The swaddling of infants is a child-care practice that has been known for centuries over most of Europe, Asia, South and North America. The technique is not commonly practiced in tropical areas. In the twenty-first century swaddling is still practiced by various population groups.
Swaddling means to wrap pieces of cloth around an infant's body, before covering the child with bands, called swaddling bands, that are swathed over and round the baby's clothes. The swaddled infant may be firmly tied to a cradle board for stiff support or be placed in a type of carry-cot. Among Native American peoples infants normally slept in a vertical position. European swaddled infants slept horizontally.
Several reasons were given for swaddling infants. The babies were kept warm and at the same time the swaddling band gave support to the child's body. All types of swaddling methods more or less constrain the child from moving. One of the most common assumptions was that the baby's limbs were loose-jointed and that sudden movements of the baby could be harmful.
In Europe, the tightly swathed circular method and the apparently looser crisscross method were the two main techniques of swaddling. The physician Soranus from the second century c.e. wrote about the swaddling practice, recommending that infants be tightly swaddled from shoulders to feet. His recommendations were later printed in medical and midwifery books, throughout Europe from the late fifteenth century.
The Enlightenment brought a change to swaddling practices in Europe. For example, in 1762 the philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau argued in Émile for the liberation of babies from restrictive swaddling clothing. However, Rousseau's recommendations were followed only by the most wealthy upper class, and more than a century passed before his ideas won general acceptance.
Throughout the nineteenth century, the medical profession recommended a less constraining form of swaddling. In this type of swaddling, often practiced by the middle classes, the infant was able to move its legs and the arms were kept free from restraints, although mothers were still advised to keep the swaddling band to support the baby's back. Baby clothing also became more comfortable.
In the late 1800s several doctors claimed that the swaddling band was unnecessary and in fact was harmful to the child because it inhibited the mobility of the body. Nevertheless, the practice of using swaddling bands around babies' stomachs and backs did not quickly disappear. Most women learned how to take care of babies from their mothers and so traditional ideas and practices were kept among women of the family with little influence from society. In some areas of Europe swaddling bands were used until the early 1930s.
In the twenty-first century, after a long period of resistance against restraining children's natural movements, new thinking has begun to consider possible benefits from swaddling. Swaddling has proved to be comforting, for example, to restless babies need of physical contact.
Rose, Clare. 1989. Children's Clothes Since 1750. New York: Drama Book Publishers.