Swaddling: A Second Look




Harvey Karp’s book The Happiest Baby on the Block has changed the landscape of parenting in the US. As a result of its irresistible title, easy to learn method and national network of 2500 teachers, most new parents in the US today are instructed to swaddle their babies. Despite this popularity, there are growing concerns that swaddling is not the cure-all parents hoped it would be.

Since the publication of the book in 2003, I have increasingly heard reservations from health professionals about its recommendations. A nurse practitioner wonders if the shushing sound recommended in the book can hurt the baby’s ears. A renowned neonatologist worries that preventing a baby from flapping his or her arms to cool down might hurt temperature regulation. And, more recently I began to hear that routine swaddling had adverse effects on breastfeeding.

As a result of these concerns, I commissioned Gussie Fauntleroy to write an article on swaddling, which we’re releasing today. It is accompanied by a piece by renowned lactation consultant, Nancy Mohrbacher. And, our web editor, Melanie Mayo, has put together a special report on swaddling.

For even more coverage of the subject, read Mohrbacher’s exceptional critique of swaddling and debate with Dr Karp on its merits in the International Journal of Childbirth Education. She looks at alarming research: Swaddling newborns delays the first breastfeeding and leads to less effective sucking. Swaddling during the early months puts an infant at risk for respiratory illness, hip dysplasia, overheating and SIDS. And, finally, a small, 2010 study showed The Happiest Baby interventions ineffective in reducing crying.

Take a breath. Many parents have found swaddling helpful and these articles are not meant to discredit their experience. This research comes as shocking news to us all. We do not mean to offend other parents; we all want our babies not to cry. Rather, we hope to shed light on a practice that has benefits, but that has become dogmatic and thus may interfere with parental instinct.


The first question one certainly asks is, “If I don’t swaddle, what else will I do.” Here are some things that have been shown to be highly effective:

Hold your baby.

Breastfeed your baby.

Walk around holding your baby.

Rock your baby.

According to neurologist Richard Restak, MD, “Physical holding and carrying of the infant turns out to be the most important factor responsible for the infant’s normal mental and social development.” Neural and neuroendocrine functions underlying emotional behaviors are responsive to early experiences in enduring ways. For example, the anthropologist Margaret Mead found in her research that the most violent tribes were the ones that withheld touch in infancy.

I realize that these swaddling articles are provocative; I hope they will also be helpful. We’ll be talking more about their findings in the community and on Facebook. Please join us to share your comments, concerns and suggestions.



Peggy O’Mara  (101 Posts)

Peggy O’Mara founded Mothering.com in 1995 and is currently its editor-in chief. She was the editor and publisher of Mothering Magazine from 1980 to 2011. The author of Having a Baby Naturally; Natural Family Living; The Way Back Home; and A Quiet Place, Peggy has lectured and conducted workshops at Omega Institute, Esalen, La Leche League International, and Bioneers. She is the mother of four.

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