Everything you need to know about keeping your baby safe during sleep when he starts rolling over
If your baby is starting to roll, you’ve probably got lots of questions.
Are you supposed to stop swaddling?
Are certain swaddle transition products safer than others…?
Is your baby safe with his face pressed into the mattress…?
If “back is best,” should you stop your baby from rolling over…?
This guide is going to answer all of your questions.
And unlike the vast majority of others you’re likely to find on the subject, this guide adheres strictly to AAP guidelines. It provides best practices based on scientific evidence, not personal anecdotes or opinions.
Here’s what we’re going to cover…
Table of Contents
- Critical changes to make when your baby shows signs of rolling
- Dropping the swaddle when your baby starts rolling
- Adjusting to the challenges that arise when baby starts rolling over
- Preventing your baby from rolling over in his crib… is it safe?
- Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about safe sleep and babies rolling over
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Critical changes to make when your baby shows signs of rolling
Let’s take a look at how to keep your sleeping baby safe once he starts showing signs of rolling—or turns 2 months old (whichever happens first).
At what age do babies start to roll over?
The AAP tells us that “many babies start working on rolling at around 2 months of age.”
Some babies show signs of rolling even before this, as early as just a few weeks old. It’s hard to imagine a teeny tiny newborn making intentional efforts to roll over, but it happens all the time!
If your 2-month old isn’t rolling yet, don’t be alarmed. The CDC considers rolling from tummy to back to be a 4-month milestone and rolling over in both directions to be a 6-month milestone.
What are the signs of rolling?
This can look different for every baby, so be on the lookout for any type of intentional (non-reflexive) attempts your baby makes to turn onto his side.
Here are a few examples of what it might look like:
- Arching his back and pushing his head back
- Raising his legs in the air and swaying his hips
- Throwing both arms over to one side
- Pushing off a surface with his leg(s)
- Rocking back and forth to his side
If, while your baby is awake, he positions himself to his side, it’s probably a sign of rolling.
Is it safe to swaddle a baby who can roll over?
No, it is NOT safe to swaddle a baby who is rolling over or who is showing signs of rolling over.
Simply put, there is a high risk of death if a swaddled infant rolls onto his belly.
The following is an excerpt from the current 2020 AAP guidelines:
“Parents should stop swaddling as soon as their baby shows any signs of trying to roll over. Many babies start working on rolling at around 2 months of age.”
Babies often roll for the first time when parents least expect it. If this happens when the baby is swaddled, there is a high risk of SIDS/SUID.
Dr. Rachel Moon, the AAP’s chair of the Task Force on SIDS, says:
“Given that we see deaths from babies who are swaddled and end up on their stomachs by 2-2½ months, I get really nervous when babies are swaddled past the age of 8 weeks.”
The AAP is crystal clear that it is not safe to swaddle a baby who can roll over. Since babies are increasingly likely to roll as they approach 2 months old, caregivers are advised to proactively stop swaddling to minimize the risk of SIDS.
What are the safety risks of swaddling a baby who can roll over?
The first risk is suffocation.
When a baby’s arms are inside a swaddle, he may struggle to reposition himself if he’s not getting enough oxygen. This is extremely dangerous if the baby has rolled onto his side or stomach.
The second risk is a reduced hypoxic arousal response.
What the heck does that mean?
In short, it means that the tightness of the swaddle has the effect of dampening the lifesaving mechanism that allows a baby to wake up in the event that he’s having trouble breathing.
Dr. Rachel Moon, the AAP’s chair of the Task Force on SIDS, explains, “That is why parents like swaddling – the baby sleeps longer and doesn’t wake up as easily,” she said.
“But we know that decreased arousal can be a problem and may be one of the main reasons that babies die of SIDS.”
This is why it’s not safe to swaddle a baby who may be likely to roll over.
Are sleep sacks safe for babies who can roll over?
Yes! Sleep sacks are safe for babies who can roll over.
Sleep sacks are wearable blankets for babies and toddlers.
