Figuring out how to transition out the swaddle for your baby can be daunting. It releases a whole new unknown of sleep with moving arms (hello, startle reflex!) and more.
When should you switch from a swaddle to a sleep sack?
According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, once your baby starts to show any signs of starting to roll, swaddling is no longer appropriate or safe due to the risk of suffocation if your baby rolls to their stomach while swaddled.
This typically happens between 3-4 months, but can happen as early as 2 months or younger.
Other signs that may be indicators that it is time to transition out of the swaddle include fighting the swaddle, breaking out of it regularly, and a significant decrease in their moro (startle) reflex.
Additionally, transitioning your baby out of sleeping swaddled by about 3 months is helpful. This helps ensure that your baby does not get too dependent on the swaddle for getting sleep. Waiting could make the transition harder because your baby would feel they need that tight pressure and restriction in movement in order to sleep. (If you are past this age and haven’t transitioned, don’t worry. Babies can still learn and adjust to sleeping without being swaddled!)
How do I transition my baby to sleep unswaddled?
The approach you choose to take when transitioning your baby to sleep unswaddled depends on where they are developmentally. Specifically if they have started to show signs of rolling (or actually rolled) or not.
The gradual approach
If you are can get started on the transition out of a swaddle before your baby starts showing signs of rolling, you may be able to take a gradual approach. This involves swaddling with one arm out (see picture below) for 2-3 days. Then swaddling with both arms out (still tight around chest) for 2-3 days and then moving to a regular sleep sack.
During the transition you can also alternate which arm is out each day or at each bedtime or nap time.
The move to an actual sleep sack is important rather than leaving the swaddle tight around the chest. This can still inhibit movement and lead to an unsafe situation.
Overall, this approach allows baby to more gradually get used to their arms being able to move freely while falling asleep and during sleep and ease into the transition a little more.
Cold turkey transition out of the swaddle
If your baby starts showing signs of rolling (or starts actually rolling over) a cold turkey approach to transitioning out of the swaddle is best and safest. Even if your baby has not rolled in their sleep space, it could happen at any time especially if they are rolling during the day. So you want to have your baby start sleeping unswaddled as soon as possible.
Put your baby is a sleep sack or swaddle transition product (my favorites are below!) and put them to bed or sleep like normal. Provide support as needed to help them get to and get back to sleep when needed.
How long does it take a baby to adjust to sleeping unswaddled?
It typically takes about a week to 10 days for babies to adjust to sleeping without a swaddle.
There are a few factors that can play into how long it takes your baby to adjust to sleeping without a swaddle. These include development specifically related to the moro reflex, how well they can control their body movements and if there are other external things or actions that your baby feels they need present in order to fall asleep.
What if baby won’t sleep unswaddled?
It can absolutely feel like your baby is never going to sleep unswaddled. However, your baby can absolutely learn to sleep unswaddled. (And will need to to keep them safe!) It can take some patience and potentially rough nights.
Once you stop using the swaddle, try to avoid going back to using it, especially if your baby is already rolling. Sometimes this happens out of desperation in the middle of the night when your baby just seems to not be sleeping at all. Unfortunately, this can make it more difficult for your baby to learn to feel comfortable with how their body moves during sleep. It can also lead to more protesting and crying. This especially happens around and after 4 months old as your baby is learning and understanding patterns better. The increased protest is because your baby may see the pattern that they protest and then finally get swaddled which currently feels easier for them. Next time, they may continue protesting more to see if that pattern is still happening.
If you feel stuck in never-ending sleep deprivation because your baby won’t sleep unswaddled, here are a few more things to try:
Should I use a swaddle transition product?
There are many swaddle transition products out there to help with this transition. The idea of these products is to gently help babies adjust from the tight pressure and movement restriction with the swaddle to slight resistance. Be cautious, not all the swaddle transition products are safe for babies who can roll.
My favorite transition products are the Zipadee-Zip and the Halo SleepSack Easy Transition. They are both safe for rolling babies but still provide the feeling of something over the arms. They can be a great transitional step.
If your baby loves the Zipadee-Zip, it can also be used long term. This would be best for babies who don’t consistently suck on their hands. Since their hands are covered in the Zipadee-Zip, it can lead to wet sleeves.
For babies who love to put their hands in their mouth and skillfully get them and keep them there, the Halo SleepSack Easy Transition is a great option.
If your baby no longer has a significant startle reflex, you may want to just transition into a regular sleep sack. Sleep sacks (also known as wearable blankets) can be used long term with babies. They provide an extra layer for babies since it is not safe to have a blanket in the crib with them until at least 12 months old. Plus, then you have one less thing to buy!
Should I use a weighted sleep sack?
The AAP’s most recent safe sleep guidance advised against weighted sleep sacks and swaddles for babies as it could potentially put too much pressure on a baby’s chest and lungs which could restrict their ability to breathe normally.
What can I expect with my baby’s sleep during the transition out of a swaddle?
The transition can be a bit rough because it is a big change for your baby. A few things to keep in mind:
● It may be a few (possibly very) challenging nights with your baby needing more soothing (possibly a lot more) than usual but typically within a few nights things shift back to the previous normal.
● If possible, create a plan with a partner or another caregiver to split the responsibility to responding to and comforting your baby during the transition. This allows you both to get a good chunk of sleep.
● Transitioning out of the swaddle can be a first step towards more independent sleep because babies often soothe with their hands. (Some babies don’t need any more help than being given this opportunity. But for many this is just a first piece of a larger puzzle of independent sleep.)
● It may be harder to transition out of the swaddle the longer your baby is swaddled past 2-3 months.
● The startle reflex is often still present in babies the age that they need to be transitioned out of the swaddle. This can make things challenging but those reflexes inform your baby’s brain about how their body works and are truly a good and important thing for your baby to have. (Even if it doesn’t feel like it at the moment!)
● If you are transitioning your baby out of the swaddle after they are 4 months old, supporting them in learning independent sleep skills is helpful. Then they can learn to settle themselves to sleep and can get back to sleep if some arm movement does wake them up!
The transition out of the swaddle can be tough
Transitioning from a swaddle to a sleep sack can be tough on both you and your baby but is important for keeping your baby safe as they move through different developmental milestones, especially showing signs and then starting to roll.
Need support while you transition out of the swaddle?
Are you struggling to get started or you have started and things aren’t going as well as you would like? You are not alone. If you need support during this challenging time, reach out. I support many families going through this transition with 1-on-1 support. Schedule your free evaluation call today so we can discuss more about what is going on, your goals and how we can work together to reach those goals as quickly as possible with as little stress as possible.
Cheers to healthy, happy sleep,
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