If you’ve been anywhere near a computer or news app this past week, you have probably seen some frightening information about swaddling babies. A study by researchers from the University of Bristol claims that swaddling is an epidemic and those cute little swaddling blankies are out to eat your baby.
Or so the news coverage would have you believe.
The real story is very different, and by not telling the real story, the news media that we rely on to bring us information is putting infants at risk of dying in their sleep.
Before we go any further, I need to tell you something that could save your child’s life…
Do not place babies on their side or stomach to sleep. Young infants need to sleep on their backs.
If you don’t read any further or remember anything else from this article, remember this: Do not place babies on their side or stomach to sleep. Young infants need to sleep on their backs.
Should I repeat that? I’m going to, don’t worry.
Now that we’ve got that out of the way, what’s with those baby-eating swaddling blankets? “Swaddling a baby,” reads the headline of one KUTV report, “increases risk of SIDS.” The Week Magazine ran an article titled “Swaddling babies may up their risk of SIDS,” and ABC’s Milwaukee affiliate reports “Swaddling your baby may increase SIDS risk, new study says.”
But that’s not what the study says.
Dr. Harvey Karp, an assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of Southern California School of Medicine, told NPR’s Tara Haelle that the news media ‘missed “the forest for the trees and emphasize[d] this scary outcome which the study wasn’t even reporting.”‘
The study, assembled by a team of researchers from the UK, combined four previous studies into what is called a meta-analysis—basically, a synthesis of what other scientists have learned so far. The information isn’t new. It’s collected in one place, summarized, and synthesized in a comprehensive report.
“We only found four studies,” said Peter Blair, lead author of the meta-analysis, “and they were quite different, making it difficult to pool the results. Given the weak evidence, we do not conclude that swaddling is a risk factor for SIDS but rather that more evidence is needed.”
So what did the study find?
It’s the position and not the swaddling that is the real danger. In fact, “the biggest risk factor for SIDS is placing babies on their stomach to sleep,” says Haelle, and the research backs her up.
According to the Bristol study, “being found prone is strongly associated with SIDS.” That isn’t new or surprising. Pediatric research has known about this since the 1990s. “Current advice to avoid front or side positions for sleep especially applies to infants who are swaddled,” say the authors.
They suggest that supine sleep, or lying on their back with their face up, is safest for infants. “It has been suggested that swaddling can be used to encourage supine sleep when families are having difficulty settling younger infants in this position. Evidence regarding the effectiveness of this strategy is limited, although a survey from Oden et al. found that the supine position for sleep was more common in infants who were routinely swaddled than in those who were swaddled occasionally. ”
Babies need to sleep on their backs, not their sides or stomachs. These are unsafe positions for babies to sleep in, and being swaddled makes these positions even riskier. On the other hand, babies seem to sleep safely, for longer periods, and more peacefully when swaddled and placed on their backs.
“The issue really is about reducing crying and increasing sleep,” Dr. Karp explains. This applies both to infants and their parents. Sleep-deprived parents can make poor choices with tragic consequences.