I get asked often about my stance on swaddling. Whether it is considered to be a sleep crutch or if it helps the baby sleep better. Swaddling a newborn can be an excellent tool. It mimics the confined feeling of the womb and it can be quite soothing for a lot of newborns. Now, there’s a little bit more concern around whether or not the swaddle can make a baby be too warm, or if the swaddle is creeping up over the baby’s face from being too loose, and so on.
For those that choose to swaddle their newborns, it’s important to monitor your baby. If your baby is sweaty under the swaddle, then perhaps you’re wrapping him too tightly or the fabric is too thick or heavy. If you notice that the swaddle is creeping up around the baby’s face, then the swaddle is likely too loose or the blanket is too big. It’s important to have common sense regarding the use of the swaddle.
It can be very helpful for a newborn in getting them calm. It also helps with the Moro ("startle") reflex where they throw their arms out uncontrollably, which can wake a sleeping newborn. Having their arms down and being wrapped tightly can help with that. So if you can ensure that it won’t be too tight or too loose and it doesn’t overheat the baby, then absolutely use it. Despite these benefits, some babies just do not tolerate the swaddle well. If using the swaddle is creating more drama than you would want to deal with, then just remove it and go to using a traditional sleep sack.
One downside to using the swaddle is that over time, it can become a prop. If a baby believes that they need to be tightly wrapped every time they sleep, what happens is when they kick the swaddle free, they can wake up and need you to come back in and re-wrap them. Swaddling your child can develop into a love-hate relationship by a certain age where your baby thinks they needs a swaddle but they don’t like it that much anymore. Eventually, since babies become so experimental with their movements by rocking and rolling around, or kicking their legs, they’re most likely going to kick free of the swaddle no matter how tightly you wrap it. And then they will need you to come back and wrap them up because they don’t know how to sleep without it.
The Not-So-Sweet Side of Swaddling
This means that you are having to get up and intervene somewhere in the night or through the nap and get them wrapped up again. A good rule of thumb around the swaddle is, by the time your baby is six to eight weeks old, start removing it when it’s time for sleep. What this means is that you would leave an arm out at a nap time. At bedtime, shoot for not using the swaddle at all. Bedtime is a great place to start experimenting with no swaddle because it tends to be the easiest time of the day to get a child to fall asleep since they are tired and the sleep drive propelled by melatonin is at work.
Another reason why it’s important to remove the swaddle by eight weeks of age is to remove the risk of your child rolling while being swaddled and getting trapped . The lead author of the AAP’s safe sleep recommendations, Dr. Rachel Moon, strongly encourage parents to discontinue the use of the swaddle by eight weeks of age, given that the SIDS (Sudden Infant Death Syndrome) Task Force has seen cases of infants who died at 2-2.5 months of age while being swaddled and ended up on their stomachs. As a result, eight weeks is the age where families are strongly encouraged to remove the swaddle from the sleep process.
However, there cases where parents were not successful in removing the swaddle at eight weeks, and they can find themselves in quite the quandary when it came to their child’s sleep.
There was a parent that I worked with who had an seven-month old, sewed together several receiving blankets so that they had a big enough blanket to swaddle their baby effectively. You can see how that can become problematic. If you’re in a similar situation and you’re wondering what you can do, unfortunately, the only thing you can do at this time to lose a swaddle is to do it cold turkey.
What Are Your Options?
There will be no successful way to wean out of the swaddle slowly because now it has become such a habit. Anything less than being tightly wrapped up in their normal swaddle is going to be a cause of concern for the baby. You’re going to have to go through removing the swaddle one way or another, so let’s get it done and go cold turkey. A great item that you can use during the transition is a product called the Zipadee-Zip sleep sacks. It can be a good transitional object when you’re using the swaddle and you’re working with your child to get out of it.
Zipadee-Zips can be pricey, so if you’re not looking to spend that kind of money on a sleep sack, then another option to try is to wrap your child’s trunk or core in the swaddle with their arms out. The secure feeling of being wrapped around their belly may be soothing enough to help your child transition to sleeping without their arms being tucked in, and you’re not placing them at risk for getting trapped on their belly. Otherwise, you could rip off the proverbial Band-Aid and go strictly cold turkey and just use a traditional sleep sack and get through the first few nights while your child adjusts to sleeping with their arms out.
Any of these options for transition will work, and a period of adjustment should be expected. But seeing your child through the adjustment will pay off in dividends when you no longer have to wrestle your child into the swaddle and have to go to them multiple times each night to wrap them back up when they’ve wriggled themselves free yet again. I bet you could certainly get behind that!
If you’ve tried to transition your baby out of the swaddle or you’re approaching the eight-week mark and have no idea how you want to kiss the swaddle goodbye – sign up for your free 15 minute sleep assessment phone call and learn how I can help you.
Sleep well (and arm’s free!)
I am a Pediatric Sleep Consultant who works with families to help them resolve their littles' sleep issues. As a mom of two littles herself, Katie has walked in the shoes of her clients and is passionate about helping them re-discover peaceful sleeps in their own homes.