Sudden infant death syndrome, SIDS, is a silent killer that took the lives of more than 2,000 American babies in a single year. Formerly known as “crib death,” this mysterious medical condition strikes without warning when a healthy baby simply stops breathing. The risk of death is a concern for parents of babies under one year. And a calming technique taught at the hospital by nurses can increase the risk the a mother’s newborn baby will die, usually while the infant is sleeping peacefully.

Swaddling is a traditional calming technique taught to parents of newborn babies right at the hospital by nursing staff. Wrapping baby in a swaddling blanket mimics the feeling of being in the womb and helps many mothers to calm a fussy baby or soothe an infant before going down to sleep. But what mother doesn’t know is that swaddling, combined with sleeping position and the age of her baby, can increase the risk of sudden infant death.

Swaddling Promoted to Reduce SIDS

First-time parents are often overwhelmed with contradictory advice about what’s good for their newborn babies and, when it comes to swaddling, there’s no great surprise that the most recent medical research runs counter to what doctors and nurses have been teaching mothers for years. Swaddling helps baby to fall asleep in the recommended sleeping position, say proponents of the practice. And getting baby to sleep without a fuss further reduces the infant’s risk by lowering parental fatigue and stress, which further contribute to SIDS.

But a recent meta-analysis published in Pediatrics suggests that under the wrong circumstances, swaddling can actually increase the risk of sudden infant death. While the data is not conclusive, it would appear that the risks are highest when mother puts baby to sleep on his side or tummy, and when swaddling is used in babies older than six months of age.

Safer Swaddling Techniques

In order to minimize risks of SIDS connected with swaddling, always follow these safety precautions:

  • Avoid overheating baby. Choose clothes appropriate to the season and keep baby’s nursery a little on the cool side.
  • When swaddling, wrap baby well so the swaddling blanket won’t come loose and become a hazard. But allow enough space for baby to breathe, move his feet, and diffuse excess body heat as needed. Never cover baby’s head at bedtime. Be sure baby’s legs are not bound too tightly: he should be able to bend up and outwards at the hip.
  • All newborn babies should be put down to sleep on their backs, and never on their sides or tummies. It is especially important that a swaddled baby never be put face down.
  • Babies are less likely to stop breathing while asleep if they are suckling, so give your infant a pacifier when you lay him down to sleep.
  • Most importantly, never swaddle a baby once he is old enough to roll over on his own. Swaddling works best for newborn babies and infants up to about six months. It should stop once baby can roll over, because of the risk that he might get stuck face down in his bed.

While swaddling remains an excellent method to soothe a baby to sleep, it’s important to do it right. Improper swaddling technique, including swaddling of older babies or laying swaddled babies face down, can contribute to SIDS. To prevent a tragic infant death, be sure you know how to swaddle your baby properly. You can see one safe method taught by doctors in this video.

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