Like most things parents do, this binding, or swaddling, was born of desperation. At eight weeks, Isaac decided that the whole sleeping-at-night thing just wasn’t for him. And to ensure that we were clear about his decision, he was kind enough to remind us every hour with a series of angry grunts and blood-curdling wails.
We did everything we could. We shushed until we were lightheaded. We turned Isaac from his back to his side. We sang “You’re a Grand Old Flag” (a song he seems to enjoy) over and over in a melodic whisper. When nothing else worked, we turned to swaddling.
For most of western history, parents weren’t swaddling their newborns to help them sleep better, but to straighten their growing bones. It wasn’t until the Enlightenment that people began to notice, as Rousseau pointed out, that babies who hadn’t been swaddled did not, in fact, have crooked arms. Rousseau, revealing a suspicion of caretakers that would make a paranoid Upper East Side mom proud, thought that swaddling caught on because it allowed nannies to dump their charges in a corner and ignore them.
Over the next few hundred years, the popularity of swaddling in the West gradually declined. And while the resurgence – spurred by a handful of studies that suggest swaddled babies sleep better – is at least a few decades old, only recently did swaddling become a full blown craze, complete with Hollywood role models. Heath Ledger and Michelle Williams currently top the hot swaddler list.
Neither Jennifer nor I had any principled objection to swaddling. In fact, we tried wrapping Isaac up in a hospital blanket a few times during his first week. Each time Isaac escaped within minutes, sometime seconds, a glint of satisfaction in his eyes even as he shrieked.
Fortunately for the swaddling-challenged, parents can now choose from a number of specially designed blankets. The most popular of the swaddling blankets is the cheesily named Miracle Blanket. Unlike its competitors, which often have ties or Velcro straps, the Miracle Blanket is nothing more than a piece of cloth with four flaps. Laid out on a bed, it looks like something that might be used to hold a psychiatric patient still during electroshock therapy, or something I might produce if left alone with a sewing machine and a six pack.
To swaddle your baby in a Miracle Blanket, you place two small flaps over each arm and tuck the flaps under the baby’s back. Then, after placing your baby’s legs into a pouch at the blanket’s bottom, a slightly longer flap is stretched across the baby’s chest to keep the arms tight against the torso. Finally, the longest flap is pulled entirely around the baby. If your baby isn’t wiggling around, the whole process takes less than a minute.
Jennifer and I heard about The Miracle Blanket from a friend and picked one up at a Brooklyn boutique. On the first night we put Isaac in the blanket, we both felt awful. Fully swaddled, Isaac looked like a football with fat cheeks. But even as we were preparing to call child services and report ourselves, something mysterious was happening: Isaac was . . . was it possible? . . . relaxing. We put him down in his co-sleeper and for the first time in his life he fell asleep without eating or being held until he collapsed in a pool of his own saliva.
Since that glorious first night, the Miracle Blanket hasn’t always been so miraculous. Isaac does manage to break out from time to time (especially when only wearing his diaper), and even tightly wrapped, he still wakes up every few hours. Other drawbacks include the price: $29.95. That’s a lot to pay for a thin piece of cloth, especially given the difficulty of getting the arm flaps under a baby’s back during a meltdown. There’s also the unhappy prospect of having to wean your baby from the swaddle. Some experts recommend getting him out of the habit as early as three months.
But there is no question that, on average, Isaac falls asleep more quickly in his Miracle Blanket and sleeps for longer periods. And when you’re so tired in the morning that you find yourself watching and enjoying The Tony Danza Show, that’s no small thing.