Josna Rege

152. No Swaddling, Please!

In 1980s, Family, India, Stories, United States on June 23, 2012 at 10:27 am

Nikhil was born on the morning after the winter solstice, calm and open-eyed. He gave one clear, sharp cry at the moment of birth, perhaps only to get oxygen into his lungs, then fell silent right away. After giving him to Andrew and to me to hold, the midwives counseled a much-needed rest all round, and put him next to my bed in an enclosed, temperature-controlled, space-age bassinet called “the Baby Cadillac,” where he lay awake and at peace, looking up at the gently diffused light of day (for Mount Auburn Hospital was enlightened about childbirth, and made sure that the babies didn’t come into the world under glaring artificial lights).

Somehow I had got it into my head that I wanted to leave the hospital as soon as possible, so after our little nap all the things hospitals like to do with new mothers and babies had to be taken care of very quickly. A doctor had come in earlier and given him an Apgar test, I remember—hardly necessary since he was born bright red all over, but it was our only contact with a doctor, since our midwives had attended the actual birth. As we prepared for our long drive out to snowy Winchendon (for there had been a storm the night before), I was terrified to dress the baby for fear of damaging his tiny limbs, so my mother and Eve did it instead, putting on layer after layer, starting with a soft cotton undershirt that had belonged to Andrew a generation before and topping them all off with a hooded snowsuit. But first the hospital staff had to make sure that I was properly instructed in the basics of caring for a newborn at home. They must have given me both printed and verbal advice, but I was in a daze and don’t remember much of it, except that I was to look out for signs of jaundice and he wasn’t to get dehydrated. Then the nurse set about demonstrating what was considered an essential task: swaddling the baby.


Swaddling is an ancient practice based on the assumption that babies feel snug and secure when they are confined as they were in the womb. It involves winding strips of cloth round them or bundling them tightly in a blanket like a well-wrapped parcel. As the efficient nurse set out to impart this skill to me, she laid out a soft flannel receiving blanket diagonally on the bed and placed Nikhil upon it, ready for the demonstration. He lay there quite still as she began.

“First,” she said, “you fold one side in, just so”: and she proceeded to pin the baby’s arm expertly to his side. In the next instant, the as-yet-unnamed Nikhil flipped his arm back up and outward, with a strength and decisiveness astounding in one so recently out in the world. Surprised but undaunted, the good nurse pressed on, leaving his little arm free for the time being. “Next, you fold up the bottom over his legs, like so.” So far, so good, as “Baby Boy M_” (as the hospital had labeled him since we were waiting for my father to bring some baby names back from India), suffered his lower body to be wrapped without complaint. “Now comes the third move: folding in the other side to complete the triangle.” She pulled the right-hand edge of the blanket smartly and swiftly across the baby, and prepared to tuck it snugly into place. But she reckoned without this newborn’s reflexes. Without a murmur of protest or a moment’s hesitation, he flipped his second arm back out, before his well-meaning captor had time to secure it.

Efficient though she was, the nurse knew when to accept defeat gracefully. “Clearly,” she said, “this little one doesn’t want to be swaddled.” And, after completing the wrapping job with his arms free, she proceeded to instruct me in other essentials of baby care. Eve and Mum finished dressing Nikhil to face the outside world for the first time, but just before they released us from the hospital, they took him from me one last time and returned him in a large red corduroy stocking, with his little head just sticking out over the top: my best Christmas present ever.

Sure enough, however snugly he was bundled up, Nikhil would always have to have his arms free. I knew when he was completely relaxed, because he would sleep with them flung up over his head in utter abandon. Every morning first thing upon waking, this tiny person would stretch out completely from head to toe, arms reaching up above his head, legs straight and strong, feet together, toes pointing outward.

In the end, my father brought  two books of names back from India and I stayed up all night poring over them until one seemed to fit perfectly. Nikhil means ‘complete(d),’ ‘whole’—sampurna in Sanskrit—and I envision in him the free and balanced movement of both arms reaching up overhead and flowing gracefully back down to the sides, completing full circles, ever-renewed.

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  1. really lovely story josna,

  2. What a lovely naming story! You do everything in such a thoughtful fashion, Josna. It’s probably partly just who you are and partly cultural, you think? Our family has been so very prosaic about everything, and sad to say, I think it’s a bit emotionally impoverishing.

    • I appreciate your saying that I do things thoughtfully (some might say that I agonize unnecessarily about everything!). Nikhil was nameless for some time, because he was born a couple of weeks earlier than we had expected and, as I said in the story, we were waiting for my Dad to return from a rare visit to India with suggestions for names. However, the longer I waited the more presumptious it seemed to give another person a name, and as I got to know this new, independent person, the less I felt I could hope to bestow upon him a name that was adequate and fitting. Additionally, since we had decided that his first name was going to be Indian, we needed to choose one that was not going to be massacred in the pronunciation here in the U.S., one that would go with Andrew’s Ukrainian last name, and one that, should he go through a stage where a different name embarrassed him, he could shorted to something more “American”-sounding. Then my Dad came back without any specific suggestions, just two books of names and their meanings. By then he was a few weeks old, so I stayed up all night narrowing down a long list, and finally came up with Nikhil. The middle name has another saga that goes with it! x J

  3. I have always loved this story! It brings tears to my eyes, for some reason. It is so sweet and evocative of that amazing and special feeling I had when I first met my tiny little daughter and told her that she was my Jennie come straight from heaven ! She looked at me very long and then snuggled down into my arms and went to sleep.
    We were in a small room at the hospital where I had been told to wait until she would be brought to meet me. A little while later we went into the room where her birth mother and her mother met us and we talked a little bit and both seemed to be reassured.
    The next day I was allowed to give Jennie her first feeding and shortly after that we took our newly adopted baby home. Six months later we signed all the papers in a courtroom to make it official.

    Twenty four years later I remember seeing the new little baby in Jennie’s womb on the big ultrasound screen and told her in my heart that she was my little granddaughter Lily.
    The feeling was the same and I had tears in my eyes when I held her for the first time a few months later. Nothing beats that wonderful feeling of being the recipient of God’s grace.
    Thank you for reminding me!

    • What a beautiful and moving story, Marianne. Thanks back to you for sharing it here. It is my best hope, that stories on Tell Me Another will evoke memories like this. Now you’re bringing tears to my eyes! Love, J

  4. just lovely, Josna!

    • Thank you, Sejal. It’s all true, though the subject of the story has no recollection of it! He is here for my birthday, so I had the pleasure of reading it to him over tea (and a Henion’s jam doughnut) this morning. x J

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