Back when my daughter was still breastfeeding at night, I discovered that if I woke up enough to actually safely take her out of her bassinet and then re-transfer her, I had a terrible time getting back to sleep. So, we developed a system: My husband would wake up enough to pick her up — she was always swaddled in the “miracle blanket” — and transport her to the bed. We would joke that he was delivering me a “little burrito.” Then he’d take off her swaddle, I’d wake up just enough to feed, and he would do the task of re-swaddling and transferring her back to bed. But was all of that unwrapping and rewrapping necessary, or can you swaddle while breastfeeding? I realized I didn’t actually know if it was safe to breastfeed a swaddled baby.
Learning how to expertly swaddle your baby takes time, and even once you’re a pro, it can feel sad to undo the hard work you’ve done of getting it just so. There are also safe and unsafe ways to swaddle—basically, you need to make sure it’s not so tight that it puts pressure on their hips, but not so loose that it could become a safe sleep hazard. So even though the nurses at the hospital can swaddle a baby to perfection in three seconds flat, it does take the average new parent a bit more effort. Understanding the reasons why keeping a baby swaddled while breastfeeding isn’t ideal can make it a little less painful to let those arms free during feeding sessions.
Should I keep my baby swaddled during night feedings?
There’s a few reasons not to breastfeed a baby in a swaddle, explains Dr. Alexander Hamling, a pediatrician in the Seattle area. First, having their arms free can help with the mechanics of both breastfeeding or bottle feeding. “A baby’s arms can grasp the breast and help control the angle and promote letdown from the breast,” Hamling tells Romper. Along the same lines, Allison Walsh, an International Board Certified Lactation Consultant in New York City, says that “babies use their whole bodies, and especially their hands and arms to help with position and latch.” It’s common, Walsh explains, for a baby to suck on his or her hands before breastfeeding. “I always tell parents how smart their baby is when they find their hand before feeding. They are re-organizing themselves to have a good feed.” Walsh tells Romper. In addition to avoid swaddles, she suggests that parents also ditch the infant mittens and the long-sleeved shirts. “Babies are primed to expect skin, not cotton,” she explains.
There’s also the fact that the very reason parents like swaddles — that they can help make a baby feel calm and sleepy — isn’t something you actually want while breastfeeding. A half-awake baby who sleepily snacks all night is cute, but a baby who focuses on getting a really solid feeding and then focuses on sleeping will probably result in better sleep for both of you. “A baby with its arms and legs free are often more awake and more focused on the task of feeding,” Dr. Hamling explains. Parents who swaddle need to be particularly mindful of making sure their babies get sufficient food, Walsh tells Romper. “Swaddling can encourage long stretches of sleep. While this sounds wonderful to exhausted new parents, babies can get into trouble if they sleep too long and aren’t fed enough. Dehydration and slow weigh gain can be dangerous.”
Can you burp a swaddled baby?
You can burp a swaddled baby. But, just like your baby needs their whole body to feed, it’s also helpful if they have access to their full body to burp. “Many parents find an unwrapped baby in a forward-leaning, sitting position (on the parent’s lap) with some gentle circling of the torso actually gets the wind up faster,” Walsh tells Romper. A swaddled baby over your shoulder might not be nearly as effective in bringing up the pesky air that can make them toss and turn (or wail) all night.
The bottom line is that swaddling can be great for babies while they’re sleeping, but once they are awake, they should be unswaddled. So, let those little arms fly free when they’re feeding during the night so that baby can focus on really getting a full belly, then rewrap them for a little more shut-eye.
Alexander Hamling, M.D., pediatrician at Pacific Medical Center
Allison Walsh, international board-certified lactation consultant and postpartum doula