Yao Lan/ baby hammocks: An informative safety guide for parents

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Yao lan are a popular choice among mums in Singapore to get their baby to sleep. But how much do you know about the safety aspects of these baby hammocks? Find out now in this article...

In Singapore and Malaysia (as well as other Southeast Asian communities), the yao lan or traditional baby hammock, is a popular choice among some mums for getting their little ones to sleep.

These hammocks are also known as  as sarung buaian or buai, cloth cradles or sarung cradles.

In Chinese, yao lan means ‘swinging basket’ — and this is literally what is is. It is basically a hammock made of cotton cloth or batik, attached to a spring, and hung from the ceiling or a door-frame.

While many generations of Asian babies have been rocked to sleep in yao lan, what do we know about the safety of these traditional cradles, given awareness about Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS) and the ‘Back to Sleep’ or ‘Safe to Sleep‘ campaign?

This article will provide you with information on the topic of yao lan, including its safety aspects and more.

yao lan

Putting a baby to sleep in a hammock is comparatively easy due to the rocking movement it provides and the womb-like snug environment.

Why are yao lan so popular?

Babies love being rocked, especially when they are trying to fall asleep. Scientists believe that little ones link the rocking movement to the movements they felt while in the womb. And a soothing, rocking movement is exactly what a baby hammock provides, getting babies to sleep in a flash.

In addition, a yao lan provides a baby with a snug womb-like environment due to the child’s own weight pulling the folds of cloth around him once placed in the yao lan. This sense of security also assists the baby to drift off to sleep.

yao lan

Child health experts in general agree that baby hammocks are not the best sleeping arrangement for babies.

Are baby hammocks safe?

The consensus of child health experts is that baby hammocks or yao lan are not safe in general. 

2014 study tested whether sleeping in a hammock affected babies’ breathing, following international concern raised over two reports of infants found dead in baby hammocks.

Based on their results, the researchers strongly recommend that yao lan should not be used for unsupervised sleep, especially when the baby is big enough to roll over.

We also spoke to Dr. Michael Lim Teik Chung, Consultant at the Division of Paediatric Pulmonary & Sleep, National University Hospital Singapore.

Dr. Lim cautions against the use of yao lan, stating “while they are probably safe for infants between 1-3 months of age, I would not recommend baby hammocks beyond 3 months of age when infants will generally start rolling from back to front.”

Here are the reasons why Dr Lim does not recommend baby hammocks as a safe sleeping option for babies:

  • If a baby rolled within a hammock, it would be very difficult for him to get out of a sideways or face-down position, leading to entanglement or suffocation from his face being covered. Deaths have been reported from this in the US in the 4-5 month age group among babies.
  • For infants less than a month, the jaw is very mobile, and flexion of the head on the neck in a baby hammock can potentially lead to compromise of the baby’s breathing.
  • Baby hammocks can be dangerous if your baby has older siblings. One Australian study had noted that there was a temptation by them to swing or tilt the hammock to look at the baby. While this may not increase the risk of the baby falling, the baby’s sleeping position can shift to a suboptimal position.
yao lan

Older siblings may be tempted to rock the hammock really hard, which put their little brother or sister at risk of falling out, or even brain hemorrhage.

Dr Lim advises, “until more rigorous studies on the safety of hammocks are carried out, it is hard to recommend a baby hammock over a conventional cot or bassinet.”

Meanwhile, KK Women’s and Children’s Hospital warns that vigorous rocking in a yao lan may cause internal brain bleeding.

Other child health experts caution against hammocks with strings or cords, due to the strangulation risk they can pose to babies.

Also, the use of yao lan may have a negative impact of the development of infants’ bone structure, which may lead to posture issues when they are bigger. This is due to the lack of back and shoulder support for babies while they sleep in a baby hammock.

Finally, a baby constantly rocked to sleep in a yao lan may become dependent on the rocking movement to fall asleep. Parents may find this disruptive to their efforts to get their little ones to fall asleep independently when they are older.

Modern alternatives

A lot of the research on the dangers of lao yan is based on the more traditional cloth versions.

However, baby hammocks have evolved with the times, and today’s modern yao lan often have a cotton-mesh combination replacing the batik. They also come with a motorised spring to set off the rocking action, rather than have someone sit near the yao lan, pulling it up and down.

While some of these modern versions come endorsed by experts, it’s still good to check with the manufacturer about the safety features of the device. It’s even better to have a chat with your baby’s paediatrician about using yao lan — even if it’s a modern version — for your baby.

Your baby’s safest sleeping arrangement

Child health experts across the board agree that the best and safest sleeping option for your baby is a cot/ crib/ bassinet with a firm mattress covered with a fitted sheet.

The cot should be free of any bedding, including blankets, pillows, bolsters and bumper pads. No soft toys should be placed in your baby’s cot either. Having these items in your baby’s cot can increase the risk of SIDS.

Place your baby’s cot in an area that is smoke-free, and use age-appropriate sleep wear to ensure your baby is not too warm, or too cold while sleeping.

Finally, always place your baby on his back to sleep, as this too has been shown to reduce the likelihood of SIDS.

yao lan

The safest sleeping arrangement for little ones is on their back on a firm mattress, in a cot, crib or cradle free of bedding (other than a fitted sheet) or soft toys.

Dealing with pressure to use yao lan for your baby

Older relatives and acquaintances — ranging from aunties and confinement nannies, to your own mother and mother-in-law — may claim that yao lan did not do them (or you!) any harm, so why not use it for your own baby.

An argument they often put forward is that sleeping in a yao lan will give your baby a nicely rounded head — which is perhaps true. But as the parents of your child, you’re bound to agree that the safety of your baby comes well ahead of cosmetic issues.

If you have made up your mind that yao lan is not a safe sleeping arrangement for your child, explain this gently but firmly to anyone who may claim otherwise. Recruit your partner as an ally and point out the many other, safer ways to get your little one to sleep.

If you decide to use a baby hammock…

Please keep these safety tips in mind if you decide that a yao lan is the best sleeping arrangement for your baby.

  • Use a roll out mattress or another form of firm bedding under the yao lan to cushion your baby, should he fall out of the hammock.
  • Always place your baby on his back in the yao lan. 
  • Ensure the baby hammock is as close to the floor as possible by adjusting the height of the frame, or the length of the spring appropriately.
  • As your baby grows heavier, make sure that his weight does not pull the yao lan so far down that he hits his head on the floor, while being rocked.
  • Keep the yao lan free of pillows, blankets or other bedding.
  • Use a solid square frame rather than a collapsible frame that hangs the hammock off a triangular point. The former is much less likely to topple over.

Watch this video below on how to ensure ‘safe sleep’ for your baby: 


Baby Center

Baby sleep Ages & Stages