They are the perfect way to keep your baby warm at any age or developmental stage, rolling or not. They’re even great for newborns!
Unlike swaddles, sleep sacks do not compress the body or limit a baby’s range of motion.
The AAP explains:
“…as with regular blanket swaddling, the use of wearable blankets or sleep sacks that compress the arms, chest and body should stop once a baby shows signs of starting to roll over. Sleep sacks that do not swaddle and allow the baby to move freely can be used indefinitely.”
Here are a few recommendations for the best sleep sacks:
- This fleece one that turns your baby into an avocado.
- This cult-favorite all season sleep sack that will fit from 2-24 months!
- This long-sleeved fleece one that’s great to have when your baby is wearing short sleeves.
- This fuzzy “sherpa” one that’s absurdly cozy!
All of these sleep sacks are safe for babies that can roll over. (They’re also safe for babies who haven’t started rolling yet).
Dropping the swaddle when your baby starts rolling
When babies are used to being swaddled, it’s common for them to struggle to fall asleep and stay asleep.
As tempting as it can be for exhausted parents to continue to swaddle past signs of rolling, it isn’t safe.
Lots of popular swaddle transition products aren’t safe either.
Transitioning out of the swaddle
“Transitioning” is only appropriate for babies who
- are less than 8 weeks old; and
- have shown no signs of rolling
If your baby meets the above criteria, here are a few techniques you can try:
- Don’t swaddle for every sleep (i.e. only swaddle at night and use a sleep sack for naps)
- Swaddle with both arms out (only chest compression)
- Swaddle with one arm out
- Use a swaddle transition product (we’ll discuss the safety of those in a moment)
Which swaddle transition products are safe for babies who aren’t rolling yet?
If, on the off chance, you fall into the group of parents who are taking pre-emptive steps to stop swaddling (i.e. before signs of rolling and 2-months of age), you’ve got some options. Here are two:
- Sleep sack with wings – To transition, secure the wings around baby’s mid-section, leaving his arms free.
- Convertible swaddle – Zip off one or both of the wings.
(We’ll cover the unsafe swaddle transition products in a moment).
Dropping the swaddle cold turkey
Typically, parents first start to think about dropping the swaddle AFTER the aforementioned milestones have occurred.
Thus, in most scenarios, it’s necessary to stop swaddling cold turkey without any gradual transition.
Any form of swaddling once a baby can roll presents a high risk of suffocation.
The best thing to do is switch to a sleep sack for warmth, ensuring that (a) there is no compression around baby’s body and (b) that both of baby’s arms can move freely.
Which swaddle transition products are safe for babies who are rolling?
If your baby is older than 2 months and/or is already showing signs of being able to roll over, your options are much more limited.
- The safest option is a regular sleep sack. That said, it isn’t actually a “transition” product.
- This unicorn of a product is your best bet as far as transitioning. It contains baby’s arms but allows them to move freely. It’s also very loose and does not compress baby’s chest.
Note that it still falls into a gray area of safety, so use your best judgement.
* Baby can roll over
* Baby is at least 3 months old
* Baby weighs at least 12 lbs
We were big fans of our Zipadee Zip!
Which swaddle transition products should you skip altogether?
- Nested Bean Zen Sack. Weighted garments may reduce an infant’s ability to wake themselves up or reposition themselves in the event that they’re having trouble breathing. Read this detailed article: Are Nested Bean Sleep Sacks Safe?
- Baby Merlin’s Magic Sleepsuit. There are so many red flags about this (popular) product, it deserves it’s own post. Read that here. In short, the sleepsuit is not safe for babies who can roll over and also poses a risk for overheating.
Adjusting to the challenges that arise when baby starts rolling over
It’s a notoriously difficult adjustment when babies start rolling over, not only because they can’t be swaddled anymore, but because they’re going to want to practice rolling… in the middle of the night… while you’re desperately trying to sleep.
Let’s take a look at how to cope!
