Tips For Transitioning From Sleeping In Baby Gear To Sleeping Flat

Once parents learn that sleeping in Baby Holding Devices isn't safe or healthy for infant development, their next question often is "How do I transition my baby to sleeping flat on his back?" 

Learn more about what constitutes a "Baby Holding Device".
Learn what real moms wish they'd known about the risks of letting baby sleep in a Rock 'n Play.

Many parents feel that their babies don't sleep as well flat on their backs on a firm sleep surface, so the transition from sleeping in baby gear to flat on the back can be a daunting one! It's important to keep in mind that even if the transition is challenging or inconvenient in the short-term, it's one of many (endless) less than easy and convenient choices you'll have to make as a parent for the health and safety of your child. Babies sure don't allow you to ease into this parenting thing, do they?!

How to ditch the baby gear for healthy safe sleep. CanDo Kiddo

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The Startle Reflex and Swaddling

Babies come pre-wired with some very useful protective reflexes that will integrate or fade in their early months. One of the most obvious is the Moro Reflex (often called the Startle Reflex). This is the reflex that causes baby's arms to suddenly jerk wide and then come back to the body and it's responsible for startling many a sleeping baby awake. Most parents see this reflex MORE when baby is laid flat on the back to sleep that when placed semi-reclined in a soft, supportive piece of baby gear. 

One (usually) easy solution is to swaddle your baby. Research shows that swaddling babies improves their tolerance for the supine or on the back sleep position.

Swaddling Tips & Tricks

Swaddling is a key tool for helping baby sleep soundly on a firm flat surface. CanDo Kiddo.
  • Use a Velcro swaddle sack to make swaddling easier. I've never been a great swaddler with a blanket so we used the Aden + Anais Easy Swaddles which worked great but made for challenging diaper changes. For baby #2, I plan to use Halo Sleep Sack Swaddles and Summer Infant SwaddleMe Wraps {affiliates}, both of which I've heard fellow parents and professionals rave about and have features that make diaper changes easier.
  • Baby's arms don't need to be straight by his sides when swaddled. It's widely understood that infants suck and mouth their hands as a way of self-soothing. Especially if your little one seems to resist being swaddled, you might try swaddling your baby with elbows bent and hands up near the face to allow him access to mouth his hands. Just be sure the swaddle wraps snuggly over baby's shoulders to prevent "Houdini Hands" from breaking free of the swaddle. We did this with our son and could hear him happily sucking his hands throughout the night (you know, when he wasn't squawking for another meal).
  • Swaddle safely: Make sure that whatever blanket or suit you use to swaddle allows your kiddo's hips to bend and legs to fall open. This positioning supports healthy hip development. Also, swaddle snuggly but not so tight that it limits your baby's ability to expand her ribcage for healthy breathing. Make sure all fabric is secured away from your baby's face.
  • When to quit: Stop swaddling when your baby can roll back to side or back to belly. One tip for transitioning away from the swaddle is to try swaddling your baby under the armpits so his arms are free but he still feels some comfy pressure around his torso. After a few days or weeks, try switching to a sleep sack or going "cold turkey".

Making A Gradual Transition To Sleeping Flat

Sometimes swaddling isn't enough for a baby who's used to sleeping semi-reclined and supported in baby gear. I'll share a few tips and tricks I recommend to parents, but first I'll share my disclaimer...

These recommendations are intended for use when baby is asleep within your sight. They do not follow SIDS safe sleep guidelines and are not intended for unsupervised sleeping. Please use these techniques only for supervised napping and/or for helping baby fall asleep in your presence.  Any props should be removed from baby's sleep area for unsupervised napping or for nighttime sleep.  These techniques are intended as very short-term solutions for helping your baby make the transition from sleeping semi-reclined in baby gear to flat sleep on the back. Supervising your baby for naps or watching him fall asleep is not a long term solution, so be prepared to only use these props for a few days or weeks.

