Sometimes you hear some interesting comments about why babywearing isn’t good for you or your baby and for me they just don’t make sense. So I’m keen to explore a few of them.
Babywearing inhibits free movement
The Free Movement for Babies idea comes from the Pikler Institute and it’s a good one! Babies need to be free to move on their own at their developmental level. A newborn baby can’t even hold its own head up. They need support. Ideally that support comes from their caregiver, not a cot or a carseat or a pram. When we have a baby we feel like we need another set of arms and that’s exactly what a baby carrier provides.
Babywearing parents are encouraged to wear their baby in the same way they might hold them. Though it’s important to note that arms are a lot different from a carrier. We will naturally change the way we hold our baby as our arms get tired but a carrier doesn’t do that. It’s best to look at what the most natural position is for a newborn baby. A baby’s physical body is so underdeveloped they really should have had a bit more time in the womb in comparison to other mammals, but we know that’s impossible. The best we can do is provide a womb-like environment. Upright, chest-to-chest with their parent, with legs curled up in the froggie, M or straddle squat position. This provides for the correct positioning of the ball of the femur (thigh) into the socket of the hip. It allows the natural C shape of the spine, as it is when baby is born. It takes necessary growth and time to develop the S shape of the mature human spine. We don’t want to rush that. An upright position supports the baby’s immature digestive system and allows for the straddle squat position.
But wait a minute the baby is not ‘free to move’ when strapped to their caregiver! A baby in a carrier is still able to move, not ‘freely’ no, but a baby of this age struggles to control their immature nervous system. They often startle themselves awake and flail when laid down. Babies need to be helped to toilet or have their nappy changed, they are normally taken out of the carrier to feed particularly when they’re very young and they normally sleep lying down at night. Even if a baby is worn in a carrier all other times they will still have plenty of opportunity for all the ‘free movement’ a newborn could want, because what a newborn baby really wants is to be held. In the majority of cases
So how do they learn to roll, crawl and walk? Like I said most babies are not worn 24/7 in the West. However in Bali a baby is not put down for the first 6 months of their life. They even sleep on an adult at night. Margaret Mead the famous anthropologist did a lot of observation and writing on how the Balinese raise their children. She did not observe any resentment on the baby’s part from being held. She observed content and happy babies who were treated with the utmost respect by their caregivers. She also did not observe Balinese babies being slow to development movement skills.
The premise of Emmi Pilker’s free movement is to allow babies to move by themselves without the assistance of their parent. Allowing a newborn baby to root around to find the breast and latch on soon after birth, because a full term, non-drugged, healthy, newborn baby has this skill. A baby will roll from their back to their front when they are ready. The idea of tummy time is to strengthen their necks. A baby’s neck will grow strong if they are held in an upright position with head supported. When they are given time on their backs they will roll when they are ready.
From this point I mostly agree with the free movement premise. This doesn’t mean don’t carrying your baby. A baby can not be free to move of their own accord all day as their movement is limited and they are working incredibly hard to continue their development. They’d be exhausted and distressed if left to move freely for too long. Car seats, prams, hammocks, bouncers all position babies in a certain way – often a less than ideal one! When baby has had the amount of time they need (for their developmental stage) to ‘move freely’ they are best supported and happiest strapped to a parent or caregiver.
How do other mammals ‘learn’ to walk only hours after being born when they haven’t had a chance to ‘practice’ or ‘move freely’? The answer is that they know how to walk when they’re born, they just need to gain the strength to do it. Humans are no different, we just take a lot longer to gain the strength. ‘Best practice’ babywearing actually supports the correct development of the strength babies need. With legs, hips and spine well supported gentle bouncing in a carrier that comes naturally from movement by the ‘wearer’ helps to strengthen muscles supporting these joints. The upright position with head well supported still encourages neck strengthening through a baby’s want to look up at their parent and again the gentle movement they experience.
Emmi Pikler’s Key Principle No. 5 states, “Take a look at all the ‘parent bling-bling’ on the market today which restricts a baby’s movement. Prams; walkers; high-chairs; swings; baby propping apparatus; baby hammocks; ‘safety’ sleeping equipment and car seats are commonly used items. Whilst some of these have valid uses (e.g Car Seat whilst travelling in a car) many are used for extended periods of time allowing a baby no freedom of movement. These items are usually more about convenience for the parent – and not about what is good for a baby’s development.” http://www.parentingworx.co.nz/fantastic-reading/emmi-piklers-8-guiding-principles/
While noting that she doesn’t mention baby carriers (perhaps they weren’t common then), she uses the phrase ‘extended periods.’ It is still my firm belief that a baby (up to the age of 9 months at least) needs to be held for ‘extended periods’. It is important for their emotional, psychological and intellectual development to be touched, held and to feel secure.
Babywearing in a way that supports correct development of baby’s joints along with the practice of ‘never putting a baby in a position they can not get into by themselves,’ (such as on their tummy before the can roll, held in standing before they can stand unassisted etc) makes for good balance in supporting the physical development of your baby. There will be necessary variation between families in the amount of time a baby is carried or worn and variation in the what is considered ‘extended periods’. It’s about what works best for a family. Babywearing definitely makes holding a baby a lot easier and more practical.