Are you confused about when to stop swaddling your baby? For centuries, moms and dads have swaddled babies. Why? Because it is so effective for calming infants and helping them sleep better. Thanks to modern medical research, we now understand just how important that is.
Infant crying and parent exhaustion often trigger marital stress, child abuse, postpartum depression, infant sleep deaths (from unsafe sleeping practices), breastfeeding struggles, car accidents, maternal obesity, etc. Studies even show that improving a baby’s sleep significantly reduces the risk of obesity in the early years. So, it turns out that swaddling – with its ability to reduce fussing and boosts sleep – is a critical tool for improving the health of the whole family!
When to stop swaddling?
Most pediatricians and the chair of the task force for the American Academy of Pediatrics’ safe sleep recommendations, advises that parents stop swaddling babies at 2 months. This is because babies begin to roll intentionally at 4 months and doctors want to make sure swaddling stops well before the baby could roll onto their stomach and be in danger. There is no evidence with regard to SIDS risk related to the arms swaddled in or out.
What about wearable blankets or sleep sacks?
Infant sleep clothing, such as layers of clothing or a wearable blanket or sleep sack, is preferred over blankets and other coverings to keep a baby warm. A safe sleep space for infants should stay free of any loose bedding or soft objects. However, as with regular blanket swaddling, the use of wearable blankets or sleep sacks that compress the arms, chest and body should stop once a baby shows signs of starting to roll over. Sleep sacks that do not swaddle and allow the baby to move freely can be used as long as you want.
Know the risks
Parents should know that there are some risks to swaddling. Swaddling may decrease a baby’s arousal, so that it’s harder for them to wake up. That is why swaddling can seem so attractive to new, sleep-deprived parents—the baby sleeps longer and doesn’t wake up as easily. But we know that decreased arousal can be a problem and may be one of the main reasons that babies die of SIDS.
AAP safe sleep recommendations
The AAP recommends parents follow the safe sleep recommendations every time they place their baby to sleep for naps or at nighttime:
- Place your baby on their back to sleep on a firm, flat surface and monitor them to be sure they don’t roll over while swaddled.
- Do not have any loose blankets in your baby’s crib. A loose blanket, including a swaddling blanket that comes unwrapped, could cover your baby’s face and increase the risk of suffocation.
- Do not use weighted swaddles or weighted blankets, which can place too much pressure on a baby’s chest and lungs.
- Use caution when buying products that claim to reduce the risk of SIDS. Wedges, positioners, special mattresses, and specialized sleep surfaces have not been shown to reduce the risk of SIDS.
- Your baby is safest in their own crib or bassinet, not in your bed.
- Swaddling can increase the chance your baby will overheat, so avoid letting your baby get too hot. The baby could be too hot if you notice sweating, damp hair, flushed cheeks, heat rash and rapid breathing.
- Consider using a pacifier for naps and bedtime.
- Place the crib in an area that is always smoke-free.
How long and when should a baby be swaddled?
As swaddling has surged in popularity over the past years, so have concerns and controversies around this ancient practice. Some doctors now warn parents to stop swaddling at 2 months for fear a baby might roll to the stomach and not have free hands to push up and liberate their face to breathe. Even the prestigious American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) announced that parents should wean swaddling when infants start to roll (which can happen as early as 2-3 months). This is because swaddling becomes unsafe if:
- Baby starts getting strong enough to break out of the swaddle, causing there to be loose fabric in the crib
- Some babies may show signs of rolling onto their stomach while sleeping swaddled
You can continue to keep your baby in their swaddle with one or both arms out beyond 8 weeks old, but it’s important to look out for the signs that it’s time to make the transition out of swaddling altogether.
Signs it’s time to stop swaddling
As much as swaddling helps, it can’t last forever. Swaddling, when done properly, is completely safe and recommended for newborns. But as they grow and become more mobile, swaddling can become unsafe if you don’t transition your baby out of it at the right time.
Startle reflex starts to go away – One of the biggest reasons for swaddling newborns is to help them soothe through moro, or startle, reflex. All newborns are born with this reflex but it usually starts to fade anywhere between 2 and 4 months old. If you notice your baby “startling” less, it’s usually a sign that the time to transition out of swaddling is right around the corner.
Baby starts waking up more frequently throughout the night – If it suddenly seems like your baby is waking up more than usual, especially if they’re waking up crying or fussy without needing to be fed, might be because they’re getting uncomfortable in the swaddle. They may be trying to break free or get an arm out and wake themselves up in the process.
Baby breaks out of the swaddle – If you find your baby was able to wiggle an arm out or completely unwrap the swaddle while they sleep, it’s no longer safe to be swaddling as it creates loose fabric in the crib, increasing the risk of SIDS.
Baby starts showing signs of rolling over – If your baby is working on their rolling skills, it’s time to make the transition to prevent baby rolling onto their stomach while sleeping and not being able to roll back.
Baby starts fighting being swaddled – Some resistance is normal when swaddling, especially when you first try it on your baby. But if they start full-on fighting the swaddle as they get older, it’s a sign they are ready to sleep arms free.
How and when to wean swaddling?
Infants are happiest—and sleep the best—when we “recreate” the womb (through swaddling, shushy white noise, and soothing rocking) during the first 3-4 months after delivery. They benefit greatly from a so-called 4th trimester.
In general, babies do best when swaddling lasts for 4-5 months. Then, you can start the weaning process by swaddling your baby with one arm out. If she continues to sleep well for a few nights, you can stop swaddling completely. If she starts middle-of-the-night waking again, restart swaddling and try the one-armed wrap again in a month…and every month thereafter until it works.
But, if your baby starts trying to roll over, you will need to stop swaddling fairly quickly… just as the AAP recommends. The trouble is that weaning swaddling is much harder when babies are only a few months old. At this age, they often still need womb sensations to help them stay asleep and to keep them from waking frequently.
That’s why – if you must stop swaddling at 2-3 months – it’s extra important to use white noise as a sleep cue for all naps and nights. The gentle rocking motion is another fantastic cue, but beware, only swings that recline all the way flat are safe for your precious baby.