Swaddling a newborn baby is a soothing technique that is used to create a womb-like environment for peaceful sleep.
A swaddled baby looks like a little baby burrito.
New parents know that swaddling a baby in the newborn stage is a simple and effective way to calm a fussy baby AND get more sleep.
Unfortunately there comes a time (a little too quickly if you ask me) when you need to stop swaddling your baby for health and safety reasons regarding safe sleep practices.
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A rested baby is a happy baby.
But getting your baby to sleep can be a difficult process.
Swaddling is probably the easiest technique that you can use to soothe your baby and hopefully get them to snuggle up and go to sleep.
With a traditional swaddle blanket, you fold the blanket into a triangle, place the baby’s face and head along the folded side, wrap one corner around the baby’s arms and baby’s chest, flip up the bottom of the triangle to cover the baby’s legs and feet, and finally wrap the second cornerback around the baby’s whole body.
Be sure not to wrap the baby’s hips too tight. Baby’s need to have some mobility in their hips when they are swaddled to avoid complications like hip dysplasia.
Many swaddle products on the market are labeled as “hip-healthy.” Meaning, if you use the product in the way showed it is comfortable and not too restrictive on the hips.
While labor and delivery nurses make swaddling a baby seem as easy as tying a shoe, I’m here to reassure you that this is a tricky process and can take some practice!!
There are lots of YouTube videos on swaddling to help you through the process.
Pro Tip: If your baby fusses when being wrapped in a swaddle, that doesn’t necessarily mean they don’t like to be swaddled. Don’t give up on swaddling if this happens! Remember: swaddling is your friend! If your baby fusses while you are swaddling, try wrapping the blankets (through the fussing), putting in a pacifier, offering a bottle, or nursing. If after that your baby is still hating the swaddle it might just be that they have gas or are too hot or too cold. Put the swaddle aside for now and try again later.
If your baby is generally unhappy in a swaddle, you can also try swaddling in different positions.
For example, my son loved to be swaddled, but only with his arms curled up so that his hands were free to chew and suck on. We used onesies that have built-in mitts so that his hands would stay warm enough and not get chapped.
If your baby doesn’t like the traditional swaddle (where both arms and legs are wrapped together), try one of these variations:
- Tucked arms up: position your infant’s arms so that they are curled up toward the face (but still tucked in the swaddle).
- Arms up, hands out: position your infant’s arms so that they are curled up and their hands are out. Make sure the hands are just accessible enough to be chewed or sucked on, but not too loose that your baby could wiggle free.
My son used the Halo Swaddle Sack until he showed signs to stop swaddling, and it was super convenient for doing arms up, hands out.
Pro Tip: If your baby’s hands are freezing, don’t freak out! First, check your baby’s body temperature (see below). If your baby is warm, and sleeping peacefully, there is no need to worry about those little ice pops. If you can’t bear the thought of those little icicles, try using a onesie that has foldover mitts built-in. We avoided using separate mitts because they can be a choking hazard if they come loose or if the baby is sucking on them in the night. My son was perfectly happy to sleep with chilly hands, but we went for the build-in onesie mitts anyway.
- One arm out: position one arm down (or curled up) and let the other be completely free of the swaddle.
- Both arms out: position both arms outside of the swaddle. Use the swaddle to give a snug feeling in the chest and torso.
Different Types Of Swaddles
There are many different types of swaddles on the market. In fact, there are so many that I wrote a whole article on “The Best Swaddle Blankets,” you can read the full article here.
Know that traditional swaddle blankets are just fine and perfectly safe if used correctly; however, many parents choose an alternative swaddle blanket because they are often easier and more secure than a traditional swaddle.
- There are swaddle wraps which are like little baby sleeping bags with two fabric straps that can be used to swaddle the arms and chest.
- There are velcro swaddles that help to avoid all of the pulling and tucking.
- There are swaddle sacks which are very similar to swaddle wraps, but they have the fabric straps on the inside and then the baby is zipped up in the sleeping bag.
