retrieved 12/15/2009.  

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