When to Stop Swaddling Baby
What’s more adorable than a tightly swaddled baby sleeping peacefully? (Not much!) Right from birth, swaddling is one of the best ways to calm your little one when they’re tired or fussy. But, as they grow, you may find yourself asking: How do you know when to stop swaddling? After all, it isn’t something you can continue to do once baby’s a bit more active and mobile. Below, learn what you need to know about the tried-and-true practice of swaddling, including when to ditch the burrito-style wrap and how to get baby to sleep without it.
“Swaddling is a safe practice that provides comfort to babies at a time when they’re very accustomed to the warm, tight embrace of the uterus,” says Rachel Schlueter, MD, a pediatrician at Children’s Physicians West Village Pointe in Nebraska. But while swaddling is key to comforting newborns, there’s definitely a learning curve to executing the perfect swaddle effect. You can use a regular baby blanket (learn how here!) or a swaddle blanket meant for the job. But once baby’s all snug as a bug in a rug, you’ll both enjoy many benefits of swaddling, which can include longer sleep stretches and less wakeups due to the startle reflex.
According to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), you should always place baby on their back for sleep, on a flat sleep surface that’s free of stuffed animals, blankets and bumper pads.
Another potential safety concern when it comes to swaddling is proper positioning of baby’s legs. “Babies who are tightly swaddled with their legs straight for long periods of times in the first weeks can have an increased risk for hip problems such as developmental hip dysplasia,” Schlueter says. “When you swaddle baby, always ensure you are allowing enough space for them to move their legs in and out.”
Despite the many benefits of swaddling, there comes a time when you’ll want to stop wrapping baby like a tight little pack. But exactly when to stop swaddling is open for slight debate. “Babies should stop being swaddled once they show signs of attempting to roll over,” advises Debbie Gerken, RN, a registered NICU nurse and the founder of Sleep Like a Baby Consulting. For many babies, this can fall between the two- to three-month mark. Due to the restrictiveness of the swaddle, baby can’t use their body to practice the movements necessary to master rolling over, she adds. Additionally, restraining their hands too long can impede the natural development of self-soothing techniques. “Most often, babies will try to bring their hand to their mouth to start to practice those early self-soothing skills,” says Gerken.
More importantly, as baby approaches that exciting rolling over milestone, swaddling can go from a source of comfort to one of frustration—and it can even become perilous. “Delaying transitioning out of the swaddle can be dangerous should a baby roll over and not be able to use their arms and upper body to lift their head and/or reposition themselves,” Gerken warns.
Signs it’s time to stop swaddling baby
Since babies roll over at different ages, it’s important to know the signs to look out for. “If baby starts to wiggle around from side to side using a rocking motion, or lifts their head to track objects, it’s time to say goodbye to swaddling,” says Gerken. Furthermore, you might find baby attempting to free their arms from the swaddle, or enjoying sleep with their arms above their head or in a position that feels right to them.
Once you’re seeing signs that baby’s ready to sleep a bit more freely, it’s time to start transitioning out of a swaddle. This can be a tricky time for parents, since you might have (finally!) started seeing longer stretches of sleep. While a temporary backslide is to be expected, transitioning gradually can help prevent major sleep disruptions for you and baby.
Gerken recommends starting the transition by keeping one arm out of the swaddle. If you’re able to tell which arm baby uses more, opt for that one. Then, graduate to removing both arms from the swaddle.
Once baby is ready to sleep without being swaddled, it’s time to change up your game when it comes to bedtime and naps. Gerken provides the following tips for helping baby fall asleep more easily:
- Use black-out curtains to darken their room during sleep times
- Add a white noise machine for soothing sound that mimics the womb
- Keep baby’s room at a comfortable temperature and dress baby appropriately
- Create a calming, consistent bedtime routine.
- Provide brief periods of patting, shushing and rocking during the transition phase if necessary or desired
While a traditional blanket isn’t recommended for sleep until baby is at least one year old (it can act as a suffocation risk), you can transition your little one into a sleep sack to keep them feeling cozy all night long. Moreover, creating safe and consistent sleep habits can help parents and babies alike get into a healthy routine once swaddling is no longer an option. In the meantime, enjoy that little burrito of yours!
Please note: The Bump and the materials and information it contains are not intended to, and do not constitute, medical or other health advice or diagnosis and should not be used as such. You should always consult with a qualified physician or health professional about your specific circumstances.
Debbie Gerken, is a registered NICU nurse with over 35 years of experience, as well as a certified pediatric gentle sleep coach, postpartum parent educator and founder of Sleep Like a Baby Consulting. She earned her nursing degree from Molloy University.
Rachel Schlueter, MD, is a pediatrician at Children’s Physicians West Village Pointe in Nebraska. She earned her medical degree from the University of Nebraska and completed her residency at UNMC-CUMC-Children's Hospital & Medical Center.
American Academy of Pediatrics, Safe Sleep, August 2023
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