From the minute the labour and delivery nurse swaddled Joanne Sacchetti’s newborn twins, Nico and Serafina, the pair were happy and content cocooned in their wraps. “After being so compact inside, I guess it made sense that they would yearn for the same on the outside,” she says. But four months later, while Nico didn’t stir from his “baby burrito” during sleep time, Serafina would Houdini her way out, wiggling her hands and then her arms until she broke free. She slept soundly once her arms were out, but she soon learned to roll over. It was time to say “so long” to the beloved swaddle.
Swaddling, or wrapping a baby up in a blanket so their arms and legs are snug and secure, is an age-old technique that can help newborns sleep longer and cry less. It’s designed to recreate the cozy feeling of the womb. In North America, 90 percent of infants are swaddled during their first few months of life. While swaddling is wildly popular, it can also be a contentious topic, and there are ever-changing guidelines on how to do it safely. According to the Canadian Paediatric Society (CPS), swaddled babies should always be placed on their backs, never on their stomachs or sides. Parents should use swaddling only for sleep and give baby plenty of time when awake to explore and move. And it’s important to leave some room for the legs to move to avoid hip problems. The CPS also warns against overheating the baby with too many layers. Still, when it’s done properly, swaddling is a great way to help your baby—and you—sleep better.
Swaddling comes with a shelf life. “We recommend transitioning out of a swaddle between four and six months, but it could be as early as three months,” says Sarah Gander, a paediatrician in Saint John, NB. It depends on when your infant starts to move and learns to roll over. Once they can roll, if the baby’s face ends up against the mattress, they could suffocate, so they need their arms and hands free (as well as more mobility in their legs) to be able to reposition themselves.
The CPS also recommends keeping the crib free of quilts, comforters, bumper pads, pillows and other soft items. That means you’ll need to wait until your baby is 12 months before using that cute blanket Grandma knit.
When it’s time to stop swaddling your baby, there are two options: Go cold turkey and remove the wrap entirely, or do it gradually, by taking one arm out for a few naps and nights, later followed by the other, says Gander. However, if the baby begins to fully roll over at any point (from back to front, or from tummy to back), then you must remove the swaddle—period. It may take the baby anywhere from a few nights to a couple of weeks to adjust to this change. (Sorry!) If they’re just showing signs of being more active and attempting to roll, this could be a good opportunity to start the transition.
What’s next? For some infants, a hybrid sleep sack, which can include the swaddling option for one or both arms but has more room for the hips and legs to extend, is a short-term post-swaddling solution. However, many infants transition straight to a regular sleep sack, a wearable bag-like blanket that doesn’t carry the risk of smothering or getting tangled around the baby.
“The sleep sack has been shown to be a safe option in lieu of loose blankets,” says Gander. But, she adds, it won’t add the same amount of pressure and coziness as swaddling, so it may take a few winks for them to get used to this new sleeping situation.
Alanna McGinn, a sleep consultant and the founder of Good Night Sleep Site, also says a sleep sack is an effective way to replace swaddling. “A sleep sack is a great transitional piece because it keeps arms free but still provides a sense of security and the feeling of something around their legs.” McGinn adds that some parents use this time to remove all external sleep aids, such as a pacifier or feeding and rocking the child to sleep.
If you do opt for a sleep sack, McGinn offers some suggestions. Remember, consistency is key. Make the sack part of both their nap and nighttime routines, so this new prop will signal that it’s time for sleep. Check the fit: It should be snug around the arms and neck, and looser around the legs. “Ensure they can’t get it over their face. Sleep sacks are big, so it’s normal for them to be loose, but you want to make sure they can’t slip down inside the bag,” says McGinn.
After swaddling, Sacchetti decided to move the twins to a hybrid sleep sack, which gave her the option to keep their arms in or out and didn’t restrict their hips and legs. She followed this up by removing all sleep aids, and put them to sleep in footed PJs only. This worked for a short time, but then at nine months, with the temperature dipping, the pair needed an extra layer in the crib. “I now put them both in sleep sacks that keep them warm and cozy, and help them sleep soundly,” she says.