What to do if your baby is having trouble sleeping without the swaddle
This adjustment period is going to take a lot of patience. Consistency is the only actual solution to getting your baby to sleep without being swaddled.
In addition to just staying the course, here are a few things you can try to help your baby sleep without the swaddle:
- Use your hands to apply light pressure to the baby’s arms for a few minutes after you put him down.
- Make sure the room is pitch black. Either invest in blackout curtains or tape tin foil to the windows.
- Turn on loud white noise. (My favorite sound machine here and this beloved one here). This is comforting to a baby because it mimics the sound of the womb.
- Always give your baby a chance to settle on his own before picking him up. Often, it only takes a couple of minutes.
- Consider the Zipadee Zip if your baby is able to roll, 12+ pounds, and 3+ months.
It’s going to feel like this phase is lasting forever, but hang in there. Your baby WILL make the adjustment, and it might only take a few nights.
What to do if your baby is rolling over in sleep and waking up crying
When babies are new to rolling, it’s common for them to roll over in their cribs and wake up crying.
The best way to handle this is to start by giving your baby a chance to fall back asleep on his own before picking him up, especially if he’s just fussing or vocalizing.
If whining devolves into a full blown cry and you decide you’re ready to step in, start with the most ‘minimally invasive’ soothing technique, and increase only as needed:
Step 1: Go into baby’s room. Your presence alone might help him calm down.
Step 2: If this doesn’t work, try shushing, singing, or talking to your baby.
Step 3: If that fails, offer him a pacifier. (At this point, you might want to quickly flip him back over).
Step 4: If he’s still crying, try rubbing his belly or stroking his head.
Step 5: If steps 1 through 4 don’t work, pick him up. Try to soothe him without offering the breast or a bottle.
Step 6: If baby is still crying, feed him.
Alternatively, if the baby is older than 4 months and you’ve received pediatrician approval to sleep train, you can repeat your sleep training method of choice each time the baby rolls over and wakes up crying.
Do you need to flip baby onto his back every time he rolls onto his stomach?
It’s not necessary to return your baby to his back when he rolls onto his stomach, even if he’s sleeping face down.
According to the NIH, “When infants roll over on their own, there is no evidence that they need to be repositioned.”
The CPSC concurs:
“Once your baby rolls over onto his or her tummy, it’s okay to leave your baby there. Babies who can flip over can also turn their heads, a key developmental milestone that reduces the risk of suffocation.”
What to do if baby rolls onto his stomach while sleeping but can’t roll back
From a safety perspective, you do not need to flip your baby onto his back each time he rolls.
From a “getting sleep” perspective, though, this is at your discretion. If your baby is too young to self-soothe (less than 4 months old), you may need to return him to his back if he’s crying.
If baby rolls onto his stomach while sleeping but can’t roll back, follow the steps listed above to calm your baby, gradually increasing your soothing efforts, only as needed.
The best way to eliminate this problem altogether is to do lots of tummy time throughout the day to help your baby develop the muscles needed to turn over on both sides.
Here’s our favorite tummy time mat (for awake time only!):
Should you be worried if your baby is sleeping face down?
If you’ve taken the proper safety precautions, you do NOT need to worry if your baby has face planted into the mattress.
Let’s take a look at those precautions:
1) You’re using a regulated crib and crib mattress that meet current safety standards.
Cribs and crib mattresses, which are federally regulated products, undergo rigorous safety testing to ensure that no matter what position a baby takes, he can still breathe.
Note: Memory foam mattresses are NOT standard crib mattresses and are unsafe. They are a serious hazard if your baby is sleeping face down.
2) The crib is free from suffocation and strangulation hazards.
Cribs and mattresses may be safe, but all bets are off if anything is added to the crib besides a fitted sheet (and an optional mattress pad underneath).
It’s never safe to add any sort of padding or blankets to your baby’s crib, but it’s especially dangerous to do so once your baby is able to roll over.
(And no matter what anyone tells you, there’s no such thing as a breathable lovey).
3) Baby isn’t swaddled.
