Swaddles are great for so many reasons. They’re good for keeping your baby warm, cozy, and relaxed and are a cost-effective and simple method that all parents can rely on with minimal planning involved.
As babies are not allowed to be left with loose blankets as they sleep, swaddles fulfill the need to give your newborn some much-needed warmth, security, and protection after they’ve just left the safety of the womb. In short, it’s hard to think of a better way to dress your child in their initial months of life.
Yet, despite all its benefits, including the well-known “cuteness” appeal that swaddle-wrapped babies come with, there will come a time when an alternative is necessary. We explore some of the reasons alternatives to swaddling are necessary and suggest some options you can take into consideration when planning your baby's wardrobe.
Why Do Babies Need Swaddle Alternatives Anyway?
Swaddling feels natural to most parents and infants, but their role in a child’s life should never be permanent. In fact, the window in which your child can be swaddled is relatively small when you consider that they shouldn’t be wrapped in swaddles past the age of 4 months.
In fact, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends this limit should be as early as 2 months to remove all potential risks associated with swaddling. After this point, parents should be looking for alternative ways to help their babies sleep.
You may even have to look for alternatives before this time because of your child’s personal preferences, or if you’ve decided that you want your child to self-soothe as early as possible without any sleeping aids like the swaddle.
Healthy Hip Development
Improper swaddling or swaddling for too long may lead to hip dysplasia or developmental dysplasia of the hip, according to the International Hip Dysplasia Institute. Because it keeps the legs together and straight, it can increase the risk of hip problems as your baby’s bones and muscles develop.
A prominent study from Turkey on 4,173 infants aged 3-24 months highlighted that of the 88% of the study whose cohort had been swaddled, the relationship to hip dislocation was statistically significant.
In order to allow for healthy hip development, legs should be able to bend up and out at the hips. This position allows for the natural development of the hip joints.
Even for swaddle transition products, which are a good alternative to the traditional swaddle (more on this below), it’s advised that they provide enough room for movement and come with a loose pouch or sack for the baby’s legs and feet to move around in.
Always be careful that whatever you dress your child in past the 2-month mark doesn’t tighten and confine the legs around the thighs, to reduce the chance of hip problems occurring.
Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS)
Swaddles can be dangerous if the fabric comes loose as this can tangle up your baby and increase the risk of suffocation. As such, some parents would rather avoid swaddle wraps altogether.
A study published in the journal Pediatrics found that when swaddled babies were put on their sides or bellies, their risk of SIDS went up significantly. And for those put on their bellies, especially babies more than 6 months old, the risk doubled.
Not All Babies Like the Swaddle
Swaddles can be incredibly comforting and cozy, keeping babies from waking up when experiencing the Moro reflex. However, some babies will quickly show you that they’re not as comfortable being swaddled up as you imagined. Signs of this are when they try and pull their hands free, stretch out their arms constantly, or try to kick the garment loose in whatever way they can.
If you see this, there’s really no point in continuing with the swaddle and it's time to consider some alternatives!
The Moro Reflex and Swaddling
There are a number of primitive reflexes that are a natural part of infancy. These include the rooting, sucking, and stepping reflexes. However, it is the Moro reflex that you probably hear the most about because of its relationship to swaddling and healthy baby sleep.
Once triggered, this startle reflex often results in your baby waking up, stretching out their limbs for support, and crying. In short, it can be distressing for your little one and one of the major benefits of the swaddle is that it can help to calm your baby down once they experience this reflex, or even stop them from experiencing it in the first place by keeping their bodies securely positioned in a safe and stable place.
The ability to counteract the Moro reflex is one of the top reasons parents choose the swaddle. Therefore, if you must stop swaddling your child, the problem is how you can prevent them from becoming scared, distressed, and uncomfortable due to their startle reflex kicking in.
Alternative products like our Zipadee-Zip can certainly help here, but you can also focus on removing the triggers of the startle reflex so that you baby is able to remain calm and content for as long as possible. Some of the most common triggers include:
- Bright lights
- Outside noises
- A sudden or cold touch
- A quick movement by someone around them
- Being placed down in a crib
- Change of position
If you must stop swaddling your child, the problem is how you can prevent them from becoming scared, distressed, and uncomfortable.
Best Alternatives to Swaddling
When you’ve lost your primary tool for keeping your infant cozy and content before they sleep, you’ll certainly need a few alternatives to swaddling that can help keep them relaxed, healthy, and ready for a good night’s sleep or daytime nap.
Wearable Blankets and Sleep Sacks
Many babies don’t completely hate the swaddle and just require more freedom of movement, especially in the arms and hips. If this is the case, there are many wearable blanket options out there that can free up specific parts of the body like the hands, rather than keeping them tucked down or folded at the chest.
