The baby swing worked wonders for my little girl. We would swaddle her up nice and tight, tuck her in, turn it on, and let the side-to-side motion work its magic. It was a savior. I certainly wouldn’t have eaten or showered nearly as often in those first few months without it.
But my husband could never let go of the nagging feeling we were doing her a disservice with all that swinging. He kept referring to the comfy, swaying recliner as the “paint shaker,” worrying that it was harmful to her development and even to her little brain. I had to admit that sometimes, looking at her blank, wide-eyed, and slightly dazed stare as she rocked back and forth while we went about our lives, I wondered if he was right. I’m far from being alone here: Google searching “baby swing too long” or “baby swing damage” reveals similar doubts from plenty of likewise anxious new moms.
Indeed, the American Academy of Pediatrics is no fan of the swing as a go-to infant pastime, particularly for safety reasons. Sleeping too long in a sitting position, they say, may make it harder for the baby to get enough oxygen: “Sitting devices, such as car safety seats, strollers, swings, infant carriers, and infant slings, are not recommended for routine sleep in the hospital or at home,” says a policy statement on safe sleeping.
The well-known sleep expert Dr. Weissbluth also cautions against over-swinging, saying that naps in the swing (or the car, or stroller) are “poor quality” because babies are kept in a lighter stage of sleep, and their slumber tends to be fragmented by the constant motion. In Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Baby, he recommends that if your baby nods off in her swing, to turn it off while she rests.
Still, I wasn’t convinced. As I watched my tiny pink bundle rocking away, her dark eyes peering at us calmly from across the room, I pictured her life in utero. She had spent the last nine months moving with me as I walked, did yoga, played Frisbee with my three-year-old — why would I expect her to like being still now? Babies enjoy the swing because it stimulates the body’s vestibular sense, a motion-detecting system starting with the inner ear that begins to develop as early as 10 weeks in the womb and gives our babies comfort from repetitive movements. Fetuses feel motion through almost their entire term, so when they greet the world, they still crave it.
In other words, we tend to think of swings as cheating (hence the reference to them as “neglect-o-matics” and the like), but motion isn’t just a diversion for babies. And even as the months and years go on, it could help development in surprising ways. For example, take a study in which researchers gave infants sessions of “chair spinning” for four weeks and found that, by the end of the study, those who were spun had better gains in motor skills.
On the other hand, babies need exercise, and leaving them in swings, car seats, and bouncy seats takes away from important time when they should be lying on the floor practicing their arm flapping, leg cycling, rolling, and so on. They’re also more likely to develop a flat head when they frequent these devices too often. That was always in the back of my mind when my daughter was a newborn. I didn’t worry about paint-shaking her little brain, as my husband did, but I made sure to get her lots of time on the floor playing with her feet and I opted for the sling instead of the stroller seat when possible, which doesn’t contribute to a flat head like other devices might..
No doubt, the best motion is the kind that comes from being carried by us, as it has the vital component of physical closeness and touch that infants need to thrive and feel good about the world. But still, when the arms get tired, the kitchen needs cleaning, or the witching hour rolls in, we’ll do whatever works to keep our little ones content. As long as it’s in moderation, I say we should let our babies enjoy a good swing.
Heather Turgeon is a psychotherapist and science writer. She authors the weekly “Science of Kids” column for Babble and is a regular contributor to Strollerderby. Follow the Science of Kids to keep up with the latest research in child development and parenting.