Many of these swaddles on the market can be used in multiple ways (either as the baby grows or in different swaddle positions) and offer more versatility than a traditional swaddle blanket.
Pro Tip: Want to make your own baby blanket? Here is the best crochet stitch for a baby blanket as well as some very easy patterns to follow!
Safety Tips For Swaddling
It is important to practice safe swaddling as a part of your safe sleep routine.
Spend time with your labor and delivery nurse practicing your swaddling technique.
Even if you decide not to use traditional swaddle blankets, your nurse can teach you valuable tips and solutions for swaddling that can work with any type of swaddle (for example: how tight to swaddle, what to wear underneath, how to swaddle a squirmy baby, etc.).
Make sure that your swaddle is snug, but not too tight around the baby’s chest that it could cause breathing troubles. You want to be able to stick 3 or 4 fingers between the swaddle and the baby’s chest, and the baby should be able to breathe comfortably.
Make sure there are no loose blankets in the crib. Your swaddle needs to stay wrapped around the baby. If the swaddle becomes unwrapped and is loose, it could become a choking hazard for your baby.
If you are using a swaddle blanket, wrap, or sleep sack, make sure you are following the manufacturer’s instructions exactly. Make sure that whatever you are using doesn’t ride up over your baby’s face, and make sure they can’t wriggle free from it leaving loose blankets or clothing in the crib.
When in doubt, talk to your pediatrician. They can guide you on your swaddling technique, the products you are using, what baby should be wearing underneath, etc.
At What Age Should You Stop Swaddling?
There is no right answer to this question. Swaddling can be done safely for babies of all different ages.
The most important things to consider when finding the right time to transition are whether the baby is showing signs of rolling and whether the baby needs more freedom to move in their sleep. We will get into both of these topics later.
If you want a good rule of thumb, most babies will stop being swaddled between 2 and 6 months of age, with 4 months being the average.
Keep in mind that even though these are general numbers, your baby might be an outlier and need to stop swaddling much earlier, or might enjoy the swaddle to an older age.
To clarify, your baby’s age isn’t going to tell you when you need to stop swaddling, the signs of readiness that we are going to get into below are going to tell you when the right time is.
Signs That You Should Stop Swaddling Your Baby
When it’s time to stop swaddling, it’s also time to ditch the bassinet and move your baby to a crib or mini crib.
The Baby Can Roll.
As soon as your baby can roll from back to front, you need to immediately stop swaddling.
The reason is that your baby could become trapped on their belly and suffocate face-down in their crib. Your baby’s arms, hands, and to some extent hips, are all restricted in the swaddle. So if they flip over onto their belly, it would be difficult–or impossible–to roll back.
From the first time they can roll, you can no longer swaddle.
Unfortunately, this might make your transition a little harder (because you can’t take a gradual approach).
Baby’s can start rolling at any age. My son started rolling at 8 weeks 🙄. He didn’t do a full flip all at once… But I noticed he could roll from his back to his side pretty easily.
It actually took my son a few more weeks to be able to fully roll onto his belly, and by that point, we had long switched from the swaddle, and I am glad that I made the decision to stop swaddling before we got to that point.
The best time to watch your baby’s movement is when they are playing on the floor or having tummy time. That’s when you’re most likely to see them trying to roll, and also when they are going to be the most active.
Child care centers are also great for observing your baby’s movement because they are with your child all day. Make sure your childcare provider knows that you swaddle your baby, and tell you if they see any signs of rolling or other signs of readiness listed below.
As soon as that baby is rolling off of their back: put the swaddle away, and focus on other ways of soothing them (more on that later).
The Baby Break Out Of The Swaddle.
No matter how well and snug you get your baby swaddled, those little Houdinis are crafty and can seemingly escape no matter what!
If you notice your baby breaking out of their swaddle, you should start transitioning right away.
Your baby is telling you that they are no longer comfortable in the swaddle, and would like more freedom of movement during sleep.
In addition to making your child more comfortable, transitioning from the swaddle at this point is also a safety concern.
