Reality check: Will swaddling your baby increase the risk of SIDS?

Click to play video: 'Swaddling babies may be tied to heightened risk of sudden infant death syndrome: study'
Swaddling babies may be tied to heightened risk of sudden infant death syndrome: study
The risk of sudden infant death syndrome appears to increase when infants are swaddled while sleeping on their stomachs or sides, new research has found. Chris Martinez reports – May 11, 2016

You’re taught how to bundle your newborn baby up in a blanket before you’re sent home as new parents. Swaddling is supposed to help your baby cry less and fall asleep easier as he or she is all tucked in and cosy, just like in their mom’s womb.

But new research suggests that the age-old “baby burrito” technique could increase your baby’s risk of SIDS or sudden infant death syndrome. The risk is highlighted when a swaddled baby ends up on his or her side or stomach because it’s difficult to breathe in that position.

Headlines across North America this week warned that swaddling could put your baby at risk of the syndrome that’s every parent’s nightmare.

British scientists out of the University of Bristol carried out a review of four studies on SIDS that spanned two decades and covered three distinct areas, including England, Australia and Chicago.

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SIDS is when an otherwise healthy babies dies suddenly and unexpectedly while sleeping, according to the Canadian Paediatric Society (CPS). Right now, there is no known cause of SIDS.

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Dr. Anna Pease, the review’s lead author, said her team looked for studies on SIDS and not swaddling. Ultimately, there were about 2,500 babies, including 750 who died of SIDS. More than 230 babies had been swaddled in the four studies and 133 of them died of SIDS.

The risk of SIDS while being swaddled increased if:

  • The baby was placed on his or her side or stomach
  • If they were about six months or older and able to roll onto their stomach, where it’s difficult to breath
  • Babies who were swaddled and on their backs had an even higher risk of encountering SIDS compared to their peers sleeping on their backs who weren’t swaddled

“We found some evidence in this review that as babies get older, they may be more likely to move into unsafe positions while swaddled during sleep, suggesting an age is needed after which swaddling for sleep should be discouraged. Most babies start being able to roll over at about four to six months,” Pease warned.

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“We did find…that the risk of SIDS when placing infants on the side or front for sleep increased when infants were swaddled…On a practical level, what parents should take away from this is that if they choose to swaddle their babies for sleep, always place them on their back…,” Pease said.

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The concern is that babies have trouble breathing in certain positions. There’s also worry about overheating while bundled up or the blanket loosening and becoming a hazard.

The findings are controversial, though, with some critics pointing to major limitations in the study.

“…the idea that swaddling and SIDS are substantially linked is misleading,” according to one Atlantic piece.

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For starters, the study authors concede that there wasn’t a baseline definition of swaddling across the four studies. Swaddling isn’t easy for most new parents to pull off – they worry about wrapping their baby too tightly, for example.

The babies in the study could have had other risk factors at play that wasn’t available in the data the researchers had to work with.

In a CPS publication, titled Well Beings, the organization says swaddling “is not recommended for sleep, given the risks of overheating and loosened swaddling blankets that could cover a baby’s face.”

Its joint statement with the Public Health Agency of Canada says babies should be placed on their backs to sleep and not on their stomachs.

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“Other than a firm mattress and a fitted sheet, there is no need for any extra items in a crib, cradle or bassinet. Soft bedding, such as pillows, duvets, quilts and comforters, as well as bumper pads increase the risk of suffocation,” the statement reads.

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Read the full statement.

The Registered Nurses’ Association of Ontario even suggests swaddling is a bad idea for bedtime.

“There is currently no ‘safe way’ to swaddle an infant, and hence, caution regarding swaddling should be expressed with parents/caregivers,” it says in a 2014 report.

Read more about safe sleeping for babies.

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