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Is swaddling dangerous? Really?

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My brother and his wife recently had their first baby — congratulations, Dave and Erika! — and it’s safe to say that my brother’s quiet, comfy world is being dismantled and put back together Strawberry Shortcake-style as I write this.

If you have kids, you know what I’m talking about. Remember before you had your first child and friends and family warned you how bat-stressed and sleep deprived you were going to be those first few months? And you kind of nodded, thinking about what you were going to eat that night, half listening but not hearing what was being said?

And then the baby came and you wondered how you were going to survive the next 18 years? That’s what my brother is going through. He’s pretty much shell shocked by the metal bending trauma of listening to a five day old infant scream uncontrollably through the night.

My brother and I have always been close but we’ve talked more in the past week and a half than the last eight years combined. His conversation goes something like this:

– ” I don’t think I can handle this.”

– “I think there is something wrong with the baby.”

– “I am so exhausted.”

– “I did not think it would be like this.”

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I resisted the urge to respond, “Welcome to hell, sucker.” Instead, I reminded him there’s nothing wrong with baby Ruby. She’s fine. She’s just being an infant. Infants cry. All the time. I’m pretty sure this made him feel worse because there is nothing to fix in this scenario, so I followed up with the ol’ chestnut, “But it gets better, Dave! It really does! Parenting is a magnificent joy!”

When I was met with stony silence, I recommended cycling through the time honored techniques for calming a fussy baby: swaddling, swinging, cradling, sucking and sushing.

When June was a baby, the only way Jake and I could get her to calm down in those first chaotic months was by wrapping her in a blanket burrito-style, sticking a pacifier in her mouth and cranking the swing to warp speed. This magic trifecta had a bliss-life affect; it calmed her instantly. I don’t know how we would have survived those early months without these techniques.

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But today I came across an article in Slate talking about how the time honored practice of swaddling — tightly wrapping a newborn in a blanket —  “is now illegal in child care centers in Minnesota and strongly discouraged in centers in Pennsylvaniaand California. This has created a ripple effect that is scaring moms away from the practice nationwide. The bans stem from a 2011 decision by the National Resource Center on Child Health and Safety, a Colorado-based organization that provides health and safety guidelines for child care centers, to recommend against swaddling. The NRC cites ‘evidence that swaddling can increase the risk of serious health outcomes,’ including Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS) and hip diseases.” 

This sort of stuff drives me crazy. As if new parenting doesn’t make grownups neurotic enough. Now we have to think about whether swaddling kills babies? For real?  Are parents really expected to abandon a soothing technique tens of thousands of years old just because some policy wonk in Colorado deduced it’s no good anymore?

In fairness to the NRC, the recommendation was probably born of an attempt to protect state child care centers and providers from litigation in the event a baby dies of SIDS in their care.  It’s a case of COA (“Cover Your A–“), in other words, similar to why the USDA makes canning manuals so long and scary. As a regulatory body, the USDA has to draw a hard line so they don’t look irresponsible in the event some idiot tries to preserve a bunch of dirty, moldy carrots. Same goes for providing safety guidelines to child care centers in Minnesota, I guess.

As the Slate article makes clear, swaddling can be dangerous, if done wrong:

a) The swaddled baby is laid on its stomach. Stomach sleeping has been linked to SIDs and why all top pediatric associations recommend putting babies to bed on their backs. Tummy sleeping, not swaddling, is the real danger, in other words.

b) The blanket covers some or all of the baby’s face. This increases the likelihood of suffocation.

c) The wrap IS too tight. The recommendation is to be able to slip a hand between the blanket and the baby’s chest to ensure the wrap isn’t so tight it interferes with the baby’s ability to breathe.

As long as parents adhere to these fairly obvious guidelines, swaddling is as safe and secure today as it was when Cavewoman Mary trudged across the tundra with her newborn swaddled across the back. It’s one more worry to cross off the modern parent’s list of needless neuroses.

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