Welcome to Does it Work?, a semi-regular feature where I look back on stuff we bought or tried with our baby and assess whether or not it worked. This week: swaddling.
In the hazy hours after Juniper was born, a few memories stand out now. First was the lactation consultant kneading my breasts like it was Bread Week on Great British Baking Show and for her showstopper she was going to be a 12-strand challah. Second was the NICU nurses bringing Juniper back to my room in a clear little bassinet on wheels and thinking that the bright green pacifier she was sucking on looked huge in comparison to her head. Third was one of the nurses trying to teach me how to swaddle using a simple blanket and an artistic touch.
After a person has been awake for 28 of the previous 30 hours, has been pumped full of painkillers and has lost a not-small amount of blood is generally a bad time to try to teach anybody anything. My brain was an unwound music box “Turkey in the Straw” so slowly that it sounded demented. The thing I wanted the most in the whole world right after I gave birth was to unhinge my jaw, put an entire pizza in my throat and swallow it whole, Garfield-style, and then sleep on my stomach for a thousand hours. But I didn't get to do any of that, because those precious hazy post-birth hours are the time that hospital staff reserves for conveying vital information.
So here’s my memory of what it looked like to watch one of the nurses try to teach me how to swaddle my baby: flip, fold, flip, flip, voila! Magic.
I knew that I would not remember how to do this.
The nurse did it again. Flip, fold, flip, fold, fold, tuck? Voila! Magic. Now you try!
Flip? Fold? Fold? Tuck? Tuck? Flip?
Nope, try again. I tried again. The lesson took forever. I couldn’t do it. At some point I did a good enough job that the nurse left so that I could sleep for 10 minutes before somebody else came into the room to wake me up.
They didn’t try to make us swaddle her again during what seemed like dozens of visits to the pediatrician we had to make during those first weeks of our daughter’s life. So we just let those swaddling lessons go, as Stephen Dunn might say, to memory’s outbox.
Still, we were told that swaddling was a necessary toolbox item in the pursuit to calm our very small baby down. Everybody said it was supposed to work. My TikTok feed at the end of my pregnancy was full of parents showcasing the magic of the swaddle, in addition to the other parenting content I was suddenly being served (sidebar: wtf is “gentle parenting” and why doesn’t it have a better name? Topic for a future newsletter I guess!).
Besides, there are plenty of mass-produced swaddles that don’t require any skill beyond velcro fastening, and many different models of these swaddles were gifted to us by other parents who swore that the happiest baby is one that is wrapped up tightly like a little chrysalis. We could have learned on our own with the plethora of charts and demos available online, but didn't see the point when we had so many prefab swaddle options at our disposal.
Swaddling was sort of helpful at the beginning in that we had to clip her into a special Snoo brand swaddle in order for our robot crib to function, but Juniper didn’t seem to care for it much. From the time she was very small, she has disliked being put in bed to nap, much preferring to be held or rocked or wheeled around in her stroller like a cantankerous child-king. There was a period of time when she rejected the Snoo outright and would only sleep if we put her down in her bassinet without swaddling her. The pre-velcroed or zippered swaddles we were gifted only served to tip her off that we were about to betray her by putting her down and would sometimes serve as catalyst for long crying sessions that left her even more tired than she would have been had we not tried to put her down for a nap at all. Sometimes the swaddle would shake her from the "drowsy but awake" phase all the sleep books said we should look out for when we put her down for a nap.
At one month old, the only thing that would get her to sleep was this sleep sack from Winter Water Factory that they apparently no longer make.
When she was around three months old, this one specific model of "transitional" swaddle that holds her arms over her head rather than at her sides sometimes helped get her to sleep– big emphasis on sometimes. But once she caught on to what that meant– the dreaded nap time approacheth– she rejected those as well.
Every baby sleep resource we have consulted harps on the importance of consistency in a pre-sleep routine, but for her, consistency in swaddling only gives her clues that it’s time to get good and riled up for half an hour of screaming as her mother sits at the dining room table wilted in despair.
So we’ve had to mix it up with swaddles and treat every nap like a new case to solve. Some days, it’s the starfish swaddle. Other days, the old Snoo swaddles. Some days, a heavy wool sleep sack. Other days when she’s so overtired that her eyes get a wild look in them, the only way to bring her down from her cortisol bender is to strap her arms to her sides like a straight jacket and give her a pacifier while making firm but loving eye contact and saying “It is time for sleep. This is the time for sleeping. We are going to sleep now. Now is the time for sleeping” (although those days are numbered because she has figured out how to wriggle her arms from them and is just about rolling over by herself, which means no more arms down swaddling, period.)
We’ve finally arrived at a point where she can usually calm herself down in about 5-10 minutes once we zip her into a swaddle with arm holes, but with the understanding that any day now, we’ll have to come up with a new thing, because everything babies do is a phase.
Do swaddles work? As with everything: kind of. Sometimes? Maybe? Temporarily? Do I regret not paying closer attention to the hospital swaddling lesson when I was zonked out after giving birth? Nope. Maybe next time.
Image via Shutterstock