Pregnancy and parenting for the perplexed
Swaddling a baby and sleep cues.
Wrapping your baby up super tight to go to sleep — swaddling — is recognised as one of the more comforting things you can do for your baby to relax them and make them ready for snoozes. Those of you who have tried wrapping a baby more than a couple of months old, feel free to laugh uproariously here. “Relax the baby?!” I hear you exclaim. “Sure, s/he loves to be wrapped and goes to sleep near-instantaneously.”
Babies are not great at calming themselves down, so we have to teach them how to do it. Everyone calls these messages we send ‘sleep cues’. They’re not like clicking your fingers and casting a magic spell; they don’t always work, certainly not straight away; and you will have to adapt them over time as your baby gets more wriggly, stronger, more aware and engaged with the world, and starts turning. Nevertheless, as with almost everything to do with babies, consistency is very important. Babies often speed up rather than slow down when they’re tired, so you have to watch your baby enough to recognise tired signs, and act pretty quickly to give them appropriate sleep cues so they stand a better chance of settling by themselves and learning to calm down and go to sleep.
One of the biggest things that gets in the way of babies settling down are their own dumb reflexes. This is why so many parents wrap them up, because it’s meant to remind them of being in utero. Personally I’m not sure that a baby older than a couple of months would have any memory of being in utero, but certainly if you’ve been wrapping them since birth they will remember that they get wrapped up for sleep. It stops their startle reflex affecting them so badly when they go to sleep, and prevents them (as older babies) from self punching, flailing around, and poking themselves in the eye. For a while around 3 months of age, Miss B was sleeping without being wrapped; but now at 4 months she’s too engaged with everything and needs that cue to calm down again. All good.
So how to wrap?
There are a few classics, and a lot of sleep-sack type things that can help. Try a few hand me downs from other people to see what works. The classic muslin square is good, and can work in a few ways (illustrated below). Sleep sacks with velcro are great until babies are strong enough to bust out of them. We even tried cutting a tshirt in half (under the armpits) and wrapping only Miss B’s arms, using her own weight to trap them by her sides. Arm-trapping this way, with a regular style diamond wrap, works pretty well and reduces the number of layers over the baby’s chest, compared with e.g. sleep sack plus wrap. Be prepared to have to mix it up a bit as your baby figures out different combinations of bridging, shoulder wriggles, and kicking that help them bust out of even the tightest wrap. The weather makes a big difference too. In general babies sleep better in a cooler room with an extra layer, than they do a warm room.
Whatever your style, wrapping the baby up to put her to sleep is likely to be better than no wrap at all. Your nap-sleep cues are likely to be different from your night-sleep cues, which is perfectly appropriate. Regardless, I’d also suggest you give your baby a chance to try to go to sleep without interference on your part. Unless she’s really letting it rip with the crying, I give Miss B as long as possible to calm herself down. Sometimes I can hear her singing a disconsolate song to her toy giraffe, sometimes she’s out like a light straight away, sometimes she does “creaky gate” crying. Sometimes she needs more soothing, which is also fine.
Do whatever works best, but always keep the baby’s face clear of fabric, lay the baby on its back to sleep, and don’t wrap in inappropriate fabric for the temperature.
Nap sleeps: wrap up in the style of the day with stretchy interlock wrap in a tshirt weight for cooler weather; or muslin for warmer. I use a sleep sack if she’s crashed out or the wraps are all being washed. Dummy in (usually pops out after a minute or two); “have a nice snooze!” and out of the room. As close as possible to this if she’s in the pram and we’re headed out, or in the carseat and we’re headed out. She has a little duck toy that is usually in her bassinet, so whenever she’s “meant” to be sleeping somewhere else, we put that in with her as well as another sleep cue.
Night sleeps: boob for dinner; bath with her Dad (who always sings the same Flanders and Swann song to her); dressed and wrapped for bed; dummy; songs while being cuddled and staring often as not at our curtains, which she is obsessed with; “night night darling” and out of the room.
Intervention: crying with genuine distress. In which case, cuddles, singing, swaying, whatever works. Sometimes a consolation boob.
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