It is hard to know when you should transition a baby from a swaddle with their arms wrapped in, to a sleeping bag with their arms out. Some babies love being wrapped from birth and others seem to hate it. Swaddles and sleeping bags can be a great trigger for babies. When they are tiny, swaddling a baby can help calm them and help them get off to sleep. When they are older, going into a sleeping bag before bed is a wonderful part of the bedtime ritual and helps babies and toddlers understand what is coming next.
When babies are born, they have a very strong startle reflex. This reflex, known as the Moro reflex, lasts until the baby is about 3 to 4 months, though there are some babies who have it for a bit longer. The baby essentially has a feeling of falling, and this causes them to lift and stretch their arms out and may even let out a gasp of air. They look like they are startling.
The Moro reflex is there to protect a newborn in their early stages of development. This reflex is a sort of alarm that is triggered when a baby receives excessive or sudden information via the senses. While some babies will have this response for no apparent reason, it is usually in response to a loud noise or sudden movement, or they have the sensation of falling, which can happen when you put them down to sleep.
I love using a swaddle with a young baby. As well as reducing the effect of their startle, it is also a great way to calm a baby. One major tired sign in babies, is an increase in jerky movements of their limbs. When a baby is tired, they can become very disorganised in their movements. Wrapping can help contain them and which will then help calm them. All this will ultimately help your baby sleep better.
But eventually your baby will be ready to move out of a tight swaddle with their arms wrapped. It is a good idea to do this in phases if you can. There are some great transitional wraps that can with this. I think that once your baby has more control over their hands, that is, when they start grabbing at objects, is a good time to stop the tight wrapping and move them into a swaddle with their arms contained but closer towards their face. This way, your baby will get used to having more movement but it is not such a big step to having their arms completely out. You can keep them in this type of swaddle until your baby starts to move.
Usually between four and six months a baby will start to roll. This starts off fairly slowly with a bit of kicking of their legs to one side and the occasional random roll. They will often start with a roll from their tummy to their back and they can do this for a few weeks before going the other way. Once your baby is purposefully rolling, both ways, is a great time to get the baby out of the swaddle and into the sleeping bag. You want your baby to have their arms free if they start to roll in their bed as it is safer.
Taking a babies arms out can be done gradually, with one arm at a time, or in one go. If you feel your baby is very attached to being wrapped then it might be a good idea to do it gradually. Though that said, most babies will adjust to having their arms out in a couple of days. Their sleep might be affected initially, but try not to introduce too many new settling techniques. A couple of days of helping your baby by patting and soothing should be enough to get their sleeping back on track with them in the sleeping bag.
A baby can then stay in the sleeping bag until they are around three years old. Sleeping bags are a wonderful part of the bedtime ritual and are also a great way to keep your baby warm overnight.
Article by Wattle Health resident expert, Paediatric Nurse, Jo Ryan.