There are few things cuter than seeing a newborn all wrapped up like that burrito from your favorite Mexican place. They just look so peaceful, a little present just for you, practically gift wrapped in a compact little package.
And then you go home and you have to figure it out for yourself. After several failed attempts and consecutive sleepless nights, you finally get it right and your baby is sleeping soundly...for the next 9 months!?
You begin to ask, can swaddling be harmful for my baby as she gets older? Is there a certain age that I should stop swaddling for sleep, and how to I go about doing so with little emotional trauma for my baby and minimal lost sleep for me?
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Why Swaddle at all?
Is it even worth trying to figure out that complicated blanket origami? As with most things baby the answer is it depends. There is always an element of both personal choice, and whether your baby will cooperate at all.
So let's take a look at the benefits so you can make your own decision.
Duh! - The important stuff out of the way first...
Stifles the Startle Reflex
Babies are born with what is referred to as the moro reflex - more commonly known as the startle reflex.
This is a reaction to the new senses and experiences outside of the womb. There is the initial startle, in which the baby’s arms flail out in a panic, then there is the recoil, in which the baby draws her arms back in to cling to whatever is near her for comfort.
In some babies this reflex is particularly strong and occurs at that precise moment they are about to drift off to sleep. The jerking reflex often causes them to wake, and then the process of falling asleep starts all over again.
Swaddling can help your baby sleep better by keeping their arms contained, therefore stifling the startle reflex.
Simulates the Confinement of the Womb
Your baby spent 9 long, cozy months in your belly, all curled up and confined.
Swaddling can help your baby sleep better by simulating the same feeling she had in the womb. Having your baby’s arms and legs confined in a swaddle helps her to feel safe and comforted.
Ensures Baby Sleeps in the Proper Position
A newborn’s neck is weak and it is difficult for them to lift and move their heads. Because of this, medical professionals strongly advise always putting a small baby to sleep on her back to prevent any risk of suffocation.
Swaddling helps to ensure your little one stays in the right position throughout the night, keeping her wrapped tight enough to avoid rolling in her sleep.
Is There a "Right" Time to Stop Swaddling?
There is no proven optimal time to break your baby away from her swaddle at night. While most are finished with swaddling between the ages of 3 and 4 months, there are some babies that remain swaddled at night until they are at least 9 months of age.
You do need to be careful of taking the swaddle away too soon. If you are too early the startle reflex may still be part of their sleep routine and they will have trouble getting to sleep - making both of your lives difficult.
If you pay attention to your baby’s habits will notice when the startle reflex is winding down. Let's take a look at some of the signs to look out for.
Signs You Should Stop Swaddling
Baby Breaks Out of the Swaddle Frequently
As your baby grows, she will become stronger. If you are lucky enough to have a baby that can withstand a swaddle starting at birth (I did not), and she suddenly starts to break out during the night, it may be time to consider taking the swaddle away.
There are two main reasons for this:
Baby Rolls to Stomach in Sleep
My baby is a stomach sleeper, just like her father, and there are many other babies like her. I used to wake up constantly during the night and check on her during her naps to make sure that she was not face down if she ended up rolling to her stomach.
If a baby is swaddled (and is not breaking out during the night) and she begins to roll onto her stomach, she does not have her arms free to help her push up and reposition herself appropriately. She will be stuck in a face-down position, unable to breathe.
If your baby is a stomach sleeper, like mine, and she is still being swaddled, it is probably time for you to start to transition her away from it so that there is no risk of her rolling in her sleep and suffocating.
You Begin Sleep Training
There comes in a time in every parent’s (and baby’s) life where they being sleep training. It could be a transition from co-sleeping to putting the baby into a crib. It could be weaning your baby from the breast in order to teach her to self-soothe. Or it could just simply be trying to set a bedtime routine that can help you both establish a relaxing nightly tradition.
Whatever the reason may be, the desire to sleep train your baby will likely lead to the discontinuation of the bedtime swaddling tradition.
Your baby may have become dependent on swaddling to help her sleep, which means if the swaddle comes undone during the night, she is unable to self-soothe and you are constantly getting up to fix it. Sleep training means teaching your baby to be independent during the night, and that means no swaddle.
How to Stop Swaddling
You are likely to have one of two things happen:
Some babies are very easy to transition. My baby was never really a fan of the swaddle and fought me whenever I tried to wrap her up (even though it helped her sleep better). Babies like mine take no effort to wean from swaddling since they are not dependent on it in the first place.
This is the exception rather than the norm. Most babies have a hard time giving up the swaddle and may need to be weaned out of the swaddle over time.
Check out the video demonstration below:
Start by having your baby sleep a couple of nights with one arm out of the swaddle, followed by a couple of nights with both out. This will really give your baby an idea of what is will feel like to sleep un-swaddled.
After this part is over, then you can take the blanket away altogether.
The entire process will take at least a week, and you may have some hard nights to deal with as your baby adjusts.
The important thing is to stick to your guns, and try to avoid introducing a new sleep association, as pacifiers or lovies (a special object associated with bedtime) can get lost during the night, causing your baby to wake up upset that she cannot find it.
You can also go cold turkey if you want to, but this is not necessary unless you ending the swaddling for safety reasons. Like if they have started rolling over on their own.
Another option, if this does not work for you, is to try a swaddling alternative. There are many products on the market, such as sleeper sacks and wearable blankets, that can help your baby feel like she is being swaddled without the hassle of constantly needing to fix it throughout the night.
Any change that your baby goes through is going to feel like a big deal for both of you. But they are resilient and adaptable creatures.
Just watch for the cues to know when it is time to move away from swaddling, and be patient as you both deal with this process. It will be over soon and your will both be thankful for a more restful sleep, one where there is no need to get up and fix a loose swaddle.