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Breaking News: Can Swaddling a Baby Increase the Risk of SIDS?

Blog Breaking News: Can Swaddling a Baby Increase the Risk of SIDS?

A new analysis in the journal Pediatrics has found that swaddled babies have an increased rate of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, or SIDS.

Swaddling is the practice of wrapping a baby in a blanket so that their arms and legs are gently restricted. In theory, experts say this can comfort the baby and facilitate better sleep because it replicates the familiar sensation of being in utero.

However, according to the new study, it may also carry a risk: Infants who were swaddled and put to sleep on their sides or stomachs were twice as likely to succumb to SIDS.

According to Dr. Michael McKenna, pediatrician at Riley Hospital for Children at Indiana University Health, execution is key: If you swaddle a baby so much that their movement is severely restricted, then, yes, that can put them at risk, he says. They can get trapped in a position that they can't get out of and potentially suffocate.

SIDS, however, isn’t simplistic, he says, it can be complicated to comprehend. Although some SIDS deaths are caused by suffocation, many are simply unexplained, he says, and “nobody knows for sure” what the root cause is. Many doctors think it's a combination of poor air circulation and an irregularity in the brainstem, the part of the nervous system that regulates sleep and breathing. Factors like low socioeconomic status, smoking, and warm room temperatures have also been thought to play a part, although again, doctors aren't sure exactly why. 

In 1992, the National Institute of Health launched the “Back to Sleep” campaign, which informed the public that placing infants to sleep on their backs, as opposed to their sides or stomachs, dramatically decreased the risk of SIDS. Dr. McKenna stresses the continued importance of this messaging in the fight against SIDS.  “Nothing is more important than putting a baby to sleep on its back,” he says.

For parents who choose to swaddle, Dr. McKenna advises parents to use lightweight blankets with gauzy, breathable material so the chance of suffocation is less. Dr. McKenna also advises parents to stop swaddling when the baby is old enough to turn over, since there's a chance the baby could get entangled in the swaddling blanket. “Once he's rolling over, swaddling won't be as effective for sleep anyway,” Dr. McKenna says.

Parents can additionally decrease the risk of SIDS by clearing the baby's sleeping space of crib bumpers, heavy quilts, stuffed animals, and anything else that might restrict airflow, he suggests.

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