Newborn Swaddling: What You Need to Know

What is newborn swaddling and why does it matter?
NOTE: This article is written from my experience as a newborn photographer. I am not a doctor. I write based on my training in newborn care and as an experienced person in calming newborns down for photo sessions.

Swaddling is wrapping a newborn baby aged 0-about 12 weeks very tightly so that their legs can move, but their arms are restricted. Swaddling a newborn baby has many benefits. A proper swaddle helps a baby sleep more easily, sleep longer, better and calms down an overstimulated baby. The basic idea behind swaddling a newborn is that it takes them “back to the womb”. We have to remember that newborns up to 12 weeks old are really still very underdeveloped. You could say that they are still fetuses.

Unlike other animals who can walk and find their own food within hours of birth, humans are not able to do this. Because of the size of our human brains, we are born “early”. If nature waited until we were really able to fend for ourselves better, there would be no way we could leave our mother’s tummy. Our heads would be just way too big. So, ironically, humans are born very underdeveloped in many ways, even though, in the end, they have the ability to control their environment much better than other animals.

What is a proper newborn swaddle?
There are two key factors in a proper newborn swaddle: tight and arms at sides. If a newborn is swaddled tightly, so tight that it is difficult to place your finger under the swaddle, and their arms are restrained at their sides, your newborn is properly swaddled. Truly, it is almost impossible to swaddle too tightly. Swaddling for newborns is very comforting. This is why newborn photographers often start a newborn session with images of your newborn wrapped, or swaddled. The video below shows one way to tightly swaddle a baby. But there are several ways to swaddle. As long as you are using a thin blanket that is about 45 in. by 45 in. and it is tight, you are good to go.

Why would I want to swaddle my baby? It looks uncomfortable.
We have to remember that newborns are almost nothing like us. They cannot see well yet, they cannot control their limbs or body temperature. They are sensitive to the slightest changes in tastes and touches. What may look miserable to an adult is nirvana for a newborn. Remember that they have spent the last 9 mos in the tightest space possible. There it was warm, dark, and loud (yes, loud). They could not stretch their legs too much. Swaddling mimics what they have come to know. It reminds them of those days when everything was done for them. They did not have to cry to get what they needed. Sleep was easy and food was available 24/7.

What are the benefits of swaddling a newborn?

The biggest benefit is that it calms newborns down. Imagine what it must be like to be experiencing all the sensations of sound, light, taste, touch, and sights. Then imagine that your own hands and arms flail around uncontrollably and maybe scratch your face, or bump you, or keep waking you up. Being restricted properly helps to alleviate the overstimulation that happens in just a few minutes of being around others.

The second biggest benefit is that swaddling helps newborns sleep. Even though sleep is still not understood as well as science may like, we know that newborn babies (and adults too) need good restful, uninterrupted sleep. Babies who are swaddled tightly and placed on their back tend to sleep more easily and longer. I have noticed that fussy babies like being swaddled even if they are crying while I am wrapping them. Once I am finished, they relax and are much calmer. Here is a little bit about the importance of sleep.

Of course, in newborn photography, we often swaddle so that the adorable hands show at the top of the swaddle. It makes for a more compelling image. But there have been times when I have had a super fussy baby who had to be totally swaddled with arms at their sides. Once they calmed down, I was able to get a ton of images with super cute expressions.

Whether a newborn baby is swaddled for newborn photos or because they need support to help them relax and sleep, the fact remains that for most babies, in most situations, a tight swaddle with arms at their sides is comforting and stress relieving.

Katherine Katsenis is a newborn photographer in Los Angeles.