Finding items that are baby-safe is a big part of being a parent, whether it's your newborn's crib or the clothes they sleep in at night.
While mothers around the world believe that the swaddle is the most baby-appropriate item of clothing available when it comes to newborns, there are a few caveats to this.
In this post, we take a closer look at whether the swaddle is indeed the safest baby clothing item for babies and whether or not swaddle alternatives are the best choice for safety-conscious parents.
The Pros and Cons of Swaddling
Swaddling is an age-old practice of securely wrapping your baby in a thin blanket or sheet, to help them feel safe and secure. It is especially used to encourage relaxation and sleep at night, so that children can sleep better and for longer.
The cozy and restrictive comfort can help young infants feel safe and soothed, promoting better sleep, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics.
Babies who suffer from excessive crying, fussiness, and discomfort in various positions can often benefit from the feeling of restriction that the swaddle offers. Many believe this is because it replicates the sensation of being in the womb and stops infants from being overwhelmed by the outside world.
However, there are a few key drawbacks and risks that come with swaddling that parents must know about before they automatically use it as their go-to option for sleep clothing.
The Pros of Swaddling
- Infant babies suffer from the startle reflex which means they are prone to bursting out in tears when they experience sudden movements or stimulation that triggers their natural Moro Reflex. Being wrapped up snugly can stop your baby from being disturbed by this reflex and allow them to sleep better for longer.
- The swaddle is a no-nonsense clothing option that parents can easily fashion themselves from suitable fabrics. As such, there is less risk of various clothing attachments or accessories disturbing your child’s comfort or causing a safety hazard, such as zips, ties, knots, buttons or other clothing add-ons.
- Swaddling is affordable and can be a smart choice for simplifying your child’s wardrobe before they get to the age of 4 months and over and require additional clothing items.
- Babies wrapped up in the swaddle simply look adorable - it’s hard not to choose this option for this reason alone!
Remember that you can use a premade swaddle wrap to make swaddling even easier. If you want to guarantee you always have an appropriate garment ready for your child, take a look at our Zippy Swaddles!
Being wrapped up snugly can stop your baby from being disturbed by this reflex and allow them to sleep better for longer.
The Cons of Swaddling
- The swaddle is great when it’s calming for your baby, but sometimes it no longer works and you'll find your baby squirming to get free. At this point, the swaddle is doing more harm than good.
- Parents sometimes have difficulty wrapping their babies up just right, especially when it’s 4 am in the morning and pitch black in your baby’s room. In these situations, having a premade baby garment might be easier.
- Past a certain point, the swaddle restricts movement to the point that it can actually inhibit healthy bone and muscle growth. This is referred to as hip dysplasia and occurs at around 4 months when your baby requires more freedom of movement in the hips when they’re sleeping.
- The traditional swaddles restrict movement of the arms. Some babies find this unformattable and will not settle until their arms are free.
- When babies in the swaddle roll over or are put on their side or front to sleep, this can significantly increase the risk of SIDS due to your baby becoming stuck in a position where their airways are blocked.
So, Is Swaddling Safe?
Swaddling can be safe and suitable for your baby, but you must keep the following important things in mind.
- Swaddling is only safe when it is combined with other safe sleeping practices, such as giving your child a firm mattress and putting them to sleep on their backs (not their side or front), otherwise you can increase the risk of SIDS - one of the leading causes of child death between 0-4 months of age.
- When used past a certain point, swaddling can be damaging for your baby’s growth. If their legs are held pressed together and straight down, with minimal movement possible, they’re more likely to develop hip problems.
- The appropriate material should be used for swaddling that does not cause overheating. Even in winter, fabrics that are not breathable can increase your baby’s internal temperature to a level that’s not healthy for them.
For more information about swaddling, take a look at our popular blog: What Should My Baby Wear to Sleep? — The Right Products for the Right Time
What are the Alternatives?
Due to the potential drawbacks and health risks that can be associated with using the swaddle, it is natural for various alternatives to exist on the market. Below are some of the most popular swaddle transition products that offer safe baby sleep alternatives to the swaddle.
Baby Sleep Sacks and Sleeping Bags
You might find several baby clothing products called sleep sacks for sleeping bags. The actual design can vary but they will generally cover the baby's body (sometimes up to the neck) while giving them a similar level of restrictive comfort to the swaddle.
