Updated February 2019
Sure, wrapping your bambino in a swaddle blanket like a burrito (or mental patient) seems weird — but it definitely helped our fussy, wiggly newborn chill out and sleep better.
There are so many failures in early motherhood that this small victory is something you won’t soon want to give up.
Trrrrust me, I was in no hurry to change our nightly routine and lose any more precious snooze time. But at around four months, my mini Houdini had other plans. Arms, legs and tempers flared, and my escape artist was busting out of her swaddle blanket left and right.
Was it time to stop swaddling? Could I handle yet another “new normal?”
Looking for Cues
Why do we swaddle in the first place? Remember that newborns are born with the “Moro reflex,” which is a response to a sudden (or perceived) loss of support. It’s believed to be the only unlearned fear in human newborns. It may have developed in human evolution to help the infant cling to his mother while being carried around all day. It causes the infant to quickly embrace his/her mother again after losing their sense of balance or suddenly feeling unsupported. This is typically followed by sudden (and very loud!) crying.
It occurs randomly while sleeping, which is why swaddling is so effective at preventing sudden Moro reflex awakenings.The reflex typically wanes by 4-5 months of age, which seems to coincide nicely with other stop-swaddling cues, the most important of which is rolling over.
However, if your 4-month-old is fighting and breaking free from the moment you wrap him up, even if he can’t roll over yet, it could mean the swaddling is more restrictive than it is soothing. Around 4-6 months is when most babies start rejecting the swaddle and start busting out in the middle of the night (for various reasons). Though not as common, some babies can remain comfortably swaddled in months 7, 8 or even 9 (lucky you).
I had a friend who clung on sooooo tightly to the swaddle blanket in hopes of getting her son to nap longer so she could get some work in during the day. We’ve all been there, sister. I joked that she couldn’t swaddle him into the preschool years. It’s one of those moments you realize you may need to hire some childcare help…
The paramount cue to stop swaddling is when your baby starts rolling over. It goes without saying that a swaddled baby should never ever sleep facedown.
Once your baby starts to roll over (this is usually by about 6 months), it’s definitely time to stop using the swaddle blanket. This can be painful, I know, because swaddling WORKS. Period. But when it’s combined with stomach sleeping, it can be problematic (dangerous). Specifically, swaddled prone babies are at a higher risk for SIDS. This obviously isn’t an issue before baby can roll over, but it could be a problem afterwards. Sleeping face down, especially with haphazard blankets in the crib, is a no-no, particularly before 6 months. Remember the peak risk for SIDS is between 2 and 4 months old with 95% of all cases occurring before 6 months. Thus, we highly recommend sleep sacks or something like the Zipadee-Zip, which may also hinder rolling (at this age, at least). (Brit’s done a lot of research on this, and writes about it on her blog, if you’d like to read more about the science of swaddling.)
Babies who are unswaddled are more likely to roll over to sleep on their sides or tummies, especially when they’re a little older and stronger. Though not much can be done about this (i.e., you can’t stand there all night and keep flipping them back over), removing all loose blankets and swaddles from the crib will help keep them safe.
Upping your Swaddle Game
If you’ve decided to hang onto swaddling a little longer…
Busting out of a swaddle might just mean you need a better swaddling technique (who hasn’t half-assed a swaddle in the middle of the night?!).
You might also want to consider finding a swaddle blanket or bag with a few extra bells and whistles. Something like the Woombie Original “Big Baby” is worth a shot when all else fails.
You can also attempt a “triangle swaddle” (below) during this transitional period, which keeps the arms down but allows the legs to remain free.
As a parent, trust your instincts to know when it’s time to stop swaddling. After all, you know your baby better than anyone.
Weaning off the Swaddle
So your baby’s made it darn clear that he’s ready for a change. For some lucky families, weaning from the swaddle can be relatively painless… And for others, the struggle (and stress) is real. My motto is “hope for the best; prepare for the worst.”
You can try going cold turkey by leaving him/her unswaddled during naptime. Heck, most babies fall asleep accidentally in their car seats or strollers without being swaddled, so we know they can do it. But most experts recommend weaning off the swaddle gradually: first legs, then one arm at a time.
If you’ve been using a swaddling technique that bundles the legs and feet, start there (i.e., stop swaddling the legs for a few days before moving on to the arms).
Start by swaddling one arm only. Keep one arm swaddled and secure and leave the other out free. With one arm out, she’ll have fingers or a thumb to suck, which may help ease the transition (note: if your baby has a preference for a right or left hand – it’s usually the right – choose that one to be free).
Try the one-arm thing for a few nights and see how it goes. Are you and baby feeling okay?
A few more days down the line, you might feel ready to stop altogether. This usually happens naturally, so follow your baby’s cues. If things aren’t going well, remember you can always start over again. No judgment.
Once your baby is completely unswaddled, most parents then switch to wearable blankets for the sake of keeping warm, especially since regular blankets remain a SIDS hazard until about 12 months of age.
There are some swaddlers out there that are especially good during this transition period. Note that none of these are mandatory and many parents have gotten by just fine using what they have at home.
Swaddle Strap ~ $29
A super-easy solution for arm swaddling; designed for safety with an inner strap that prevents the product from sliding up over baby’s face. Parents are crazy about this!
Parents swear by the Love to Dream “Swaddle Up” with removable armholes, perfect for one or both arms out. It also has a dual zipper for easy diaper changes. Available in 3-6 month, 6-9 month or 9-12 month sizes and in “Lite” and “Warm” versions.
Woombie Convertible ~ $25
The armholes in this particular Woombie can be opened or closed as well. Bonus: the “leggies” version (below) allows it to be used with a crotch buckle in car seats, elevated sleepers and strollers.
Zipadee-Zip ~ $38
Another parent-favorite, the Zipadee-Zip, is a “flying squirrel” shaped sack that provides slight resistance to the range of motion available to the arms. This hinders the startle reflex while providing freedom for the rest of the body to wiggle around freely. (Something like this, as with the Swaddle UP (above), is nice because it offers babies who can roll over a greater range of motion while still providing some of the snuggyness of a more traditional swaddle. Hence, it’s much safer to use long past whenever your baby rolls over.)
Merlin Magic Sleepsuit ~ $39
Created by a Pediatric Physical Therapist, the Merlin Magic Sleepsuit was specially designed for babies who are ready to transition from the swaddle to a wearable blanket, yet still need to feel a bit “contained.”
The Sleepsuit has three layers of breathable fabric providing a gentle weight, which hinders the startle reflex (do you see a trend here?). The scooped neckline keeps fabric away from baby’s face and the double zippers make for easy diaper changes.
Available in two sizes: 3-6 months (12-18 lbs) and 6-9 months (18-21 lbs) and two fabric options: Microfleece and Jersey Cotton.
*Designed for back sleeping only. Once your baby can roll over in the Magic Sleepsuit, it’s time to transition to the wearable blanket. Since you can’t use this sleepsuit after baby has rolled over, it does have a somewhat limited window of opportunity (because in theory you’d have to start weaning off the swaddle before baby can roll over (i.e., preempt the inevitable)), but it’s something of a cult favorite among parents.
That is all, folks.
Now go forth into the brave new world. Hallelujah, Hallelujah.
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