Moms have been swaddling newborns for centuries. In many hospitals, a nurse swoops in after a woman gives birth, swiftly wrapping the squirmy tot into a baby burrito. Something that is done by medical professionals and that is so deeply rooted in many cultures must be good for your baby, right?

Swaddling definitely has its benefits. But it has its risks and drawbacks, too.

Benefits of swaddling

Swaddling may lead to longer, sounder sleep. While a newborn sleeps about 16 hours per day, that sleep is in 3- to 4-hour intervals. Swaddling appears to increase the amount of REM (rapid eye movement) sleep that newborns get. This deeper sleep state may make it less likely for a baby to fully awaken when roused - which for parents means fewer trips to baby's bedside to tend to a wide-awake and crying tot.

Swaddling may soothe a crying baby. This is the benefit that compels so many parents to try swaddling. Imagine: Getting your newborn to stop crying in a few simple folds! It's not magic, though. Research has shown that swaddling can decrease crying by 42% in infants 8 weeks old or younger. But the baby-wrap is not so successful with wailing babies beyond that age.

Swaddling may reduce the risk of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS). Babies who sleep on their stomachs are at higher risk of SIDS. For that reason, babies should sleep on their backs. A properly swaddled newborn, with their face up, will be less likely to fidget and shift in sleep and end up on their tummy.

Risks and drawbacks of swaddling

Swaddling may interfere with beginning breast-feeding. In the precious moments after a baby is born, newborns are often examined, swaddled for warmth, and handed back to Mom so she can work on beginning to breast-feed. But in a small study, researchers noted that babies who got more skin-to-skin contact with Mom within the first 2 hours after birth took to the breast earlier and suckled better at their first feeding when compared to the swaddled newborns.

One potential reason: Bound in a swaddling blanket, newborns are without a couple of important breast-feeding tools - their hands! Babies use their hands to locate, move, and shape the nipple in order to latch on and to properly breast-feed.

However, it's important to note that there were no differences seen in breast-feeding ability or effect between the swaddled and skin-to-skin groups later as the babies got older.

Swaddling may affect a newborn's healthy weight. A delay in breast-feeding may be one reason a swaddled newborn does not put on adequate weight. Another theory is that touch has been shown to stimulate growth, so babies being swaddled may not get the touch they might need for growth.

Swaddling may affect a baby's body heat. In one research study, babies given time to spend skin-to-skin with Mom in the couple of hours after birth stayed warmer than babies who were swaddled. Researchers noted this may have the effect of reducing the "stress of being born."

And while swaddling has been shown to help regulate body temperature, it can increase the risk of hyperthermia - a too-high body temperature. You can minimize the risk of overheating by using light cotton swaddling blankets and covering only the body (not the head).

Swaddling may increase risk of hip dysplasia. When swaddled, a baby's hips and knees are extended. Spending too long in this type of position can contribute to developmental dysplasia of the hip (DDH), a dislocation of the hips that may result in reduced mobility, arthritis, and differing leg lengths as a child grows.

If a child is born with DDH, swaddling should be avoided. If you choose to swaddle your newborn, be sure to wrap in a way that allows baby enough room to bend and flex his or her legs.

Is swaddling for your baby?

Swaddling doesn't work for all newborns. Though some babies will feel snug and secure wrapped in a swaddling sheet, others will kick and struggle against the constraint. If your baby persists in trying to turn over onto their belly when sleeping, swaddling is not a good option, due to the SIDS risk.

Babies will often "let their parents know" when they're ready to stop swaddling by kicking and resisting. By the time a baby is about one month old, swaddling should be kept to a minimum so as not to impede development or limit a baby's burgeoning mobility.

The do's and don'ts of swaddling

  • Do place your baby on his or her back to sleep while swaddled. Sleeping swaddled and on their belly can increase a baby's risk of SIDS.
  • Do use a light cotton blanket that is breathable and not liable to cause overheating.
  • Don't cover your baby's face. This can lead to overheating or suffocation.
  • Don't wrap too tightly. Swaddle too snugly, and your baby could be at risk for overheating, decreased circulation, or over-extension of their hips and knees.