If your baby is wriggling out of their swaddle, the extra loose fabric in the crib can be a choking hazard.
They could also get tangled up (depending on what kind of swaddle that you are using) and wind up in an unsafe position, or with fabric over their face causing a suffocation hazard.
Your Baby Isn’t Showing Signs Of Readiness.
If your baby is getting near the 4-6 months mark and isn’t rolling (totally normal BTW) and isn’t showing signs of readiness like breaking out of their swaddle, it might be appropriate to keep swaddling.
Double-check with your pediatrician that they are comfortable with you swaddling past the 4-6 month mark.
Some babies might develop flat spots on their heads from being in the same position all night. And your pediatrician might have other concerns about extended swaddling.
If you get the green light to keep swaddling, enjoy those precious nights 😴
Why Do You Need To Stop Swaddling Babies
The main reason that you need to stop swaddling babies is because of safe sleep guidelines.
As I said earlier, once babies can roll onto their bellies, they are at risk of rolling while they are swaddled and getting stuck (because their arms and hands are tucked away).
Being on the belly is a very dangerous place for a baby and is shown to cause an increased risk of SIDS (or sudden infant death syndrome) according to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP).
As soon as your baby starts rolling (or even shows signs of rolling like rolling on their side or being able to roll their legs behind them) you need to stop swaddling.
Do not use a gradual method to transition from the swaddle. If your baby is showing signs of rolling, you need to stop the swaddle immediately cold-turkey.
Getting Out Of Their Swaddle
Another sign that you need to stop swaddling your baby is if they are breaking out of their swaddle… Meaning you wrap them up in their swaddle, but later find them with hands, arms, and/or legs free.
This might not seem like a huge safety issue at first, but loose blankets in your child’s sleep space are a safety concern and increase the risk of SIDs (sudden infant death syndrome) for your child.
In addition, even if your baby isn’t completely free from their swaddle, they might get just free enough for the blankets to cover their face, or get tangled in an uncomfortable or dangerous position.
If your baby is still in the newborn stage and is wiggling out of their swaddle, it could be your technique or the product you are using:
- Check with your pediatrician for proper swaddling techniques if you are using a traditional swaddle blanket.
- If you are using a swaddling product like a velcro swaddle or zipper swaddle, make sure that the sizing is correct and that you are following the manufacturer’s instructions exactly.
- Most swaddle manufacturers also have a helpline that you can call to help with proper fit and use.
- Feel free to work on your swaddling technique or switch products and try again with the baby.
However, if the problem continues, you will need to stop swaddling immediately (do not use a transitional method).
If your baby is out of the newborn stage and getting closer to that 4-month mark, escaping from the swaddle is a sign that they are ready for more freedom during their sleep, and it is time to stop swaddling and switch to a wearable blanket to prevent a loose blanket in the crib.
Here is my full list of the best wearable blankets on the market.
You are getting ready for sleep training
Make sure you discuss your plans for sleep training with your pediatrician and that you get the green light from them before starting your sleep training program.
There are certain instances where sleep training might not be appropriate, so always make sure to check with your child’s healthcare provider first.
They will also give their recommendations for sleep training and can be an ally for you in the early months (when there are still lots of appointments) if the sleep training isn’t successful.
Most infants will outgrow their swaddle before you start sleep training, or shortly thereafter.
The transition from a swaddle to a regular wearable blanket can be a difficult one.
Therefore, it’s best to transition from the swaddle FIRST and let your child learn to self-soothe without it before beginning a sleep training program.
If you start sleep training with the swaddle, know that you might see early success, but have a MAJOR regression once your little one has to transition from the swaddle. It could be like starting over at square one, or even worse than the first time around.
So again, if you are planning on sleep training in the near future and your child is still in a swaddle, I would highly recommend transitioning out of the swaddle first and waiting until the baby is sleeping the same as they previously were in the swaddle and start the sleep training process after that.
Being Able To Transition Gradually
If your child is approaching the 4-month mark but does not show any of the signs above, and you are not planning on sleep training, you might still want to consider transitioning from the swaddle.
