SWADDLES! (And how to transition out of them)
Written by: Nicky Barker, Founder of Little Ones & Paediatric Sleep Specialist
Swaddling is the oldest trick in the book. Really. In Medieval times, babies were actually swaddled to a stiff board because people believed it helped them grow straight and strong.
While we're not quite as hard-out as that these days, we have seen time and time again how swaddling young babies helps them to be calmer, settle easier and sleep for longer.
But why?! What is this ancient magic?
Think about where your baby has come from - a dark, warm, very cosy world where they are squashed into a little ball and "held" very snugly. They burst (quite literally) into the big wide outside world and suddenly everything can move and flail and they have instantly lost that snug tightness they were used to.
Imagine how terrifying that would be!
As you will know, newborn babies have what's called a "moro reflex" and this is a leftover, some say, from a more prehistoric time. The moro reflex is the thing that makes your baby's arms shoot upwards and grab on when they're laid on their backs or startled. It's supposedly the same sort of reflex that baby monkeys have that stops them falling off their mothers; they reach out with the reflex and grab their mothers hair to prevent certain death from falling out of the tree.
What it means for our less arboreal offspring is that whenever they feel like they're falling, ie, when they're laid quickly onto their backs or picked up too rapidly, they startle. For a sleeping baby this can happen when you transfer them into their bed or when they enter light sleep at the end of their sleep cycle; they'll startle themselves awake.
And so we swaddle.
What swaddle do I choose?
There are a few different swaddling options and loads of different swaddle products out there, so choose one that your baby finds suitable. All my own babies preferred the tighter hands-down swaddles like Miracle Blankets, whereas my friend's kids liked the more flexible Love to Dream swaddles. In any case, you want to choose something that:
- Is made of natural and breathable fibres, so cotton, bamboo or merino. NEVER swaddle your baby with synthetic or man-made fibres like fleece or polar fleece as these fabrics cannot breathe and you risk your baby overheating (a big factor in SUDI).
- Is easy to get on and off! You shouldn't have to be an octopus and need 8 arms to put your baby in a swaddle, so choose a swaddle that is EASY. You also need to think about easy access for middle-of-the-night diaper changes because ideally you won't want to completely remove the swaddle each time - a swaddle with seperate lower-half access is perfect.
- Is safe. We have to think first and foremost about having safe bedding for our little ones and so your swaddle should never have loose fabric hanging off it or be bunched up around your baby's face. Using the right swaddle for their age and size is really important.
How do I swaddle my baby?
Depending on the type of swaddle you're using, there are a few different ways to rug up your little one. Below is an instructional video showing a couple of methods with a few different types of swaddles:
How will the swaddle help my baby sleep better?
As we've said, babies, especially young babies, like to feel snug and secure and a swaddle does this for them. Swaddling can calm a crying baby and for sleep, help your little one settle to sleep quick and sleep for longer as it minimises the startle reflex. If your baby is a chronic catnapper, pop them in a swaddle and it can help them nap for longer than one sleep cycle.
When should I stop swaddling?
You can leave your baby swaddled up until around 5-6 months. However if they're rolling over you need to either unswaddle them or use something like a Safe T Sleep, which holds your baby in place in their bed. For our methods for ditching the swaddle, see further down the article.
My baby doesn't like being swaddled
Sometimes people assume their baby doesn’t like being swaddled, mainly because their baby wiggles or cries while they’re being put in a swaddle, but more often than not, this is simply because the swaddle isn’t tight enough or the baby is already overtired or overstimulated. Most babies prefer to be swaddled.
Can swaddling cause SUDI?
No one knows exactly what causes a baby to pass away in their sleep. The best we can do is try and make their sleep environment as safe as we can by using natural fibres in their bedding and ensuring there are no toys or loose blankets in the sleeping space. Unfortunately there is a bit of a myth out there that swaddles stop the startle reflex which is the thing that wakes babies up and keeps them breathing, and yes, swaddles do minimise the startle reflex, but, ending their sleep cycle is the thing that brings a baby to the surface sleep-wise. The startle reflex happens as a result of this, not instead of it. Your baby is still going to rouse between sleep cycles as they enter periods of lighter and deeper sleep and this in itself causes them to fluctuate their breathing.
