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Baby's growing up: Transition from the swaddle

When babies are first born, they are a bundle of nerves. Every little thing can startle them. When it comes to sleep, there is nothing more frustrating then putting in all the work to get your newborn to sleep and then having them startle awake 20 minutes later. Since we now know that it is safest for babies to sleep on their backs, swaddling has become a more common place solution to helping babies sleep and not startle awake. It is likely that when you were a baby, you slept on your tummy whereby the mattress muffled the startle reflex. This is why many grandparents today don’t understand the need for swaddling.

Some babies hate being swaddled. They fight it, they struggle when swaddled and many a persistent parent has thrown in the towel and their baby has eventually adjusted to sleeping unswaddled. However, some babies LOVE it and their parents’ couldn’t imagine them ever sleeping without it.

Swaddling isn’t meant to be a long term situation though. At some point, your baby will outgrow their need to be swaddled or you may find it necessary to stop swaddling. This can be a scary prospect if you wondering how you are supposed to get your baby to sleep without the swaddle. On average, most babies are swaddled until somewhere between 3 and 4 months of age. Some outgrow it on their own and sometimes you need to put in more effort to wean it. There are some clear reasons to stop swaddling. Those are:

  • If your baby rolls over in the swaddle, you will need to stop swaddling. This becomes a safety issue because if your child rolls in the swaddle and is now on his tummy without access to his arms to push himself up, it can be dangerous. Please don’t misunderstand though, you do not need to stop swaddling if your baby has just rolled over for the first time in a non sleeping/non swaddled circumstance. It may still be quite some time or never when he attempts this trick swaddled.
  • If your baby is fighting the swaddle and seems happier and is sleeping better unswaddled, no matter the age, then it may be that he is ready to not be swaddled anymore
  • You notice that your baby isn’t really startling

If either you have had to stop swaddling for any of the reasons above or you feel like the time has arrived to stop swaddling, here are some tips for helping everyone make it through the process a little easier.

  • Know that there is likely to be some regression when your baby first starts going to sleep unswaddled. This is a big change for your little one and one that will take some adjustment. Be patient. Once babies can roll themselves from back to front and front to back, most pediatricians will agree that your child can sleep in whatever position he gets himself into. There are two reasons for this:  1) because your child is then strong enough to maneuver himself out of an uncomfortable position and 2) because there is little you can do (other then hover over your baby’s crib all night) to keep your baby on their back at that point. Please check with your pediatrician to find out their recommendations.
  • Parents often report to me that their baby has “crazy hands” when unswaddled. This most often resolves itself when your child is old enough to begin self regulating and putting himself to sleep. He will also figure out what to do with his hands. In the meantime, however, you can start by only unswaddling one arm initially. I typically suggest the nondominant arm which most often is the left arm. It tends to be less “flaily.” I will also often suggest continuing to swaddle a baby around their core area. This will continue to create the pressure that your baby is used to while still giving him access to his hands. This can be done with a swaddling blanket (assuming it can be done safely and stay tucked in) or if you are using a Halo sleep sack, rather then wrapping the arm flaps around the arms, you would just wrap them around your baby’s abdominal area.
  • You can also introduce a security object that your baby can hold onto while falling asleep. This can often give your baby something to do with his hands, and it is also extremely helpful when creating sleep a new sleep association as the swaddle doesn’t just muffle the startle reflex, but it is also a strong sleep association for your baby.
  • If your baby is younger then 3-4 months, on the bigger and of the growth chart, and is not able to be swaddled anymore, another option is to transition to the Baby Merlin’s Magic Sleepsuit. The Magic Sleepsuit was developed by a pediatric physical therapist. It is a padded suit that is designed to create pressure on your baby’s body that will prevent him from startling. The other purpose is if you have a baby who wants to roll himself from his back to his front but is then stuck on his belly and very unhappy there, the Sleepsuit will keep him on his back and prevent him from rolling. It comes in two sizes, 3-6 months and 6-9 months. I find that bigger babies do better in it because they “fill it up” more, creating more soothing pressure on the body.  ***if you purchase the Sleepsuit on their website, enter promo code sleeplady20 for a 20% discount.
  • There is no rule that says you have to unswaddle for naps as well as night sleep. Night sleep and day sleep are controlled by two different parts of your baby’s brain and at a young age, it is not typically confusing to unswaddle at night but not during the day. If you have stopped swaddling for both nights and days and find that your baby is now waking from naps much sooner then he did with the swaddle, it is okay to go back to swaddling for naps until your baby is a bit older and can handle not being swaddled for naps. Children sleep in a deeper stage at night then they do during the day and in the early months, this can make it much harder to stay asleep during the day without needing a little “help.” Day sleep does not come together for many babies until closer to 6 months.

Hope these tips are helpful! Have no fear, your child will not still need to be swaddled in kindergarten

(Contributed by Linda Szmulewitz, LCSW, Certified Gentle Sleep Coach and trained Doula. Read about her services at www.sleeptightconsultants.com)

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