The reason is: if your child isn’t raising any safety concerns (rolling or escaping), you can take a gradual approach to transition from the swaddle, versus a cold-turkey approach.
A gradual transition is typically more peaceful for both the parent and the child.
I cover several transition techniques below in more detail.
The idea here is just to get “ahead of the curve” and start the transition process on your own terms, rather than suddenly needing to make the change.
Transitional Swaddles And Swaddle Alternatives
Once you are done with the swaddle (😭 this is truly a sad day, because it usually means rockier sleep is ahead) you will still need to keep your baby warm at night.
Depending on your climate, your child might be comfortable in just their pajamas (or layers of pajamas), or you might want to opt for a sleep sack or wearable blanket for extra warmth or just coziness.
Transitional swaddles are great for that time between swaddles and sleep sacks.
Many can be used in different ways throughout the transition process and can grow with your child for a few months afterward. Providing some sleep routine and stability… Which often means better sleep for mom and baby.
Below is a brief summary of what each one is:
- Wearable Blankets
They are typically made of a quilted or slightly heavier material to provide warmth. Usually they are sleeveless and have a zippered bag for the baby’s legs.
- Baby Sleeping Bag (Sleep Sack)
A baby sleeping bag, also known as a sleep sack, is generally lighter weight and meant to provide comfort and coziness. They are usually also sleeveless and have a zippered bag for the baby’s legs. Although there are a few long sleeve sleep sacks on the market if you prefer a warmer blanket.
Wearable blankets, baby sleeping bags, and sleep sacks generally all have the same design and can be referred to interchangeably. The biggest difference that I see is with the amount of warmth (TOGs) that each provide.
- Transitional Swaddles And Sleep Sacks
Depending on your child’s stage of developement, there are a lot of really awesome transitional products out there to help your child self soothe and move from one type of wearable blanket to the next.
All of my favorite transitional products are here… but my FAVORITE (the one that got me 9 hours of consecutive sleep!) is Baby Merlin’s Magic Sleepsuit.
The only things you do not want to use are loose blankets.
Loose blankets are a choking and suffocation hazard until the baby is 12 months or older.
Why Is Transitioning From The Swaddle So Hard?
For some lucky parents, transitioning from the swaddle is quick and easy…
But for most–myself included–it is a long and challenging process.
You might be wondering what makes it so hard to transition. Especially if your little one was constantly trying to break out of their swaddle, to begin with!
The answer is the Moro Reflex, also known as the startle reflex.
A baby’s startle reflex is something that all young babies are born with.
When an infant is startled by a sound, movement, or a touch, they throw their heads back and spread out their arms and legs. You might have seen your baby startle while they are awake.
When newborns sleep, they can still experience the Moro Reflex.
When babies are swaddled, they cannot throw their heads back, and their arms and legs can only make small movements. This helps them stay asleep, instead of waking up abruptly.
However, once the swaddle is removed, babies who still have the Moro Reflex are now typically woken up by these sudden jerky movements of the limbs.
How Long Does The Moro Relfex Last?
Unfortunately, the Moro Reflex is just something your little one will grow out of.
Typically the Moro Reflex starts to disappear between 2-4 months of age but could hang around a little longer.
If you are in the unfortunate situation that I was, your little one will need to transition from the swaddle for safety reasons (AKA cold turkey) before they outgrow the Moro Reflex.
Mamas: this is a grueling time for everyone involved, and I wish I had the magic answer as to how you are supposed to survive those days or weeks on very little sleep… But I do not 😔.
What I can tell you, is that I must have tried 10 different transitional sleep sacks for my son at the time and some did work better than others.
I can also tell you that once he was big enough to wear Baby Merlin’s Magic Sleep Suit (around 4 months), all of our sleep problems started to get better.
Pro Tip: The Magic Sleepsuit was developed by a mom and pediatric physical therapist who was desperate to help her son sleep #momsrules.
How To Transition From The Swaddle
So you are finally ready to start the transition process. Here are some different methods to do it.
