Sleep. It’s almost nonexistent when you have a newborn. You’ve tried everything — the shushing, the jiggling, the white noise. Then, a sweet friend brings you a beautiful thing: A velcro swaddle. Miraculously, swaddling your newborn nice and tight seems to calm them down, meaning you both of you get an extra hour or two nightly. So it’s understandable that you don’t want to swap out the swaddle for fear of sleepless nights again. Sadly, though, there will come a day when Baby has to transition out of swaddling, perhaps because their Moro reflex has disappeared, or they’re beginning to roll over and you know that swaddling is no longer safe. If you’re wondering when to stop swaddling a baby, these are the signs to watch for that’ll indicate it’s time to make the transition to a sleep sack.
How long to swaddle your baby
Knowing when to stop swaddling your baby really depends on their age and development, but almost all babies are done with the swaddle by about 3-4 months of age. However, there is no magic age to stop swaddling. Rather, there is one key developmental milestone that signals it is time to stop using the swaddle. “Some doctors warn parents to stop swaddling at 2 months for fear Baby might start rolling onto their stomach soon,” says Dr. Harvey Karp, a pediatrician. “But there’s no need to arbitrarily yank the swaddle away, so instead of using age as a guide to stop swaddling, look for signs of rolling over.”
“As soon as they start trying to roll to their stomach (including during wake times), they should no longer be swaddled,” agrees Dr. Amy Conrad, a pediatrician. “This is based on the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) guideline about safe sleep and SIDS prevention. If a baby is still swaddled while they can turn, they can get stuck on their stomach and the restricted movement in that position is not safe for sleep.”
Be sure to watch your baby’s movements to know when to stop swaddling. If you notice they’re becoming more mobile — perhaps you see them turn onto their side all on their own, or starting to swing one leg over the other in preparation for rolling over — consider transitioning away from a swaddle.
And no, you do not have to swaddle a newborn, says Dr. Lauren Chiriboga, a pediatrician at Nicklaus Children’s Hospital. “Although swaddling a newborn is not necessary, many parents find swaddling useful,” says Chiriboga. “Swaddling a baby creates an environment reminiscent of the intrauterine environment, which allows babies to feel more comfortable during their transition to life outside the womb.”
When to stop swaddling: 8 signs it's time to transition out of swaddling
If your baby starts showing any of these signs, according to our experts, it’s time to transition out of swaddling:
- Baby is showing signs of rolling, such as going from being on his/her back to his/her side
- Baby can easily escape the swaddle (with one or two hands outside the swaddle)
- Baby is rolling
- Repeated attempts to break the swaddle, especially if it seems to actually be keeping them awake
- Fights attempts to swaddle them
- Their Moro reflex (also knows as the startle reflex) seems to be going away
- Baby becomes fussier than usual when swaddled
- When parents are considering sleep training
How to transition out of the swaddle
When the time comes to stop swaddling, you may feel nervous but take heart. If Baby has shown you the signs that they’re ready to drop the swaddle, they can do it. How you approach this mini-milestone is ultimately up to you, but you do have options. Many people feel that the best way to make the transition is to take a gradual approach. “The best way to transition out of the swaddle is to first put Baby to sleep with one arm in the swaddle and one arm out,” advises Chiriboga. “Parents can do this for a few days, then switch to both arms out of the swaddle.” Baby might not love the transition at first (read: be prepared for some sleep interruptions), but they will become accustomed to sleeping without the swaddle over time.
Which arm should you leave out of the swaddle first? “It’s best to begin with the hand that your baby tends to favor the most,” Karp says. “If your little nugget continues to sleep well for a few nights with one arm free, you can then take both arms out.”
You can also switch out your child’s current swaddle for something more sophisticated for them to sleep in. “Sleep sack or wearable blankets are good options when a baby begins to roll over and transition out of swaddling,” suggests Dr. Alison Mitzner, a board-certified pediatrician. “The Snoo is also a good option as it prevents rolling, and the wearable blanket works if you are concerned your baby is cold at night.”
And finally, for the truly brave parents, you can just drop the swaddle altogether. “It's also an option to go cold turkey and take both arms out together,” says Conrad. “Whatever method you choose, though, the baby might take a few nights to adjust and will need extra support as they figure out the new sleeping arrangement.”
Arms-out swaddles to try
If you’re not quite ready to transition away from swaddles completely, you can try the arms-out alternative. Yes, there are arms-out swaddles that serve as an intermediate solution so that Baby feels secure — and you can both get some sleep.
Though they’ve become popular, doctors recommend avoiding sleep suits or sleep sacks that are weighted in any way. “We do not recommend any weighted swaddles because they can put pressure on the baby's body and chest — potentially restricting breathing,” says Dr. Steven Abelowitz, founder and medical director at Coastal Kids Pediatrics.
Although you might be used to swaddling your baby with their arms tucked in, it’s absolutely safe to leave their arms out, says Dr. Stephanie Lee, a pediatrician. “In the updated AAP guidelines, there is still no evidence thus far that swaddling with arms out has any effect on SIDS risk so parents should feel free to choose to safely swaddle with arms in or out,” she says.
Tips for helping Baby sleep without a swaddle
When it’s time to stop swaddling your baby, you’ll want to lean into the other sleep cues that you’ve established with your baby, whether that’s having a very dark room, white noise, a pacifier, or all of the above. “When transitioning out of a swaddle, try to keep the rest of the sleep environment consistent,” says Conrad. “Same bedtime routine, same dark room, use a sound machine, and try to not do transitions when there are other elements in the family such as while traveling, having visitors, etc.” You can also up the ambient noise, too, since Baby might prefer that to a library-silent space. “Rocking and white noise can help simulate the sounds of the womb and help relax a baby enough for them to drift off to sleep, even without a swaddle,” says Lee.
Equally important is ensuring that Baby’s sleep environment is safe. “You never want to have anything else in the crib except the swaddle or blanket — there should be no blankets, stuffed toys, or anything else,” warns Mitzner. “A loose blanket — and that can include a loose swaddling blanket — that becomes unwrapped can cover the baby’s face and increase their risk of suffocation.” And according to Karp, a pacifier is always a plus. “Offering a pacifier to little ones who love sucking can help,” he says.
Now, you might walk up to Baby’s crib early in the morning and be scared out of your mind to see that your unswaddled baby is sleeping on their stomach. Try not to panic, advises Chiriboga. “If Baby is able to roll onto his or her stomach, it is best to allow the baby to continue sleeping on the stomach rather than flipping him or her back onto their back,” she says. “This can ease the transition out of the swaddle because having the arms in contact with the mattress while asleep may soothe the baby and diminish the Moro reflex, if still present, in place of the swaddle.”
If you choose to use it, a swaddle can be such an important part of your newborn’s sleep routine. The key is knowing when to stop swaddling your baby, and how to guide them through the transition to sleeping comfortably with their arms out. That way, everyone can continue to sleep, safe and sound.
Pease, A., Fleming, P., Hauck, F., Moon, R., Horne, R., L’Hoir, M., Ponsonby, A., Blair, P. (2016) Swaddling and the Risk of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome: A Meta-analysis. Pediatrics, https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/27244847/
Edwards, C., Khalili, Y. (2022) Moro Reflex. StatPearls, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK542173/
Dr. Lauren Chiriboga, M.D., FAAP, a pediatrician at Nicklaus Children’s Hospital
Dr. Stephanie Lee, M.D., MPH, FAAP, a pediatrician and preventive medicine specialist
Dr. Amy Conrad, M.D., FAAP, a pediatrician
Dr. Alison Mitzner, M.D., a board-certified pediatrician