Infant Swaddling and the Startle Reflex

I used to think that my daughter’s startle reflex in reaction to sudden movements, sounds or touch during her first few months was the result of the anxiety (though I have to say the level of which was not excessively high or anything) I felt during my pregnancy and the high levels of cortisol that were most likely present in my body, which would’ve been passed through to my daughter.  Her startle reflex was particularly strong, so much so that it would cause her to startle awake constantly from her slumber.  It was only during the writing of my book that I read that the startle reflex, also called moro reflex—first discovered and described by, and subsequently named after, the Austrian pediatrician Ernst Moro—actually demonstrates proper motor development in babies up to 5 months.  The moro reflex consists of the startle (or twitch), spreading out of the arms (abduction), and unspreading of the arms (adduction).  The baby may also cry as a consequence of the reflex. 

This brings me to the topic of swaddling.  My husband and I learned the hard way,  of course, since no one had advised us on why it is babies are tightly swaddled, that doing so helps them sleep more deeply and for longer stretches, especially for babies with strong startle reflexes.  I just used to think it was done to help the baby feel warm and secure, not to mention womb-like in terms of giving the baby the impression she was in a confined space with movement limitations.  As I’d written previously, for my daughter it wasn’t just the swaddling that helped her to sleep better, it was being kept in a semi-upright position in her car seat.  That was probably due to the  positioning (in my womb) with which she was accustomed.  She couldn’t sleep lying flat. It took us days to put one and two together about the car seat, followed by the swaddling.  For the first month or so, she slept in her car seat in our bedroom.  My parents and in-laws were worried that letting her sleep for long periods of time in a car seat would cause her back to curve.  Our pediatrician told us not to worry about that, so we didn’t.  At least we tried not to.  Fortunately, she was sleeping flat in her crib and unswaddled when the first month was over.  It’s almost like this was my daughter’s 4th trimester of development that just happened to be, but she was not ready for, outside mom’s belly rather than the dark and protected in utero environment.

As it turns out, swaddling is an age-old practice of wrapping infants snugly to restrict movement of the limbs. It’s amazing that infant swaddling was a practice even as far back as 4000 BC Central Asia! Babies have been swaddled in different countries throughout history but fell out of favour in the seventeenth century when people started to associate such restriction with neglect or unnecessary restriction of movement.  It became popular again as medical studies in the past couple of decades showed that swaddling infants reduces the tendency for them to awaken through reflex motion, which helps infants stay in REM sleep longer.   So, that’s why my daughter was swaddled all the time while in the hospital!  It’s like the hospital thought we’d figure everything out ourselves.  Well, so much for educating the first-time parents!  There was even this particular way of swaddling to ensure a snug fit and the blanket would not come undone. You didn’t simply wrap the baby with a blanket.  So, not only did I have to learn how to diaper properly, I had to learn how to swaddle properly.  Oh, boy – so many things to learn all at once!

So, what’s all this got to do with postpartum depression (PPD)?  Well, remember, the more you know of what to expect, the less surprises–and subsequently anxiety–the new mom will experience.  Had my husband and I known the purpose behind the swaddling, we would not have had to unnecessarily spend a few days not only worrying about our daughter’s strong (and frequent) startle reflex while sleeping but also how to minimize their occurrence.   Childcare classes should throw in a few sentences about the startle reflex and swaddling, so the expectant parents are knowledgeable about all this and won’t have to struggle with so many unknowns all at once. 

After all, it’s the unknowns that raise the anxiety levels in the first-time parent.

8 thoughts on “Infant Swaddling and the Startle Reflex

  1. Swaddling helped my son too, but only for a couple of months. He started hating the swaddle, breaking out of it at night and, of course, waking himself up. The zipadee-zip worked great though, because he felt snuggled in it, but not trapped. I also found it to be way more practical than the swaddle.


  2. The Zipadee-Zip is wonderful in deterring my child’s moro reflex. The taught wingspan, (which makes my little one look so cute), causes his arms to feel held, and provides assistance in soothing his reflexes. Its actually really interesting to see. It gently let her arms down so that she didn’t wake up. I was amazed the first time I saw suit in action!


  3. We use the Zipadee-zip for our LO and it worked wonderfully when she startled herself. It gently let her arms down so that she didn’t wake up. I was amazed! We swaddled her before using the zippy.


    • Hi Ivy — I want to let you know that swaddling is not a good thing for babies. Evidence is indicating that swaddled babies are not sleeping — but rather they go into parasympathetic shock when they are swaddled due to the insult of the extreme restriction to their natural movements. Swaddled babies have very high levels of cortisol. They are not calm. They are being traumatized. And no matter who tells you that an extreme startle response of an infant is normal, this is not true. Your baby has likely experienced severe trauma due to what happened during a hospital birth. There is too much for me to go into here but suffice to say that everything they are doing, including induction, fetal heart monitors, amniotomy, pitocin, cytotec, demerol, epidural, c-section, immediate cord clamping, vaccination, etc. — all of it is traumatic for the baby. Postpartum depression is also not natural but likely a result of birth trauma and not being able to bond with your baby properly due to medical interventions at birth.

      Please seek healing for your and your baby’s birth trauma. This is something that will help. Swaddling will NOT help your baby.


      • While I appreciate your concern, just as you have your own steadfast beliefs and concerns and approaches, so do I. There isn’t much you can do to change my position on this. My daughter was fine swaddled. She’s 10 yrs old now. It’s what worked for us and for many folks. There is much evidence that supports why infants do well swaddled (i.e., fourth trimester). My blog post and many others explain why it worked for our babies. To each his own.


  4. Pingback: Last night.. « Connecticut Postpartum Doula

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