Would you know if it was time to transition your baby from swaddle to arms free? Knowing when to unswaddle and why it’s necessary for your baby to no longer sleep swaddled is important.
Unswaddling may be met with a bit of apprehension, especially if your baby is used to being swaddled and is currently sleeping really well…. If you’ve been onto a good thing it can feel risky to mess with your baby’s sleep but unswaddling is a necessary step for safety reasons as we approach new developmental milestones.
This blog will teach you how to unswaddle your baby in a way that makes you feel more in control of the transition (well as much as we can control a little baby). I assure you that your baby is a quick learner and before you know it, having your baby unswaddled will feel normal for you and your little one.
When is the best time to transition from swaddle (arms in) to an arms-free sleeping bag?
Between 4-6 months is the optimal time to unswaddle, but it’s important to know you MUST make the transition as soon as your little one rolls from BACK to TUMMY (even if this means between 3-4 months) hello keen roller.
With a roller on your hands, it’s now a safety concern to stay swaddled. The reason for this is should your little one roll onto their tummy, they will need access to their hands to push up and clear their airways/move into a safer position. This can often coincide with new development and the first sleep regression – hello 4 month sleep regression (we have a helpful blog for the 4 month sleep regression too). Read it here
It should also be noted that regardless of rolling, we need to unswaddle no later than 6 months of age.
Unswaddling is key to our little one’s having access to their hands so they can learn the process of self-soothing. (Something that can be achieved with gentle guidance and supported from around 4-6 months of age).
They will begin to use their hands to self-soothe by playing with their hair/touching their face, picking up a comforter or to eventually learn to find and replace their dummy independently.
So how do you teach your baby to sleep unswaddled?
Here are two options that can work for you and your little one.
Cold Turkey means you simply stop using your current swaddle and move straight to an arms free sleeping bag. My personal favourite is Ergopouch. They come in a variety of TOG ratings depending on your current room season. I recommend a minimum of 2.5 TOG for most of the year around.
To implement the “cold turkey” method, begin with bedtime/overnight and roll the method into your baby’s naps the next day. This works best when bub is already rolling (and you are short on time to make the transition for safety reasons) or closer to 5/6 months of age (when they need to transition shortly after).
I always recommend starting this process at bedtime. This works with our body’s strongest physiological drive of melatonin which is from 6:00pm to midnight making sleep easier to achieve with longer and deeper stretches of sleep.
Expert Tip: At this time, I also recommend transitioning from bassinet to cot (if you haven’t already). It’s important for babies to have extra room to move and settle without banging into the sides. You can continue to room share as desired noting that Red Nose Guidelines recommend room sharing for the reduction of SIDS to between 6-12 months.
Slow and Steady
The Slow and Steady approach focuses on going arms free one arm at a time and allows you to transition gradually over a short period of time. This being said, it’s recommended the transition be completed within 5-7 days regardless of using the Cold Turkey Method or Slow and Steady approach as otherwise you can just be delaying the inevitable few days of unsettledness.
How does the Slow and Steady unswaddling approach work?
Like the Cold Turkey approach, you begin the process at bedtime but leave only one arm out. After a feed during the night you can swap arms or if they are particularly unsettled you can pop both arms back in for the remainder of the night and try again the following night for a little longer.
On day 2 stick with one arm out for nap 1 and for nap 2 swap to the other arm. This gives your little one an opportunity to become familiar with having one arm out at a time without favouring one arm. This process takes a little longer but is a great method for babies who are continuing to startle with their moro reflex and need a slower approach to learn to relax through the motions of their parasympathetic nervous system.
You can continue this process until both arms are out overnight, then both arms out for all naps over the 5-7 day timeframe. If you are still having troubles after 7 days, use the Cold Turkey method regardless of where you are at as you are often prolonging the inevitable (speaking from personal experience with my first daughter, I think it took two weeks and I still wasn’t “happy” with the transition!)
Expert Tip: If your little one is used to sucking on the material of the swaddle, use the hand cover from their onesie for a few days to cover their little hand. This means they will have the comfort of material as they get used to the extra arm freedom.
If you don’t already have one, you might want to take a look at purchasing a transitional swaddle. There are a number of transitional swaddles available on the market and brands like Ergopouch have swaddles with arm-poppers so that you can convert to arms-free without needing to purchase a new sleeping bag. Love to Dream also have a transitional swaddle allowing you to take off one “wing” at a time.
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What can you expect during the unswaddling transition?
Always expect 3-5 days of extra unsettledness as your baby’s little body learns to relax through their parasympathetic nervous system. (It can be a little overwhelming for babies when they first experience their limbs moving around unexpectedly). This reflex will naturally integrate and relax around 4-5 months of age, so although your little one may startle from time to time, they will learn to relax through this motion.
You can absolutely offer a little extra hands-on assistance as needed during this transition time. Even if your little one was previously self-settling, they may be extra unsettled or even playful initially when they go into the cot and then become frustrated/overtired from the excitement.
If this happens, hang in there! Don’t rush or be tempted to “speed up” the process by overplaying the role of settling and taking over with extra external assistance as this can make the process harder/longer in duration.
That’s a wrap on unswaddling your baby and I hope you feel informed and educated on the how, when and why we need to transition from swaddle to arms-free.
Need to learn more about age-appropriate awake times? Download my comprehensive Nap Routine Guide with 35 pages ranging from 6 weeks through to 4 years providing individual, monthly summaries of sleep requirements and two different nap patterns to find the right approach for your individual baby and what works best for your family.