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Learning how to swaddle a baby is a basic survival skill for any new parent. Most newborns used to the confines of the womb will sleep better when their arms and legs are wrapped snuggly. So last week, many parents were freaked out by headlines about a study that linked swaddling to an increased risk of SIDS, sudden infant death syndrome. The study was published in the journal Pediatrics. Well, it turns out those headlights kind of missed the mark.
Tara Haelle has written about what the study actually says for NPR's health blog Shots. And she joins us now. Welcome back to the program.
TARA HAELLE, BYLINE: Hello. Thank you much.
CORNISH: All right. So we want to set this straight right away. The researchers behind the study are not saying that parents should stop swaddling infants altogether, right?
HAELLE: That's correct, as long as the baby is on their back. It's still not safe to swaddle a baby and place them on their stomach or on their side because that's a pretty big risk factor for SIDS and doing so while swaddled increases that risk even more.
But as long as the baby is placed down on their backs, swaddling is fine as far as we know right now. And there is evidence that it helps babies sleep longer and not cry as much. So those were two big pluses.
CORNISH: Now, the study did conclude that consideration should be given to when swaddling should end. Give us a sense. What age should that happen? And what do doctors that you talked to have to say about it?
HAELLE: It really varies. The doctors don't have an agreement on that because there hasn't been enough research to pin it down. A lot of doctors will say once the baby starts rolling, and I think that's probably a pretty good measure because when the baby starts rolling, if they're in the swaddle, but able to roll, they could end up on their stomach.
And the study did find that the risk of SIDS is about 13 times higher when they are on their stomach and swaddled. So it's only on their back that swaddling is fine. But we already knew that. That's not new information.
CORNISH: Now, there's still about 3,500 sleep-related deaths every year in this country. So it's natural that researchers would still be looking for a cause, right? I mean, what's known about these deaths?
HAELLE: Well, 1,500 of those are from sudden infant death syndrome, and the others are associated usually with suffocation or smothering or some kind of unsafe sleeping environment. The 1,500 from sudden infant death syndrome, we're still learning a lot about that.
And it seems to be that there's sort of a triad that leads to SIDS, which includes some kind of underlying genetic something or other that predisposes the baby to be more at risk for SIDS along with a unsafe sleeping environment and then being in - like, there's some kind of autonomic process that gets interrupted. So it's sort of like a biological thing, a genetic thing and an environmental thing all conspiring together.
The other deaths a lot of times have to do with unsafe sleeping environments. Having a baby on a really soft surface or sleeping in a car seat or sleeping in a bouncer or laying on their stomachs or on their sides or with lots of blankets - I mean, there's a lot of different things that the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends against to ensure your baby has a safe sleeping environment.
CORNISH: That's Tara Haelle. She's a regular contributor to NPR's health blog Shots. She's also co-author of the book "The Informed Parent: A Science-Based Resource For Your Child's First Four Years." Tara Haelle, thank you for speaking with us.
HAELLE: Thank you very much.
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