Keep in mind that if you are going cold turkey before the Moro Reflex disappears, it is going to be a tougher process as I said above.
Remember that just because you start with one transition method doesn’t mean to are stuck with it forever. If it’s not working, it’s ok to try something else!
If you are transitioning your baby for safety reasons (they are showing signs of rolling or breakout out of their swaddle) you will need to go cold turkey.
No more swaddles for comfort, naps, or nighttime sleep.
If you don’t need to transition for safety reasons, you might still consider the cold turkey method.
You will get to know your child and you will have to transition and wean them from different things as they get older. If your baby responds well to a cold turkey approach, why not try it?
1. Nap Time Transition
You can try removing the swaddle from naptime and only allowing it at night. While you might see success during naps, keep in mind that daytime and nighttime sleep are biologically completely different. You might find that even if your child no longer needs the swaddle during the day when you go to remove it at night it becomes an issue.
No worries, if this happens try an additional gradual transition method (as long as it is still safe to do so).
2. Arms Up And Out
You can start changing your infant’s swaddle position over the course of a couple of days or a couple of weeks.
The slowest and most gradual way to start would be to start by positioning the arms so they are curled up toward the face.
A few days later, position the hands so that they are free from the swaddle.
A few days later, take one arm completely out of the swaddle.
A few days later, take the other arm out of the swaddle (return the first).
A few days later, take both of the baby’s arms out of the swaddle (continue swaddling the chest and torso).
Finally, stop swaddling the chest and torso.
3. Swaddle For Part of The Night
Start your nighttime routine as normal, but don’t swaddle the baby.
Let them fall asleep without the swaddle and learn to soothe themselves in other ways.
Once they wake, swaddle them and put them back to sleep for the rest of the night.
You could also do the reverse by swaddling at bedtime and then taking the swaddle off during the middle of the night feed or diaper change.
Other Consideration For Transitioning From The Swaddle
Start a Nighttime Routine
Even if your baby is still itty-bitty and “nights” and “days” are not really established, it is still a good idea to start an evening routine.
Eventually, the consistent routine will signal to your baby that it is time for a LONG sleep.
Your baby will get to know their own sleep routine and realize that naps are short and during the day, and nighttime sleep is long after the nighttime routine.
I don’t want to toot my own horn too much here–because I know sleep patterns and moods can change overnight–but since my son was about 9 months old (he’s almost 2 now), we have been doing the exact same evening routine and by 7:00 PM he is now excited to go upstairs for his bath, book, and bed.
The routine could be very simple: change into jammies, swaddle, bottle or nurse, rock and/or sing lullabies, put the baby down.
You could add other things to your routine like playing a mobile (my son especially loved this one that had lights that projected on the ceiling) or starting white noise.
As your baby gets older and starts to be more alert during the day, you should pay attention to their awake time and take note of any sleep patterns.
If you start noticing your little one sleeps all day and is up all night, it is going to be tough to get them to sleep, regardless of if they are swaddled or not.
It is easy enough to shift daytime sleep to nighttime sleep by reducing the length of nap time by just a few minutes here and there.
If anyone can explain awake windows, it is sleep consultant Cara from Taking Cara Babies.
Keeping your baby warm but not too hot is a full-time worry if you ask me.
Just when you find the perfect combination of layers, the weather changes and it’s time to start all over again.
Temperature changes when transitioning from the swaddle can be very unsettling for your little one.
They are used to having their limbs all wrapped up close to their bodies. This naturally keeps them warmer than if their limbs are free and spread out.
Keep that in mind when transitioning. Just because you are using the same number of layers, doesn’t mean your little one will stay at a comfortable temperature.
Whenever you use new swaddles, wearable blankets, or other new pajamas for your little one, do a temperature check behind the neck when you put them in the crib and a few hours later (when they are in the deepest sleep).
Overheating can be a serious health and safety concern for little ones, as can be too cold.
It might take you a few nights to figure out the perfect new combination of layers for your little one after transitioning from the swaddle. Let their body temperature guide your adjustments.