Where you do need to be careful with swaddles and SUDI is once your baby starts rolling. If your baby is on the move you have to unswaddle them or use something like a Safe T Sleep, which is a wrap that secures your swaddled baby in place so they can't roll over. A baby who is rolling can easily get stuck on their tummy and, if swaddled, won't be able to wiggle free.
Can swaddling damage a baby's hips?
As long as you're swaddling your baby properly and not too tight around their hips, your baby will be fine. Fitted swaddles like the Love to Dream, Ergo Pouch and Miracle Blanket are all designed to keep your baby's hips safe when swaddled.
Losing the swaddle
Usually, between 4-6 months, babies are ready to transition out of the swaddle for sleep. This can be a tricky period for your little one, as they have come to associate the swaddle with sleep and it will all be very new for them. Having your baby in a predictable nap pattern for their day will make this transition a lot easier, as you can guarantee they'll be perfectly ready for their naps, which will mean a lot less overtired or undertired fussing once the swaddle is gone.
Firstly, we would also recommend setting up some positive sleep associations and ensuring their sleep environment is spot-on before attempting to ditch the swaddle. Our recommendations are:
- Introduce white noise and play it as loud as a shower for all naps and overnight. You can find our white noise album here.
- Make the room nice and dark with no stimulating toys or nightlights.
- Give your baby an age-appropriate lovey or comforter they can hold once free of the swaddle.
- Encourage your baby to fall asleep independently, or self-settle, without active settling from you, which is much easier to achieve while they're still swaddled!
From there, we have two methods to transition out of the swaddle:
During this transition, keep everything else the same in your baby’s sleep environment: dark room, white noise etc. If you feel it is appropriate, you can add a cuddly for them to hold to help control their newfound freedom with their arms.
This method works by doing the unswaddling bit by bit, nap by nap.
Remove one arm out of the swaddle at the morning nap first, as this is the easiest for your baby to go to sleep. Give them the chance to go to sleep themselves, but if they are struggling you can try actively settling them for a few minutes to help them get to sleep while they get used to not having a swaddle (this might be patting or side settling). For the rest of their naps and overnight, keep both arms in the swaddle for now.
Overnight – once your baby is used to their arm out for the morning nap, take one arm out of the swaddle for their overnight sleep. Keep both arms in for their other daytimes naps for now.
Lunchtime nap - once your baby is used to their arm out for the morning nap and overnight, take one arm out of the swaddle for their lunchtime nap. They may wake after one sleep cycle, in which case you can go and resettle them if you'd like them to sleep longer. Keep both arms in for their late afternoon nap for now; as this is the hardest nap to achieve, try doing this nap in the car or stroller during this transition.
Day 6-7 & Beyond
Once your baby is doing all naps (except the late afternoon nap) with one arm out, take the other arm out, starting with the morning nap and in the same way you did the first arm. Begin with 2 arms out for the morning nap only, then overnight, then lastly the lunchtime nap. They may wake after one sleep cycle for their naps in which case you can go and resettle them back to sleep. Once both arms are out, you can also implement this for the late afternoon nap, but you might find your baby resists settling for this nap so you're best to try and do it in a stroller or front pack.Once free of the swaddle you can put your baby in a baby sleeping bag for all naps and overnight.
It is very normal for your baby to be a bit unsettled during this transition – they just have a new “normal” to adapt to that is very different from what they’ve known. It will get better!
With this method, you go cold turkey on the swaddle for all naps from day 1. You can actively settle your baby to sleep if they’re not settling well, being mindful of reducing the settling after a couple of days so as not to create a new sleep association.
Day 1 might be a bit tricky, but day 2 and 3 will be much easier! For the late afternoon nap, as this is usually a hard nap to get your baby to sleep, we recommend doing this nap in a stroller or in the car during the removal of the swaddle.
Once unswaddled, your baby may also wake one sleep cycle after bedtime. You can resettle them back to sleep if that happens. Do the same with any overnight wakes (allowing for feeds if your baby normally has them).
By day 3 your baby should be getting used to having no swaddle, so ensure you give your baby the chance to settle themselves to sleep if they were previously self-settling.
Any change for your baby is going to be hard, and unswaddling is no exception. What will make this transition much easier is having your baby in a good nap routine so they already have clear sleep associations and expectations.
If you need a hand getting better naps happening with your little one, or troubleshooting tricky patches like losing the swaddle, with our Sleep Programs you can access not only our world-leading information, but also our FREE customer support group! Just click here to get started.