If your baby is sleeping face down, face planted into the mattress, it is CRITICAL that he’s not sleeping in any sort of swaddle, weighted blanket, or ‘magic suit’.
Not only does he need free range of motion of his arms and legs, but he also needs to be able to easily wake from sleep if he’s having trouble breathing.
(As explained earlier, any product that compresses a baby’s chest or arms decreases infant arousal).
4) Baby was placed on his back.
If your baby is sleeping with his face pressed into the mattress, it’s okay to leave him, as long as he got there himself.
Always start your baby off on his back, even if you’re confident that he’ll end up rolling onto his belly.
If you’ve taken the aforementioned precautions, you can relax when your baby is rolling over in sleep with his face down. You don’t need to flip him onto his back and you don’t need to stay awake all night watching him either.
Preventing your baby from rolling over in his crib
If “back is best,” does this mean you need to find a way to keep your baby on his back?
Should you try to keep baby from rolling over?
Good news! You don’t need to prevent baby from rolling over in the crib.
As long as your baby is not swaddled and is sleeping in an empty crib, bassinet, or playard, there is no need to stop baby from rolling over.
Just be sure to always place him on his back for every sleep, even if you know he’s likely to roll onto his belly or side on his own.
Should you buy a “baby anti roll pillow”?
The AAP, FDA, and CPSC have explicitly, in black and white terms, advised against the use of sleep positioners, no matter the type.
Under no conditions should an “infant anti roll pillow” be added to your baby’s sleep space. They are known suffocation hazards, entrapment risks, and are linked to numerous infant deaths.
Here’s a visualization from the FDA of what can go wrong by using an anti roll baby pillow or baby sleep positioner:
Do lots of stores sell baby anti roll pillows? You bet.
Unfortunately, that doesn’t mean they’re safe.
It’s also worth noting that there are no scientifically proven benefits of using a baby anti roll pillow or a sleep positioner.
The bottom line: Are baby anti roll pillows safe? 100% no.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about safe sleep and babies rolling over
Is the Zipadee Zip safe for babies that are rolling over?
The Zipadee Zip is probably safe for babies that are rolling over. Out of all of the swaddle transition products, it’s your safest bet.
The reason we can’t say that it’s “definitely” safe is because of the fact that the Zipadee Zip contains a baby’s arms, which gives it some of the properties of a swaddle.
(And as we’ve discussed at length in this article, swaddling isn’t safe for babies who can roll).
That said, the Zipadee Zip sack is very loose (assuming you’re using the correct size).
Since a baby’s arms are able to move freely and there is zero compression around the chest, most experts agree that the risks of using a Zipadee Zip are low.
It’s also worth noting that it’s ONLY safe to use a Zipadee Zip for babies who ARE rolling. Do not use a Zipadee Zip for a baby who is unable to roll over.
On a personal note, we felt comfortable using a Zipadee Zip for our rolling baby and really liked the product.
What if the Zipadee Zip doesn’t work and baby isn’t sleeping?
While the Zipadee Zip is a great product, its job isn’t to suppress your baby’s startle reflex. (That would make it unsafe for a rolling baby).
The Zipadee Zip only gently contains babies’ arms, which is in stark contrast to the tightness of a swaddle.
(Your baby has probably been used to this tightness his or her entire life, so this is going to take some getting used to).
After stopping swaddling, it’s typical for babies to wake themselves up and have trouble falling asleep, even with a Zipadee Zip.
The trick is to remain consistent and to not expect the Zipadee Zip to work magic overnight (no pun intended). You absolutely have to give it time.
Many babies adjust to sleeping without a swaddle within just a couple of nights, and often, the Zipadee Zip makes this transition easier than a regular sleep sack does.
If the Zipadee Zip isn’t working for you yet, go back and read this earlier section: what to do when your baby is having trouble sleeping without a swaddle.
My baby is rolling over at 2 months old, is this normal and what should I do?
Lots of babies start rolling over at 2 months of age, according to the AAP.
