Benign Neglect

An anthropologist looks at contemporary parenting.

What About Swaddling?

What do we know about infant swaddling?

One time doyen of anthropology, Margaret Mead wrote  what may be seen as the epitaph for swaddling babies. She noted in 1954 "...the idea of swaddling is peculiarly horrifying to Americans, one of whose major commitments is to freedom of movement." (1) But I sense a gradual rehabilitation under way. This is being driven in part by the same forces that promote breast feeding and organic baby foods-it seems "natural." Also, empirical evaluation of the practice does show measureable benefits, in sleep quality (associated, in turn, with later health issues, such as obesity), for example. One study "showed that, when infants between 6 and 16 weeks of age sleep swaddled and supine, they sleep longer, spend more time in NREM sleep, and awake less spontaneously than when not swaddled." (2)

Viewing swaddling as "natural" arises primarily from the ubiquity of the practice. Historian Karin Calvert writes:

"...swaddling immobilized the child. Parents could hang the bound infant up on a nail and go about their business, secure in the knowledge that he couldn't crawl into the fireplace or fall down a well. A swaddled baby, like a little turtle in its shell, could be looked after by another, only slightly older child without too much fear of injury, since the practice of swaddling made...child care virtually idiot proof." (3)

Portrait of Cornelia Burch aged two months, 1581.
Portrait of Cornelia Burch aged two months, 1581.
Ferens Art Gallery
As the illustration shows, swaddling was practiced across all classes of society.

Anthropologists describe swaddling in cultures around the world. Nomadic herders like the Pashtu, extoll the virtues of swaddling (full time, night and day) and explain that:

"...the baby's flesh is oma (unripe) like uncooked meat, and that only by swaddling will it become strong (chakahosi) and solid like cooked (pokh) meat...a baby [may] whimper... or cry when...unwrapped from its ‘cocoon' for feeding and/or cleaning purposes [but] immediately quiets again when [re]wrapped and tied up." (4) Swaddling is also seen as efficacious in protecting the baby from harmful influences, such as the evil eye. (5)

One of the most interesting forms of swaddling is the manta pouch used by Quechua farmers who live high in the Andes. It turns out this low-tech device is quite effective in promoting the infant's well-being in a harsh climate.

"Raising the temperature and humidity reduces the energy demands on the infant to warm and inspire air and...the manta pouch...increases the likelihood that the infant will sleep...mothers kept the infants in the pouch when nursing,..little interaction takes place...This pattern reduces the likelihood of arousing the infant. Each of these features may save only a little energy, but, in sum, a significant number of calories may be saved."(6)

However, even in tropical countries where swaddling might lead to overheating, babies are preferably confined by a cloth tied to the mother's back or hip (depicted in Egyptian tomb reliefs from 2500 B.C.E.). In the New Guinea Highlands the baby is placed in a mesh sack (bilum) "which hangs constantly from the mother's head, providing the external equivalent of the man am [womb, literally child house]...and can if necessary be suckled in route while the mother's hands remain free for foraging." (7)

Apache Babe Edwards S. Curtis 1903
Apache Babe Edwards S. Curtis 1903
Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, Edward S. Curtis Collection
Swaddling and/or attaching the baby via a cloth or mesh fabric to its mother is supplemented, in many societies, by the use of other confining devices such as a cradleboard. Undoubtedly the Navajo were among the best-known exponents of the cradleboard, some mothers continue using it today. There were 4 graduated sizes and they were designed to be lashed to a horse's saddle in such a way that a kind of awning could be stretched from the saddle bow over the board to shield the child. (8) Of course the board kept the child tranquil and out of its mother's way but the Navajo had an elaborate rationale for its use, e.g. "Babies are kept...in the cradle to make them straight and strong. Some women let their children lie on sheep skins and roll about, but they are always weak, sick children." (9)

Traveling in Uzbekistan in 2007, I discovered that a "modernized" version of the cradleboard was very

Demonstrating the Uzbek Cradle
Demonstrating the Uzbek Cradle
David F. Lancy Photo
popular and sold in every market. The child is swaddled and strapped into the cradle, which is sometimes fitted with rockers so the baby can, in effect, rock itself to sleep. Like a miniature 4-poster bed, the cradle can be covered to block out the light. Most ingenious is a funnel arrangement that drains the infant's urine into a collector under the cradle.

In the US and Europe, receptivity to swaddling and similar constraints is mediated by prevailing views on the nature of infancy. Americans are famously individualistic and ascribe unique personality, needs and preferences to infants. They are, therefore loathe to impose restraints, including "schedules" on their children. Parents talk to and otherwise stimulate infants who are kept is a state of "active alertness." The Dutch, by contrast, believe that all infants develop best via a regulated regime that emphasizes consistent and durable sleep patterns and, otherwise, a state of quiet alertness. Not surprisingly, American parents are much more likely to identify problematic behaviors-during infancy and beyond. (10) To learn more about contemporary swaddling practices in the US, The Happiest Baby on the Block is one source. (11)

1. Mead, M. 1954. The swaddling hypothesis: Its reception. American Anthropologist (56): 395-409. In the same article, she discusses "swaddling as an important element in Great Russian character."
2. Franco, P., et al 2005. Influence of swaddling on sleep and arousal characteristics of healthy infants. Pediatrics, (115): 1307-1311
3. Calvert, K. 1992. Children in the House: The Material Culture of Early Childhood, 1600-1900. Boston, MA: Northeastern University Press.
4. Casimir, M. J. 2010. Growing Up in a Pastoral Society: Socialization among Pashtu Nomads. Kölner Ethnologische Beiträge. Köln: Druck and Bindung.
5. Fonseca, I. 1995. Bury Me Standing: the Gypsies and Their Journey. New York: Vintage Books.
6. Tronick, E. Z., et al, 1994. The Quechua manta pouch: A caretaking practice for buffering the Peruvian infant against the multiple stressors of high altitude. Child Development, 65: 1005-1013.
7. MacKenzie, M. A. 1991. Androgynous Objects: String bags and Gender in Central New Guinea. Reading, UK: Harwood.
8. Chisholm, J. S. 1980. Development and adaptation in infancy. New Directions for Child Development, 8: 15-30.
9. Leighton, D., Kluckhohn, C. C. 1948. Children of the People. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
10. Harkness, S. and Super, C. 2006. Themes and variations: Parental ethnotheories in Western cultures. In K. H. Rubin, et al (Eds.), Parenting Beliefs, Behaviors, and Parent-Child Relations: A Cross-Cultural Perspective. Pp. 61-79. New York: Psychology Press.
11. Karp, H. 2003. The Happiest Baby on the Block. New York: Bantam.

 

 

David Lancy, Ph.D., is a professor of anthropology at Utah State University and author of The Anthropology of Childhood: Cherubs, Chattel, Changelings.

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