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When to Stop Swaddling Your Baby

Now that you’ve successfully figured out the swaddling puzzle, you and your baby are finally getting some much needed rest. Those few extra hours of sleep you both are getting are helping you get through the day (and night) and you begin to think that everything is all under control.

Unfortunately swaddling can only be used for so long. 

Like many other phases in your baby’s life, swaddling takes a long time to master but seems like only a short-lived repayment. This leads to more questions. When should I stop swaddling my baby? How does the swaddle transition work? Don’t worry, generally speaking this transition can go fairly smoothly if you follow the right steps. 

Why Do We Swaddle Babies?

Swaddling is the practice of wrapping a newborn snugly in a blanket or swaddle sleep sack in order to provide them comfort. As stated by Dr. Harvey Karp “Swaddling recreates the snug packaging inside the womb and is the cornerstone of calming.”

Newborns are used to being curled up in the womb and thus tightly bundled. Therefore it makes sense that they want to appreciate the same comforts once they’re born. 

This calming effect is an extremely useful tool in the first few months of a newborns life but is only helpful as long as she feels it is necessary. It’s pretty noticeable when they no longer want to be swaddled, and there are some safety concerns as she learns to skills. 

Stop Swaddling When They Can Roll Over

Despite the fact that every baby is different, somewhere around three to five months is the best time to stop swaddling.

At around this age, most babies begin to develop the ability to roll over on their own. When they are able to roll from front to back OR back to front on their own, It’s time to un-swaddle or start transitioning. During this period, it is essential that they have their arms available to help them lift themselves off of their stomach in order to move theirs arms freely and lift their heads. 

Here are some questions to ask yourself in order to determine if it’s time to stop swaddling your little one:

  • Is he starting to lift his hips while lying down?
  • Is he able to push himself onto his side?
  • Is he getting fussier than usual when swaddled?
  • Are the naps getting shorter than usual and is he waking up crying (more than usual)?
  • Has he started to wake up at unusual times screaming his head off when you know he should not be hungry?Is he taking longer to fall asleep?

All of the above are or could be signs that your baby is ready to start transitioning off the swaddle.

  • Did he just roll over to his stomach while playing on his back??

OK, now it’s time to STOP swaddling all together!

If you have just witnessed a full roll over and you are still swaddling your baby at night, you have reached the point of no return. Start swaddling with both arms out or get your hands on a sleep sack in which the arms are free.

Since at this young age they won’t have developed much upper body strength it is important that their arms are free not only to try and lift themselves up but also to provide leverage if they are trying to roll over onto their back again. Many babies learn to roll from stomach to back before back to stomach, so when you notice that they can roll over either way it’s time to stop swaddling.

The Moro Reflex

Between three and five months old is also the time when the effects of Moro Reflex (also known as the Startle Reflex) begins to lessen. The Moro Reflex is an impulse newborns have as a response to the new world around them.

According to Nested Bean, the Moro Reflex is a reaction newborn babies have to something that has startled them, and often gives them the sensation that they are free falling. This is why babies will suddenly stretch their arms out and then quickly tuck them back in close to their body. 

As this reflex subsides, your baby may not feel like they need or enjoy being swaddled as much as they used to. As they gain a little more control of their limbs they will most likely prefer to have a little more freedom to explore this amazing new function they are learning. In addition, as they get more comfortable with their surroundings they won’t be as easily startled, thus they won’t require as much constant comforting like the swaddle provides. 

Or Stop It When They Don’t Like it Anymore

It was really easy for my wife and me to tell when our son was ready to transition out of the swaddle simply because he started getting upset when we swaddled him.

When we wrapped him up at night or for a nap he began getting squirmy and would thrash around quite a bit which was abnormal for him. At this point, we finally released one of his arms and he settled right down.

Though the American Academy of Pediatrics described this scenario as older babies becoming fussier for other reasons and that the swaddle can still benefit them, this did not seem to be the case for him. The swaddle was frustrating him. 

I have to say he transitioned very quickly and easily from his full swaddle (the Zen Swaddle classic) to the swaddle sack (the Zen Swaddle Sack). It only took a matter of a night or two and he was sleeping calmly again. 

I believe that the timing was imperative, as well as the fact that we honestly probably just got lucky figuring out the signs- especially since she is very clear about when she is unhappy about something (and still is!)

Swaddle Transition Phase One: Leave One Arm Out

Once you have established that your baby is ready to begin the transition out of the swaddle, there are a few different way you can go about it. The first tactic is to quit swaddling cold turkey. This may work for some babies but for most it will be too much of a sudden transition. 

The easiest way is to transition them slowly. This is when a sleep sack type swaddle really comes in handy. The first night of the transition you simply swaddle as usual but leave one arm out of the swaddle. This allows them to remain in their normal routine and comfort of the swaddle, but lets them get used to the idea of having their arms loose. 

Swaddle Transition Phase 2: Leave Other Arm Out

Once they seem to be sleeping well with one arm loose, now you can begin leaving the other arm out as well. With a regular swaddle blanket it can be a little tricky trying to wrap the swaddle snugly without their arms inside, so once again a swaddle sleep sack is recommended for this phase. 

The sleep sack will allow you to still wrap them up tightly using the Velcro wings instead of having a much squirmier baby wriggle themselves out a blanket. It is also much safer since you won’t have to worry about the blanket coming loose through the night. 

After a few days to a week, depending on your baby you can begin to leave them without the swaddle, however it’s recommended that you leave them in the swaddle sack for a while longer.

If they do decide they need an arm or two inside the swaddle on a fussy night it is easy to just wrap them back up in the swaddle sack. Having the freedom to switch when needed is essential especially in the middle of the night.

For the most part, they should stay comfortable in solely the sack aspect of the sack, partially because they are used to being in their little bundle. It will give them that last little bit of the feeling of being bundled that they’re used to. 

Effects of the Transition

Of course no transition can be achieved without some possible hiccups. During each phase, especially the first, sleep may become more interrupted due to some unexpected arm flailing. Without the swaddle to contain their reflexes, even though they’re growing out of it they’ll still twitch and flail from time to time and that can startle them awake.

Also, being that they haven’t quite learned to self soothe yet, this can temporarily result in some night waking throughout this process. 

Our daughter has long arms, she was always flailing and hitting her hand on the side of her bassinet and waking herself up. Since she also somewhat abnormally isn’t a fan of a pacifier it was a little difficult to keep her asleep. I was constantly rocking her back to sleep because that was the only thing that worked.

Then we realized that if we put her in the crib she’d have more room to flail without hitting the sides of the bassinet. This transition was also fairly quick and painless. We put the bassinet inside the crib for a few nights and then started placing her directly in the crib.

Fortunately for us she could’ve cared less and it worked gloriously. I understand that once again a lot of it was a blessing from the sleep gods, but it’s just an example of the problem solving we faced throughout this process.

The Moral of the Story 

Now that your baby has been fully transitioned into sleeping without the swaddle and only in the sleep sack, you’ve accomplished your goal of sleeping swaddle-free!

This may not seem like a big milestone but it really is.

Being over three months old they’re no longer a newborn but a full-fledged infant. Yes your little unbundled joy is still a precious, fragile baby but the first phase of babyhood is coming to an end. As sad as it is it’s also a new and exciting time full of new skills and challenges. 

Just as we had to learn with our daughter, the trick is finding out what works with your baby. A lot of tactics that work with most kids don’t work for us and that’s ok. The idiosyncrasies that make your baby unique are the same clues you can start to use to solve the puzzles they throw your way.

Once you’ve established that your baby does or does not like certain things it will become much easier to help you and your baby calm down much faster.