Why, When, and How to Drop The Swaddle

Infant Sleep · Sleep Safety

Swaddling a newborn provides comfort and security and encourages better sleep.  Not to mention, a little baby burrito is just downright adorable.  However, for your child’s safety, there comes a time when your baby is ready to shed their swaddle cocoon. 

Why, when, and how do you know it’s time to move on from swaddling?

Benefits Of Swaddling

A swaddle should be snug but not tight. Make sure that two fingers can slide between the chest and swaddle. The top of the swaddle should reach the shoulders and chest of your baby.

First, let’s talk a little bit about why you may use swaddling in the first place. Unlike some tactics parents use, swaddling isn’t a sleep prop for newborns.  Instead, it’s a useful tool that keeps your baby warm, safe, and well-rested. Coming out of the perfectly temperate, dark, cozy, and snug womb into the wide world is probably pretty overwhelming, so a swaddle eases the transition.

Swaddling also reduces the impact of newborns’ startle reflex, helping them stay asleep instead of flailing awake in a tizzy frequently throughout the night.  Just like the womb, a swaddle should be snug, but not tight – and not too loose either. The top of the swaddle should come to the top of your baby’s shoulders (as shown in the picture). You should be able slide to fingers between the swaddle and your baby’s chest. You can ensure your baby is not too hot (or cold) by feeling the back of their neck.

Swaddling is just a short-term solution for baby, but what happens when your baby outgrows the need for a swaddle? 

When To Stop Swaddling

Here are the signs to watch out for to know it’s time to stop swaddling. Drop the swaddle when your baby… 

  1.  can roll
  2.  is active enough to kick out of a swaddle (and often can’t go back to sleep until you fix it)
  3.  loosens/undoes the swaddle frequently
  4.  becomes curious and wants limbs free or desires access to his/her hands
  5. is 8 weeks old

For safety, according to the AAP, even a baby who hasn’t yet rolled is capable of doing so.  Babies have, can, and will be able to roll for the first time even in a crib or bassinet.  While experts say that a baby who rolls independently is safe to get comfortable in his or her own positions, that is only the case if he or she is swaddle-free.  Thus, the swaddle must be fully removed by the end of the 8th week of life.  That means both arms and the torso should be free of any swaddle, weight, or other restraint.  

This can be tough as new parents are typically just getting used to the longer stretches of overnight sleep in the second month when this big change becomes necessary.  However, the truth is; a guideline that keeps little ones safest is always worth following!

If you wait too long, the swaddle evolves from being a helpful tool to becoming a harmful prop.  It is important to transition out of the swaddle in a timely manner.  As your baby gets more mobile, removing the swaddle helps him/her learn to get comfortable in  many positions, prior to the the 4-month change in sleep.  You don’t want to have to fuss with any other changes at that point.  Embracing all major transitions throughout the newborn weeks is great for long-term success!

How To Stop Swaddling: After 8 Weeks

So how do you stop?  If your child is already over 8 weeks old for, our recommendation is to do what is safest for your baby by removing the swaddle cold turkey.  Yes, it is normal that he or she may wake more frequently the first 3-5 days without a swaddle (which can happen with any major sleep change!).  However, your baby’s safety will not be at risk, which is by far, most important!  With independent sleep skills, the longer stretches of sleep will return. 

The process of removing the swaddle is a big one, but in our experience, delaying the transition does not make the adjustment period significantly shorter or less impactful.  However, delaying can risk a baby’s safety.  Thus, this is one of those times where it’s best to just dive in.  In less than a week’s time, your little one’s excellent sleep will be right back on track.  

How To Stop Swaddling: Prior to 8 Weeks

To remove the swaddle from your newborn (under 8 weeks) gradually, start with one arm out for a few nights.

If your baby is not yet 8 weeks old, you can drop the swaddle gradually if you prefer.  The easiest way to ease out of swaddling is leaving one arm free at a time.  Leave one arm out for three days.  Then, take the other arm out as well.  Lastly, remove the swaddle entirely (by the end of the 8th week).  At Sleep Wise, we recommend transitioning into a sleepsack long-term.  A wearable blanket is safe to use even for mobile infants!

While it isn’t the case for every newborn, weaning a swaddle less abruptly can allow some babies to adjust more easily.  If your baby struggles with the specific arm you’ve left out for the first few opportunities to lay down without a swaddle, try switching which arm is out. 

In addition, we often see the most success when we start a change of this nature at bedtime.  The bedtime routine is predictable by now, and baby’s natural sleepiness will typically make this the least impacted time to remove it.  Little ones tend to have the strongest sleep drive at bedtime, more-so than at nap times.

After nights are going well, move on to naps.  If your baby is too resistant because he has come to depend heavily on the swaddle, cold turkey may be your only recourse, but if it hasn’t gotten to that point yet, then ease in.  

Most importantly, take a deep breath, be patient, and know that the great sleep you worked hard for will return very soon!  The adjustment after dropping the swaddle is temporary. If you need support establishing healthy sleep routines and new habits for your child, check out our other resources or reach out for customized support and sleep plans.

By Kelsey Hotchkiss, Senior Pediatric Sleep Consultant

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