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Swaddling is a term used to describe the practice of wrapping a newborn snuggly in a blanket or wrap. It is recommended because it helps babies to feel safe and secure, as they did in the womb during pregnancy. When the baby is in the womb, the small space lends itself to an immediate sense of comfort because the baby feels secure. Most babies are in an arms-up position in the womb, and many begin sucking on their hands and fingers for comfort. This is why we like to teach parents to swaddle babies with access to their hands. Swaddling is important because it mimics the position of the baby in the womb and helps to reduce the baby’s startle reflex. This reflex, called the “Moro Reflex” is characterized by an extension of the arms and legs away from the baby’s body to the sides and then back together. It is sometimes followed by crying. Swaddling before sleep is recommended for the first several weeks after birth as one of the strategies to support soothing and sleep. Babies typically outgrow this reflex around 3 months of age. It is recommended to swaddle newborns at sleep time until they begin to show signs of rolling, which is typically around 8-10 weeks of age.
Newborn babies sleep quite a lot in the first several weeks after birth, but their sleep is in short cycles with frequent wakings. Newborn babies are also born with several reflexes, and the Moro reflex is one that can contribute to a babies waking themselves up because it causes the baby’s arms to quickly extend outward to the sides in a sudden twitch-like motion. Swaddling can help to diminish the Moro reflex which will in turn help the baby remain asleep when the reflex occurs. Swaddling is also helpful to support a newborn’s transition from the womb to the world, as swaddling mimics the feeling of being snug and in a similar position the baby was within the womb. Once babies begin to show signs of rolling at around 8-10 weeks of age, swaddling should be discontinued.
It is recommended to stop swaddling with signs of rolling, or around 8-10 weeks of age. This change can cause some disruption to the baby’s sleep routine because they are not accustomed to having their arms free. The Moro reflex is usually beginning to decrease by the time we stop swaddling, but it may still cause some sleep disruption in babies. To help with this transition, parents can begin swaddling only one arm and leaving the other arm free for several days. This should give the baby time to begin to get used to having their arms free more gradually. Once swaddling is discontinued, it is important to continue following the recommendations for safe sleep. Keep your baby comfortable by using a wearable blanket or sleep sack over their pajamas, and always place your baby on their backs to sleep.