Many alternatives also offer much more room for the legs to wiggle around, with no harm posed to hip developmental health.
The size, fabric type, tog rating, zip position, and more can vary depending on the brand you choose, but sleep sacks are generally considered a logical stepping stone for babies who still want some level of restriction and enclosure and are not ready for a completely swaddle-free life.
To learn more about the different types and styles of baby sleep sacks, we go into more detail in our blog: From Baby Sleep Sack to Swaddle Transition: Safe and Stylish Babies!
Our own version of the baby sleep sack is the Zipadee-Zip. It is designed to offer similar restrictive comfort to the swaddle, yet provides more freedom of movement. Unlike other products on the market, we opted for a star-shaped pointed sleeve design that lets your child’s hands and feet encounter the perfect amount of resistance.
We wanted to capture the same kind of sensation of being in the swaddle and the womb but wanted to avoid any of the drawbacks that come with wrapping up your baby too tight. We also refer to these items as swaddle transition products as they are a logical alternative to swaddling for parents and children looking to move gradually away from the swaddle, without leaving it behind entirely.
Calming Techniques to Replace the Swaddle
There are some alternative calming methods that can help to replace the job that the swaddle usually performs in keeping your child relaxed and ready for sleep.
A Good Evening Routine
Familiar activities and a set routine help keep babies calm and signals to them each night that they should wind down for sleep. For instance, this could involve a sequence of entertaining, yet calming nighttime activities like turning off the lights and reading a book, singing a lullaby, or playing some relaxing music.
For advice on creating a great evening routine for your baby, visit our blog: How to Help My Baby Sleep — The Perfect Evening Routine.
Create a Relaxing Bedroom Environment
By addressing several important environmental factors, you can create a space where your little one can establish a healthy sleeping habit and feel relaxed and safe. A few tips for a good sleeping space include:
- Use blackout curtains
- Close windows and doors to reduce external noises
- Turn off electronics in nearby rooms
- Put your baby to sleep when they’re drowsy and not asleep, to reduce the chance of them becoming startled by a sudden change in movement.
- Always follow best safe sleep practices for baby cribs and healthy sleeping arrangements (firm mattress, no blankets)
For more advice on creating the perfect atmosphere for your child to sleep in and feel relaxed, take a look at our popular blog: Reduce Baby Startling: How to Create the Perfect Bedroom Atmosphere!
An infant massage, paired with a healthy bedtime routine and a sleep conducive room atmosphere, is one of our favourite alternatives to swaddling as it’s a great way for any parent to relax their child. You can do this during bathtime, just after, or when your child is startled awake after experiencing the Moro reflex.
Blocking out unnecessary stimulation can let your child recharge their batteries faster during the day and reduce the chance of them becoming overloaded and overtired. With moderate levels of stimulation during the day and minimal-to-zero screen time, you’ll hopefully see your baby operate at much calmer levels, making it easier for you to calm them down and reduce fussiness.
Also, babies are much more sensitive to slight changes in their environment, which can evoke the Moro reflex. So, paying attention to the kinds of stimulation your baby receives can help to stop them from waking up and seeking the comfort of their swaddles. Simply take away things like loud ringing phones; disruptive music; the sound of TV or video games, or people talking too loudly nearby.
Drop the Swaddle Completely
One of the most drastic alternatives to swaddling is dropping it completely. You can choose to drop the swaddle gradually by implementing a number of steps leading to a complete removal of any swaddle. This might accelerate their sleep independence and reduce their reliance on any sleeping products and calming methods entirely.
This can involve only using the swaddle at certain times, such as during daytime naps. The goal is to ease your baby through the process, watching carefully whether they show any serious signs of discomfort. Other parents may choose the ‘cold turkey’ method, but this can often be accompanied by a fair few sleepless nights until your little one is used to the change.
Just because something works sometimes, or for other people, it doesn’t mean it’s right for every situation or for all families. When considering potential alternatives to swaddling, below are a few essential facts to keep in mind.
- Babies don’t need to be swaddled to be healthy and happy. If your baby is happy without swaddling, that’s great news. Simply embrace it!
- Swaddling past the age of 2 months can potentially be harmful to their growth and healthy development.
- No matter which sleep clothing option you use, always put your baby to sleep on their back to reduce the chance of SIDS.
- Even if your baby doesn't need a swaddle, avoid using loose fabrics, pillows, stuffed toys and other such items in your child’s crib.
- Whether your child loves the swaddle or not, it is worth considering alternatives that offer a significant amount of room for the hips and legs to move.