BRAVEHEART'S GUIDE TO DROPPING THE SWADDLE
All Your Questions Answered About the Transition Out of the Swaddle
One of the scariest, but inevitable transitions a baby goes through is dropping the swaddle. Swaddles have been all the rage over the last several years. An Amazon search will uncover every type of swaddle from stretchy blanket swaddles that wrap your newborn up like a perfect burrito, to oddly shaped swaddles that make your newborn look like a starfish. But eventually the swaddle has to go. Now what?
Why Do We Like Swaddles?
Every newborn is born with the moro reflex… that pesky reflex that causes your newborn to jolt wide awake and cry. This reflex seems to go away by 12 weeks, though some babies deal with it until 6 months.(1) Once the baby startles their arms and legs shoot outward, then curl inward, often disrupting their sleep so much that they are now wide awake and having to start their sleep all over from the beginning of the sleep journey. Using a swaddle mimics both the snug womb, and the mother’s warm embrace, allowing the newborn to relax and slip into sweet sleep.
So Why Do We Have to Ditch the Swaddle?
The swaddle can be such a lifesaver that parents really don’t want to remove it, for fear of their baby’s sleep going backwards. However, in June of 2022, the AAP stated more clearly that “it is a good idea to stop swaddling by about eight weeks of age, before babies typically start rolling. If your baby is trying to roll earlier than that time (whether swaddled or not), you should stop swaddling sooner.” (2) You will also need to remove the swaddle if you are using a blanket swaddle and your newborn continues to break out of it, causing the blankets to become loose around your newborn, which poses a safety risk.
There are other non-safety reasons why I LOVE dropping the swaddle by 8 weeks old. One newborn milestone that occurs around the 1-2 month mark is the newborn bringing hands up to their eyes and face. Yup, they find their fist and start sucking. “Rooting, sucking, and bringing his hand to his mouth are considered feeding cues in the first weeks after birth. Later on, after breastfeeding is well established, your baby will start to use these movements to console himself.” (3)(4) You may have been told that a newborn can’t self-soothe. But as a newborn’s nervous system develops, so will these voluntary movements that lend itself to self-soothing. However, if a newborn does not have access to his hands due to the swaddle he will depend more on sleep props such as the parent rocking or feeding the baby to soothe, or sucking on the pacifier, which as you know is impossible to keep in the mouths of babies! Therefore, transitioning away from the swaddle by 8 weeks gives your newborn the chance to work hard at his developmental milestone of finding his fist and using it to soothe himself to sleep. Newborns also start to wiggle all around the crib in order to settle, especially between sleep cycles. Removing the swaddle gives your newborn to opportunity to use this way of settling which can lengthen sleep and decrease crying.
My Baby is Over 8 Weeks…What Now?
My advice for a baby over 8 weeks is simple, but a hard pill to swallow. Drop the swaddle cold turkey. Of course your baby will cry, which is okay! If you have read some of my other posts you know how I feel about a newborn crying… it is just part of a newborn’s communication, and not always indicative of pain or distress. (If you missed that blog post, here it is!) So my approach is not to fear the crying. Allow your newborn to have big feelings about this change that is ultimately necessary for healthy development and the safety of the newborn.
If your baby is between 8 to 11 weeks you may want to try a hands-on approach to the crying, where you are offering reassurance through shushing and rubbing your newborn’s tummy in short intervals. Will it slow down or stop the newborn’s crying? Maybe, maybe not. Attempt to get your baby to sleep in the crib for a set amount of time, and if sleep doesn’t come? No problem! Increase your intervention by rocking, holding, offering a pacifier, or wearing your newborn. You can learn more about calming a crying baby using the CALMS method here.(5) (However, obviously, skip the swaddle part!) Note that the first 3 parts of the CALMS method focuses on calming YOURSELF. This way you can download your calm to your newborn by activating your newborn’s mirror neurons. (6)
If your baby is over 12 weeks old you will want to be a bit more hands-off, yet still offer reassurance in set intervals. If you are unsure how to respond to your baby’s protest as you drop the swaddle and want a solid plan and one-on-one support check out my sleep packages.
My Baby is Under 8 Weeks Old…How Do I Get Started?
If your baby is under 8 weeks old you have a little bit of time to do a slower approach to dropping the swaddle. I recommend attempting sleep with one arm out of the swaddle for several days to a week. Next remove the other arm. Finally, move to a sleep sack. (I prefer the sleep sack over an arms-out swaddle.) This gives your newborn a chance to get used to a small amount of freedom at a time. You can try one arm out at all sleeps, or you can choose a time when sleep comes easier for your newborn such as the first nap of the day, or at bedtime when his drive for sleep is great. If it’s an epic fail, no problem! You can swaddle your baby back nice and tight and try again another time. That’s the benefit of starting this process early. The Love to Dream 50/50 is a great swaddle choice for a slower transition.
Will My Baby’s Startle Reflex Be Gone?
Maybe…maybe not, and that’s okay. Your baby will master the science of self-soothing, immediately after he jolts himself awake, if given time and space to do so.
What Brand of Sleep Sack Should I Choose?
Really, any arms-out sleep sack will work just fine. What I take into consideration when choosing a sleep sack is: 1. Price 2. Material 3. Durability. Unless you live in a particularly cold climate (in which case you will want the Woolino or Kyte Baby sleep sack), find the least expensive sack on Amazon and try a few out if you’d like! My favorites are:
Carter’s Sleeveless Cotton Sleep Sack (Carter’s brand is inexpensive, soft, and lasts a long time!)
All Season Micro Plush Wearable Blanket (Least expensive at $7.99 and received positive reviews from my clients!)
The Zipadee Zip is a perfectly safe option for the transition to a sleep sack. I find it unnecessary, but some parents swear by it! Be aware, there is often a problem with extra material bunching up almost over the baby’s face. If this happens you should choose another sleep sack.
What Brand of Sleep Sack Should I Skip?
The AAP’s safe sleep guidelines have finally clarified that weighted sleep sacks should not be used. (“Weighted swaddles, weighted clothing or weighted objects on or near the baby are not safe and not recommended.”(7). This means that the Dreamland Sack and the Nested Bean are on the list of sleep sacks to skip. The Magic Merlin should also be skipped because it does not allow the baby to have access to his hands or the freedom to move around for self-settling/self-soothing.
The invention of the swaddle is much appreciated. However there comes a time when you must move on.
This time is 1. When your baby is 8 weeks old, 2. Your baby is attempting to roll before 8 weeks old, 3. Your baby is breaking out of swaddle blankets.
If your baby is under 8 weeks try a slow approach by removing one arm at a time. If your baby is over 8 weeks go cold turkey and remove the swaddle at every sleep.
If you are struggling with the thought of removing the swaddle, or if your baby isn’t taking well to these new changes I can help! Book a free 15-minute phone assessment here.
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