Archaeological records suggest that swaddling first developed around 4000 B.C. in Central Asia with use of the back-pack cradle board by migrating peoples. As desertification progressed, migration from region to region became a relatively permanent way of life. Swaddling subsequently became an institutionalized part of child-rearing tradition in those same areas.
Votive statuettes have been found in the tombs of Ancient Greek and Roman women who died in childbirth, displaying babies in swaddling clothes. In shrines dedicated to Amphiaraus, models representing babies wrapped in swaddling clothes have been excavated. Apparently, these were frequently given as thank-offerings by anxious mothers when their infants had recovered from sickness.
And so it was, that, while they were there, the days were accomplished that she should be delivered. And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn. (Luke: II: 6-7) King James Version
The oriental swaddling clothes consisted of a square of cloth and two or more bandages. The child was laid on the cloth diagonally and the corners are folded over the feet and body and under the head, the bandages then being tied so as to hold the cloth in position. This device formed the clothing of the child until it is about a year old, and its omission (Ezekiel 16:4) would be a token that the child had been abandoned.
Over time swaddling clothes became more elaborate, especially for the wealthy. During Tudor times, there were several different clothes needed to wrap a baby. In the case of the children of James III of Scotland, the children wore several caps, a shirt, a square band "bed", which bound from the breast to the feet and up again, a long band of swaddling clothes (roller), a tube waistcoat that bound the arms and roller and a blanket. A stay band would be attached to the forehead and the shoulders to secure the head. Babies would be swaddled like this until about 8 or 9 months.
In the seventeenth century the opinion towards swaddling began to change. John Locke, in his 1693 publication Some Thoughts Concerning Education, became a lobbyist for not bounding babies at all. This thought was very controversial during the time, but slowly gained ground, first in England and later elsewhere in Europe.
The child has hardly left the mother's womb, it has hardly begun to move and stretch its limbs, when it is given new bonds. It is wrapped in swaddling bands, laid down with its head fixed, its legs stretched out, and its arms by its sides; it is wound round with linen and bandages of all sorts so that it cannot move […]. Whence comes this unreasonable custom? From an unnatural practice. Since mothers despise their primary duty and do not wish to nurse their own children, they have had to entrust them to mercenary women. These women thus become mothers to a stranger's children, who by nature mean so little to them that they seek only to spare themselves trouble. A child unswaddled would need constant watching; well swaddled it is cast into a corner and its cries are ignored […]. It is claimed that infants left free would assume faulty positions and make movements which might injure the proper development of their limbs. This is one of the vain rationalizations of our false wisdom which experience has never confirmed. Out of the multitude of children who grow up with the full use of their limbs among nations wiser than ourselves, you never find one who hurts himself or maims himself; their movements are too feeble to be dangerous, and when they assume an injurious position, pain warns them to change it.
Although the extreme form of swaddling has fallen out of favour in the Western world, many Eastern cultures and tribal people still use it. Some researchers have been shocked that the practice continues today.
Looser wrappings, tucked but not tied, can generally be kicked off by a wakeful baby. They are still useful for keeping the baby warm, without increasing the SIDS risk, because the wrappings stay well clear of the baby's face and airway. This assumes that the baby is put to sleep on its back, as anti-SIDS precautions recommend. By the time the baby is learning to roll over, often around 6 months, it should be sleeping in less restrictive coverings - so it has more freedom to respond when it succeeds in rolling over.
Modern specialised baby swaddles are designed to make it easier to swaddle a baby than with traditional square sheets or blankets. They are typically fabric blankets in a triangle, 'T' or 'Y' shape, with 'wings' that fold around the baby's torso or down over the baby's shoulders and around underneath the infant. Some of these products employ velcro patches or other fasteners. Fabrics used include synthetic 'fleece', cotton, organic cotton, and cotton/synthetic blends. A Spandex/cotton fabric is widely used, which provides more stretch than cotton alone. The synthetic content of the fabric is not always required to be disclosed.
At least one modern baby swaddle uses merino fabric. This use of merino in a specialised baby swaddle seeks to combine the health benefits from using merino bedding for newborn babies with the idea of an easy-to-use specialised baby swaddle blanket. The chief benefits expounded for the use of a merino baby swaddle are the reduction in the risk of the baby overheating compared to other fabrics, and the baby's ability to move its limbs while swaddled due to the natural stretch of the merino fabric.
However, the psychologist Arthur Janov claims that even this form of swaddling has profound effects on the adult emotional life of a swaddled child. He claims that swaddling causes a lifelong deficit on oxytocin and oversupply of cortisol, resulting in a lifetime of rage and anxieties, though he does not offer a neurophysiological mechanism by which this might take place in humans. One study has found that rats lose hormones in the hippocampus and orbital frontal lobes when tied up like swaddled human infants, developing depletions in serotonin, norepinephrine and dopamine, exacerbated aggressive behavior and a severe decrease of social capabilities.