Why, when and how swaddling helps baby sleep better
Latest update: March 28, 2018
Authors: Heidi Holvoet, PhD & Pam Diamond of First Daze & Nightzzz
Swaddling is a gentle technique that can highly reduce
unnecessary wakings during naps and nights. If your baby easily
startles awake in the first weeks, consider this age-old technique: it
is easy to do and if done correctly (which is crucial for safety, find
out how below) it helps to put
your little one down safely for optimal sleep.
In this article, my dear
colleague Pam Diamond from North Carolina will be sharing her
experience working with newborns and young babies with us. Pam is
postpartum doula, baby sleep consultant and owner of First Daze & Nightzzz.
One of the most useful tools in the new parent's tool kit is a swaddle.
Newborns are born with the Moro - or startle - reflex, which can easily
wake an unswaddled baby. You know, it's when a baby who is
lying/sleeping peacefully, very suddenly stretches arms and fingers
out, in a reflex, and then pulls them back in. It is believed to be a
reaction to a subconscious feeling as if losing support or falling.
That reflex is completely harmless and normal (and I think it is such a
sweet and precious thing to witness (Heidi)) but it does tend to cause many a half
often a full wake up. That's when swaddling can help.
Being swaddled properly recreates the
familiar womb-like sensation and helps prevent those startled wakings.
But not only that, being snugly swaddled helps with calming down, going
to sleep, and
just generally sleeping more peacefully.
Is it safe?
What about SIDS risk?
Yes when done properly swaddling is safe. The incidence of SIDS is
properly swaddled infants when sleeping on their backs but - and this is important -
the risk increases
greatly with prone swaddling.
Also, for premature babies or those with medical conditions or
concerns, you will want to check with your pediatrician before using a
There are 3 golden rules for
Swaddle correctly using appropriate
technique and suitable blankets (see techniques
recommendations further in the article)
Place a swaddled baby on her
back to sleep - Though the incidence of SIDS is lower in
infants sleeping on their backs properly swaddled, the risk increases
greatly with prone swaddling.
Do not swaddle a very weak
or a very strong baby (see
age guidelines right below)
In rare cases, a baby who keeps breaking out of a swaddle - even the
Miracle Blankets or Pam's Houdini-proof method - then parents might
want to see if baby is happier being unswaddled, perhaps using a sleep
sack or a Zippy instead.
When should you stop
While it is easy to know when to start - from day 1 unless your baby is
premature in which case your doctor will advise - knowing when you
swaddling is important, especially to keep it safe.
Swaddling should be used for naps and night sleep in the early weeks
and months. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends it for
newborns to about 14 weeks of age. This is about the time the startle
reflex disappears and babies gain the coordination to bring their hands
to their mouths to self soothe.
It is also when many start to learn to roll over on their own from
their backs to their bellies. Since the risk for SIDS increases greatly when swaddled and lying prone, starting to or being able to roll over is a clear
sign that it is time to stop.
How to stop swaddling?
Once babies are rolling or working hard on rolling, it's time to begin
weaning from the swaddle. There are several approaches one can take
from going cold turkey to gradually weaning by unswaddling one
arm at a
The gradual approach will give your baby the gentlest transition with the
least sleep disruption.
You go about it by lightly
loosening the grip a bit at first, little by little, and then move on
to unswaddling one arm first before also freeing the other. Take your
time, about 1-3 weeks for the whole process is common.
There are also some products on the market meant
specifically for weaning from a swaddle. Pam's current favorite is the
And then there is the ever popular Halo
Swaddle (as in the picture).