Tips for transitioning baby from sleeping in baby gear to sleeping flat on the back. CanDo Kiddo

If you're a little concerned about my baby's complexion in these photos, rest assured it's just a baby doll. My infant photo model still has about 5 more months of gestation before being able to help Mommy out with blog photos. 

Elevate the legs

One of the big changes of sensation your baby will feel when transitioning to a flat sleep environment is the stretching out of his hips and back from the curved fetal position. You can help ease him into a flat sleeping position by letting him fall asleep with legs slightly elevated, which will feel more familiar to him. Simply roll a small blanket or towel and place it under the backs of his knees (as shown in the first of 3 photos above). Once baby is snoozing, gently and slowly remove the roll and ease his legs down to the mattress. If this technique works for your little one, gradually reduce the size of the roll every day or two until he's weaned from this prop.


Another trick for helping baby fall asleep on a flat mattress is to let him lay on his side or slightly propped to one side at about a 45 degree angle with a towel or blanket roll behind his back (the second of 3 photos above). Again, remember that this is only for supervised napping or for falling asleep in your presence. Once baby is snoozing soundly (or when you have to stop supervising), slowly and gently ease baby onto his back. Seriously, move slower than you thought you ever could - rolling side to back might take you 30 painstaking seconds to avoid waking or startling baby. Realistic solution for the long-term? No. But it just might help you get through those first days or weeks of transitioning to baby falling asleep flat. 


You can also use stuffed animals, 1 lb. bags of dried rice or beans, or towel or blanket rolls on both sides of baby's body to create a snuggled sensation (third of 3 photos above). Just slowly and gently roll them away and remove them from baby's sleep environment when he's soundly snoozing (or when you have to stop supervising). If this technique works for your little one, gradually move the rolls away every day or two so that they offer less pressure until your baby is weaned from these props.

Why I Don't Often Recommend Elevating the Head of Baby's Mattress

Many parents try elevating the head of baby's mattress and then gradually reducing the incline. This isn't usually one of my recommendations for several reasons:

  • Typically it isn't the incline as much as the body positioning in a flexed and snuggled position that makes it easier for many babies to sleep in baby gear than flat. Often, this makes this the least effective technique.
  • Babies have a tendency to slide or roll into a crumpled little heap at the foot of an inclined mattress - not safe. I saw this first-hand with my little one when he had a terrible head cold in his first months of life and we followed our pediatrician's recommendation to raise the head of the mattress slightly. 

The #1 Tip For Helping Baby Sleep On A Flat Surface...

Introduce the flat sleep surface from day one. If your baby is several weeks or months old, you can skip this section (but be sure to start the transition to a flat sleep surface today). I include it not to make you feel guilty (and if you do suffer from parenting guilt, read this) but to help those readers who are pregnant or expecting to become parents in the future. 

Allowing your newborn to develop the habit of napping and/or sleeping overnight in Baby Holding Devices sets the stage for a tricky (and inevitable) transition to a flat sleep surface down the road. Often that transition comes only after parents learn of the potential negative impacts on infant safety, health and development of infants sleeping in baby gear.  Or worse, only after their baby is experiencing those negative impacts. 

I often hear (exhausted) new parents remark that their baby only sleeps a few hours at a time when placed flat on the back to sleep. In the newborn phase, I hate to say it....but this is NORMAL. Sure, some exceptional sleepers will start to knock out 4 and 5 hour stretches in the first weeks, but most don't. Newborns aren't easy, convenient or empathetic. So while the long nights may have you scrambling for the nearest piece of baby gear that might buy you a few hours of much-needed shut-eye, remember that your first job as a parent is to keep your little one healthy and safe...even when it isn't the easiest choice.

What worked for you & your kiddo?

If you've succeeded in transitioning your little one from sleeping in Baby Holding Devices to sleeping flat, share with other parents what worked for your family in the comments below!

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