This is precisely why safe sleep experts urge parents to err on the side of caution and stop swaddling by 8 weeks, even if the baby doesn’t know how to roll yet.
If your baby can roll over at 2 months, be sure to stop swaddling entirely.
Unfortunately, there aren’t any swaddle transition products that are safe for a rolling 2-month old baby.
- A 2-month old baby is too young for the Zipadee Zip. (Baby should be at least 3 months old and weigh at least 12 lbs).
- Don’t use Baby Merlin’s Magic Sleepsuit as it’s not safe for babies who can roll over. (It’s also unsafe in general). Read why here.
- Skip the Nested Bean Zen Sack as well. Weighted blankets dampen a baby’s life-saving mechanism of being able to wake easily from sleep if he isn’t getting enough oxygen.
If your baby is rolling over at 2 months old, switch to a regular sleep sack that doesn’t compress the baby’s chest or arms.
Read this related post: Safe Sleep 101
My baby is rolling over at 3 months old, is this typical and what should I do?
It’s absolutely within the range of normal for a 3-month old baby to be rolling over. (Typically, babies are rolling from back to tummy at 3 months, but not from tummy to back yet).
Here’s what the AAP has to say about rolling at 3 months old:
“As her kicks continue to become more forceful, she may soon be able to kick herself over from her tummy to back. While most babies can’t roll from back to tummy yet, some may begin rolling over at this age. Be careful never to leave your baby alone on furniture where they could roll over.”
If you haven’t already stopped swaddling at 2 months (as recommended), be sure to stop now that your baby can roll over.
The safest replacement for a swaddle is a sleep sack.
If your baby is rolling over at 3 months and you think it will be hard to drop the swaddle and go straight to a sleep sack, the best “transition” product is the Zipadee Zip.
While the Zipadee Zip falls into a gray area of safety, it’s a much better bet than other popular swaddle transition products (i.e. Baby Merlin’s Magic Sleepsuit and Nested Bean Zen Sack) which are known to be unsafe.
To safely use the Zipadee Zip, make sure your rolling 3-month old is at least 12 pounds.
Is my baby rolling over too early?
Healthy infants start intentionally rolling as young as just a few weeks old, so your baby is probably not rolling over too early.
If your baby is rolling, it’s time to stop swaddling, even if he hasn’t reached 2 months old yet.
In extremely rare cases, rolling over too early can be an early sign of abnormal reflexes, which is a possible indicator of Cerebral Palsy. But, before you start panicking, keep in mind that normal infants roll at all different ages.
If you have any concerns that your baby is rolling over too early, bring this up with your pediatrician.
Can a baby roll over in a sleep sack or does it prevent rolling?
My baby is rolling over in his swaddle, is this safe?
Is there such a thing as a safe swaddle for a baby who rolls?
Should I stay awake and supervise my baby if he is sleeping face down?
As long as you are taking the 4 precautions listed above, your baby is safe sleeping face down. You don’t need to reposition him or stay awake to supervise.
Final thoughts on keeping your baby safe during sleep once he starts rolling over
This isn’t an easy phase and it’s natural to feel anxious or frustrated, especially when you’re sleep deprived.
What’s most important is listening to the experts and following the evidence to keep your sleeping baby safe.
After reading this post, you now know that:
- Sleep sacks are safe for babies who can roll over, but swaddles of any kind are not.
- It isn’t necessary to prevent baby from rolling over in the crib; it’s much safer for the crib to be bare.
- You shouldn’t use a baby anti roll pillow to keep baby from rolling over.
- You don’t need to stress about baby rolling over in sleep face down, as long as you’ve taken the proper safety precautions.
- If baby is rolling over in sleep and waking up crying, there are a series of steps you can take to soothe him.
- If baby is rolling over early (i.e. before 2 months), you still need to stop swaddling.
- If baby is rolling over at 2 months or baby is rolling over at 3 months, it’s well within the range of normal.
- Regardless of a baby’s age, it is NEVER safe to swaddle an infant that can roll over.
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