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Swaddling is an age-old practice for soothing young babies which involves wrapping the infant snugly in a blanket or similar cloth so that movement of the limbs is tightly restricted. It works (in my humble opinion) for a very elegant neurological reason.
Close your eyes and touch you fingertip to the very end of your nose. Not very difficult. This is because your brain relies on muscle and joint position sensing nerves to figure out where your fingertip is in space in relation to your nose, and then guides the finger in. Complex, but automatic.
In utero, the baby lies in such a position that the arms and legs are folded up against the body. In this attitude, the muscle and joint position sensors are at rest, and are quiet. That is to say, messages about position change are not sent to the brain. When the baby is born and this confinement removed, the limbs can be waved around and a tremendous amount of new nervous input flows to the infant brain. All this "noise" or static is overwhelming, and upsets the baby.
Simply holding the baby in this "fetal position" will work about as well as swaddling, and for the same reason.
Swaddling keeps the baby's nervous system quiet, and the house, too!
A study in the October, 2006 issue of The Journal of Pediatrics found in a scientifically controlled trial that swaddling offered a modest but statistically significant reduction in crying in infants less than 8 weeks old1.
Swaddling does carry some risk of hip dysplasia. If swaddling is used, it is preferable to swaddle only the upper extremities, and leave the swaddling loose enough over the legs to allow the baby to draw his knees up in the frog position. A baby with known hip dysplasia should not be swaddled.2
1. van Sleuwen BE, L'Hoir MP, et al. Comparison of Behavior Modification With and Without Swaddling as Interventions for Excessive Crying, Journal of Pediatrics, 2006;149:512-517.
2. Mahan S, Kasser J. Does Swaddling Influence Developmental Dysplasia of the Hip? Pediarics, 2008;121:179-!80.