Parents often learn how to swaddle babies because nurses do it after they’re born in the hospital. The technique can be a helpful way to soothe babies when they’re fussy and have trouble sleeping.

But there are also some dangers to swaddling, and most doctors agree it shouldn’t be used past a certain point of development.

Read on to learn more about the technique and how long you should practice it.

What is swaddling?

Swaddling is a way to securely wrap your baby in a blanket with only their head sticking out of the top. Their arms and legs are comfortably resting inside the blanket.

Here’s how to swaddle:

  1. Start with a square blanket. Spread the blanket out flat and fold one corner slightly inside.
  2. Place baby face up with their head above of the corner you folded inside.
  3. Hold baby in place, gently straightening their left arm, and bring the left side of the blanket over them. Tuck it between their right side and right arm. Then gently straighten their right arm and bring the right side of the blanket over them, tucking it under the left side of their body.
  4. Fold or twist the bottom of the blanket up, leaving enough room for baby’s legs to move around. Then gently tuck it under one side.

How does it help?

Swaddling mimics the feeling babies get when they’re in the womb. They feel snug and secure wrapped in a comfy blanket.

Dr. Kimberly Edwards, pediatrician at Austin Regional Clinic, says she doesn’t recommend swaddling for all babies, but for some it can be helpful. She says some babies sleep just fine and that swaddling is more of a technique to use if the baby is fussy.

“When done correctly, it can calm and soothe the baby,” explains Dr. Edwards.

The idea is that if an infant’s arms stay snuggly wrapped in the swaddle, the baby won’t wake up suddenly from the startle reflex. Babies and parents may be able to snag some extra sleep.

What are the risks?

If baby isn’t swaddled correctly or rolls onto their stomach while swaddled, this can be very dangerous — even deadly.

Sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) is the term used to describe when an otherwise healthy baby under 12 months dies suddenly without a known cause.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), there are about 3,600 sudden unexpected infant deaths in the United States each year, and 38 percent of those are classified as SIDS.

SIDS often happens during sleep. Babies who are swaddled can suffocate in their sleep if placed on their stomach, or if they roll onto their stomach.

A swaddle that’s too loose can also be risky because the baby’s arms can get free, leaving loose blanket that could end up covering their mouth and nose. Babies should never be put to sleep with loose blankets because this also puts them in danger of SIDS.

Another risk that comes with poor swaddling is hip dysplasia. In the womb, a baby’s legs are bent up and across each other. If legs are straightened or too tightly wrapped together, the joints can be dislocated and the cartilage damaged. It’s important to allow the baby’s hips to move around and spread apart.

Dr. Edwards says in a safe swaddle, “Hips can move and it’s not too tight, but arms are kept in. You should be able to fit your hand between the blanket and the baby’s chest.”

There are also some swaddling products and sleep sacks available that don’t involve folding. The same safety precautions listed above apply to these products. If you’re unsure about a product, ask your pediatrician before using it with your baby.

Swaddling can cause babies to overheat as well. If you’re swaddling, make sure your baby isn’t getting too hot at night. You can tell if your baby is overheating if they:

  • are sweating
  • have damp hair
  • get heat rash or red cheeks
  • seem to be breathing heavily

When should I stop?

Most pediatricians and the chair of the task force for the American Academy of Pediatrics’ safe sleep recommendations, advises that parents stop swaddling babies at 2 months.

According to Dr. Edwards, this is because babies begin to roll intentionally at 4 months and doctors want to make sure swaddling stops well before the baby could roll onto their stomach and be in danger.

For parents who are worried about their baby sleeping, she says, “Babies are going to start self-soothing at this age. The startle reflex will start decreasing.”

What are other ways to soothe baby?

It’s normal for babies to wake up at night. The American Academy of Pediatrics says babies don’t have regular sleep cycles until 6 months of age. However, even at that age, late night wakeups are still considered normal.

Here are some ways to soothe baby to sleep once you’ve stopped swaddling:

  • Use a pacifier.
  • Stay calm and create a quiet relaxing atmosphere before bedtime.
  • Keep a regular sleep schedule.
  • Play a white noise machine to drown out any sounds that might startle the baby awake.
  • Maintain the right room temperature (not too cold and not too warm).