How to cope with the startle reflex and the swaddle transition

By Lourdes Villarreal, Baby Loves Sleep

Do you have a little one who is going through that 'startle reflex' stage?

You know, that all too familiar story where your baby has fallen asleep in your arms. Then you carefully lean over the cot and lower them down and as soon as you move away — boom they’re awake and screaming hysterically as if you’re tossing them down a mine shaft.

Or worse, you actually manage to settle them to sleep and they're completely still and before you know it, startle reflex sets in..... all of a sudden, they twitch or jerk and flail their arms about. Boom, they're awake.

For many babies, this scenario happens constantly and creates a cycle of poor sleeping patterns that only leads to frustrated and desperate parents.

Babies while asleep are in a state of dream sleep (REM). Your baby's eyes dart back and forth under their eyelids, while the rest of their body is very still. They will have the occasional twitch and may do little jerks in their sleep known as the startle reflex or 'moro' reflex.

The startle reflex is one of many reflexes that babies are born with. It is an automatic reaction to a loud noise, or the sensation of falling and causes the baby to be startled and flail their arms. So if that baby is falling asleep and suddenly has a startle reflex, it will go from relaxed to hysterical in 0.6 seconds and when their arms move about, they no longer feel the safe environment of the womb - which was once the edges of their little world.

The good news is that the startle reflex usually disappears after around 3 or 4 months, but this may be later for some babies. This is why we are encouraged to swaddle babies from birth until the startle reflex has disappeared.

However for some babies, the enjoyment and security of being swaddled is preferred long after the startle reflex has disappeared but unfortunately, swaddling no longer keeps them satisfied. Babies grow stronger and have developed 'Houdini' skills mastering the art of escaping the swaddle, or worse have started rolling over while swaddled which poses a safety risk, and some simply don’t cope well unswaddled.

Here are a few things you can do to help:

1. When you descend your sleeping baby into its cot or bassinet, keep them as close to your body as possible for as long as possible. Hug your baby while you gradually bend over and contort yourself into a position that’s graced the cover of several chicky magazines. Then place your baby on the mattress holding them close to your chest for a few seconds before relinquishing contact with your body. Once a slumbering baby feels a mattress on their back, they usually feel secure enough not to flail. I know it’ll feel like you’re putting a container of nitroglycerine to bed, but it works.

2. Swaddle wrap your baby tightly to give them a sense of comfort and security. If you’ve ever had an herbal wrap at a spa, you know exactly what I mean. However, be careful not to wrap too tightly to avoid risk of hip dysplasia and shoulder joint displacement.

3. Lie down on the floor and feed your baby to sleep. Okay, you’re desperate. You haven’t slept in days. You’re convinced that your kid is implanted with a high-tech, sci-fi sensor that reacts every time you lower them down. Give yourself a break and lie down on the floor, feed your baby to sleep, then leave (or fall asleep yourself). No flailing necessary.

4. Try using a transitional swaddle suit such as the SLEEPY HUGS sleep suit, a patent pending mum designed sleep suit that is designed to help babies transition easily from the swaddle wrap, to cope better with the 'startle reflex', allowing your baby to move their arms freely while still providing that enclosed, secure feeling.

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Note: The views and advice expressed on this blog post are those of the author and are not representative of the Pregnancy Babies & Children's Expo.

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