The major difference is that babies are free to move their legs, hips and arms inside the sack, so they are less at risk of becoming stuck in a dangerous position or for their limbs to be restricted too much.
You might also find similar items being called wearable blankets, which can be identical to sleep sacks or slightly different in design. They might come with armholes and neck openings, or wearable sleeves that encase your baby’s body.
Arms Free Swaddle Blankets
Many babies simply benefit from a swaddle that allows them to move their arms. You can achieve this by swaddling your child up to the armpits, or buying a garment that is pre-made to swaddle the lower half of the body and not the arms.
Again, this is only safe if you are following other baby safety guidelines and make sure that there is enough flexibility around the hips, especially for babies that are slightly older.
Our own version of the baby sleep sack, the Zipadee-Zip, is a kind of star-shaped version of a wearable blanket that combines many of the strengths of other baby-safe swaddle alternatives while reducing the potential health hazards.
With this design, 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. This gives them a good amount of movement, especially when their muscles develop and they start rolling around more freely.
The other alternative to swaddling is simply not swaddling at all. And yes, this is an option but only if you follow the best practices for baby clothing safe baby sleep and ensure you are still dressing your baby in clothes that make them comfortable, warm enough for the temperature and free of unnecessary safety hazards.
Many parents choose this method as a way to reduce sleep reliance early on, however, some find that their babies can struggle for a long time without a sleeping aid like the swaddle or one of the other mentioned alternatives.
To learn more about what to dress your baby in at different ages, take a look at our blog: Learn How to Choose the Right Clothes for the Right Time
When to Stop Swaddling
Swaddling must stop at some point, but deciding when is hard to judge for some parents. Most pediatricians and child health organizations advise that parents stop swaddling babies at 2 months.
However, it is common for many parents to phase out swaddling around 3-4 months. And while there is no lower limit, babies must have stopped swaddling by around 4 months and certainly when they start exhibiting any of the following behaviors.
Most pediatricians and child health organizations advise that parents stop swaddling babies at 2 months.
When Your Baby Rolls Over
If your baby is rolling over onto their tummy, you should be extremely careful. They don’t end up being stuck to them with their faces covered. This will make it harder for them to breathe and increase the risk of SIDS.
If your child is swaddled and stuck face down, they will have no ability to maneuver out of this dangerous positions, even if their limbs are strong enough to flip themselves back over into the safe zone (which is on their backs)
When Your Baby Kicks Off Blankets
If your baby is constantly kicking off their blankets and trying to break free, you should start transitioning away from the swaddle.
If not, they could be left alone with loose blankets in their crib, which is a serious safety hazard for young infants as this can lead to entanglement and choking in some cases.
When They’re Not Comfortable Anymore
The benefit of the swaddle ends when it no longer helps to relax or soothe your baby, making sleep more achievable. If they’re fussing more and trying to get out of their wraps, we recommend looking for alternatives. They may need a slightly different kind of wrap like the Zipadee-Zip, or perhaps no swaddle at all.
How to Transition Away From the Swaddle
Swaddle transitioning is the process of preparing your baby for life without the swaddle. It can happen as gradually or quickly as you like (or as fast as your baby is comfortable doing).
The end goal is using no swaddle at all, but it’s up to you how many stages from the swaddle to no swaddle at all you create. These could include various swaddle alternatives, or gradually removing the swaddle from sleeping time.
Some suggested steps for the swaddle transition period include:
- Start by swaddling your baby up to the age when they show signs that it's time to stop
- Use a swaddle alternative like our Zipadee-Zip which is suitable for up to 24 months, or another option that offers safety and comfort
- Look for signs of strong muscle development and growth as a signal for when your child can move on to other sleeping clothes
Ultimately, the swaddling process does not need to happen straight away and is best seen as a bridge from one phase to another.
To Swaddle or Not to Swaddle?
For babies to fully develop the way they need to, you must allow for them to have more freedom of movement. This means eventually dropping the swaddle. However, for ages 0-4 months, it’s largely up to you whether you want to swaddle your child.
Just make sure you always follow the ABCs of safe sleep and stay vigilant regarding any baby safety issues with the swaddle, such as restriction of the hips and risk of suffocation.