Ask Dr. Sears: Alternatives to Baby Swaddling

Q. I have a 3-month-old who is very fitful when we put her down to sleep. We’ve tried swaddling, which helps to calm her, but she doesn’t seem to like being bound so tightly. How can I teach her to fall asleep without swaddling?

A. Swaddling is one of the oldest baby-calming techniques, perhaps because it reminds infants of being in the womb. But there are two problems with the “sleep tight” method. First, many babies who initially enjoy being wrapped burrito-style, later prefer to stretch (and therein strengthen muscle movements)—usually at about 3 months of age. Secondly, while swaddling is fine to settle a baby, I strongly discourage leaving babies swaddled throughout the night. Swaddling babies too often and for too long can interfere with the normal development of the ball-and-socket joint in the hip (infant hip dislocation is common in cultures that use long-term swaddling). Here are some ways to help your baby fall asleep without wrapping her up:

Get behind the eyes of your baby

Imagine if you were your daughter. How would you like to fall asleep? Would you be happy lying awake in a dark, quiet room, behind bars and expected to fall asleep alone? Or would you like to be cuddled to sleep in the arms of caregivers you trust? The preferred choice is obvious.

Create a variety of bedtime rituals

Try building sleep associations in your daughter’s mind: Implement a bedtime ritual that includes rocking, a familiar song, or a warm bath, for example and she’ll learn to associate these experiences with sleep. Whenever you begin this routine, she’ll know sleep is expected to follow. To avoid falling into the “she’ll only go to sleep if I nurse her” trap, be sure to create a variety of sleep associations. It’s also important that both mom and dad put baby to sleep, so she gets used to each parent’s approach to the bedtime routine.

Wear baby down

The Sears family has a favorite sleep-inducer we call “wearing down.” After your baby is fed and ready for bed, place her in a sling carrier and wear her around the house. Once she’s fully asleep, ease her out of the sling into her crib. This strategy is particularly helpful for a reluctant napper or bedtime-fighter. I still have fond memories of walking with our babies around the house, or the neighborhood, while my wife, Martha, took a rest. It’s just as important for fathers to use this technique as it is for moms.

Try motion for sleep

Babies often settle to a steady rocking motion—whether it’s in a rocking chair snuggled against your chest, or swaying in your arms or being gently rocked back and forth in a cradle. If none of these works, place your daughter in her carseat and drive around until she drifts off. Once she’s in a deep sleep, return home and ease her out of the carseat into her bed. I’ve dubbed this technique “freeway fathering” and suggest using it only as a last resort.

Try sounds to sleep by

Make a CD or tape of your baby’s favorite tunes or of you singing lullabies to her. Play these songs only at bedtime so she learns to associate them with sleep.

Beware of baby trainers

Babies need to be parented to sleep, not just put to sleep. Avoid any type of rigid “let her cry it out” sleep training. If practiced too young and too rigidly, this method can lead to sleep anxiety: A baby learns to fear going to sleep and staying asleep. Your goal is not just to get your baby off to sleep (although some nights you’ll be so exhausted, you’ll try anything!)—it’s to create a healthy sleep attitude. You want your daughter to experience sleep as a pleasant state to enter and a safe state to remain in.

For more time-tested sleep tips, take a look at my latest book, The Baby Sleep Book.