In my own brief Facebook survey of why New Zealand parents wear their babies, over 150 said that the main reason was because it was PRACTICAL. My hypothesis is that this is the main reason parents worldwide carry their baby in some kind of device that safely secures them against their body, while leaving their parents hands free! Many of us want to have our baby close to us and know they are safe, but there is sooo much to do as a parent. Babywearing is the answer!
I sometimes tend to think that other cultures carry their babies because they have to. They don’t have prams or strollers or those things are just not practical. They don’t have the option of bottle feeding so they just have to be close to in order to feed them often, needing to ‘wear’ their babies. Lucky babies! In fact many of those ‘other cultures’ have a whole child-rearing philosophy in which ‘wearing’ is an important part. Famous anthropologist Margaret Mead describes the people of Papua New Guinea. “We can only understand the Arapesh, and the warm and maternal temperament of both men and women, if we understand their childhood experience and the experience in which they in turn subject their children.”
“During its first months the child is never far from someone’s arms. When the mother walks about she carries the baby suspended from her forehead in its special small net bag, or suspended under one breast in a bark-cloth sling. This latter method is the beach custom, the net-bag carrier belongs to the Plains, and the mountain women use both, depending in great part upon the health of the child. If the child is fretful and irritable, it is carried in the sling, where it can be given the comforting breast as swiftly as possible. A child’s crying is a tragedy to be avoided at any cost, and this attitude is carried over into later life. The most trying period for the mother is when her child of three or so is too old to be comforted by the breast and too young and inarticulate to state clearly the reasons for its weeping. Children are held a great deal, often in a standing position so that they can push with their feet against the arms or legs of the person who holds them… It is never left alone; comforting human skin and comforting human voices are always beside it. Both little boys and little girls are enthusiastic about babies – there is always someone to hold the child.” (Mead, M and Calas, N. 1953).
With your baby so close you are able to pick up on the sometimes subtle signals that they want to feed or toilet and respond to their need before they get really vocal about it. You may have heard that ‘African babies never cry’, well they do, though not for very long (for the ‘average African baby’). Studies have shown that babies who are carried cry less than babies who are not carried. “…fewer of the carried infants had regular periods of crying at 2 months. It maybe that the carried infants had less need to activate these behaviours than control infants as they were already in close proximity to their mothers.” (Ainsfield, E. et al. 1990).
“Urs Hunziker and Ronald Barr … experimented with different infant carrying schedules to test whether or not carrying could have a proactive effect on crying.” (Small, M. 1998). They recruited a group of parents with newborns. Half were asked to carry their infants for at least 3 hours a day beyond feedings. The other half were told to carry their babies as they normally would. At twelve weeks both groups showed their dairies. The control group carried on average 2.7 hrs/day and the experiment group 4.4 hrs/day. Dairies showed that at the peak crying age of 8 weeks both groups of infants cried with the same frequency, but the group that was carried cried 43% less in duration. Same frequency, duration almost half! Interestingly when the same experiment was conducted with babies who were already a month old and labeled as “colicky”, extra carrying did not seem to make a difference to crying. This may suggest that carrying from birth actually has a preventative effect.
For many parents reduced crying is the number one reason they ‘wear’ their baby. Who wants a crying baby? Of course there are many reasons that babies cry. For mother Sarah Kaganovsky her baby cried, screamed, writhed for a whole year. She saw the doctor often, went to the Emergency Department (ED) demanding that her child be looked at – nothing. The crying continued and Sarah continued to carry her baby constantly as she had been doing from birth. It was the only thing that consoled her. At almost a year old a high fever and cough sent them to the ED where they finally got a diagnosis.
“She was in heart failure. A rare and very serious heart defect had been causing massive heart attacks. Fatality rates were 90% in the first year. The screaming was her suffering from crushing chest pain. In the hallway, the cardiologist turned to me and quietly told me that it was my parenting – the constant carrying – that had allowed her to survive against all odds.” You can read Sarah’s full story here.
Their Innate Expectation is Met
Many people believe that babies have an innate expectation to be carried. The grasp reflex in a newborn baby’s hands and feet is believed to have come from the time in our evolutionary history where a primate baby needed to cling to the hair of his mother in order to not be left behind. The ‘Naked Love Theory’ is an evolutionary theory of how we lost our hair. As we became bi-pedal we lost that grasp reflex in our feet to enable us to walk upright. As a baby lost the ability to sufficiently cling to her mother she needed to be held. This theory suggests that there was a process of natural selection for hairlessness due to the pleasure of skin on skin. This pleasure motivated the mother to carry her baby against her body rather than leave her behind in order to carry more food for the tribe during their migrations. The History page of this blog gives more information on this theory.
A baby’s need to be close to another human being is an instinctual behaviour that contributes to survival. A million years ago a baby needed to work hard to remain the center of his mother’s attention in order to be chosen over food when the need to carry supplies for the tribe was great. This instinct in a baby also comes from the social nature of our species and has not disappeared in the relatively short evolutionary period since hunter gatherer times.
The Known Benefits of Touch
Touch between humans is so essential to our wellbeing. For a newborn baby skin to skin touch, particularly with the mother is incredibly beneficial. Parents often talk of having ‘bonded’ better with their baby through babywearing. Research has shown that both parents and children alike have benefited emotionally and socially from skin to skin contact early in life. “Results suggest that following kangaroo contact early in life, later interactions between mothers and infants as well as between fathers and infants were characterized by higher sensitivity, lower intrusiveness, higher parent–infant reciprocity, and lower infant negative emotionality.” (Feldman, R and Weller, A et al). Although this study looks at families with pre-term babies the findings would relate to all babies. Research has mostly been done with pre-term infants around the practice ofKangaroo Care. Kangaroo Care was developed by Dr. Edgar Rey Sanabria in Bogota, Columbia as a way to combat the high mortality rates in newborn, premature babies. It freed up caregivers and incubator space and decreased the rates of abandonment by mothers. Mothers have continuous skin to skin contact with their low weight babies, providing warmth and access to exclusive breastfeeding. Studies have shown that a mothers temperature will change in order to regulate the baby’s temperature. For example if the babies temperature was a bit low the mothers temperature would increase to lift that of her baby who is being held skin to skin. A baby can also easily indicate, even make an effort to get them self to a near by breast. This increases the frequency of breastfeeding providing the low weight baby with the extra colostrum he needs for protection against illness and greater nutrition.
Supports the Immature Digestive System
Babies are born with an immature digestive system. Even a full term baby is born ‘prematurely’ in evolutionary terms. Due to the increased size of the human brain babies gestation time had to decrease or the head would become too big to fit through the birth canal. Our ancient ancestors, apes were born with the ability to walk and cling to their parents. Many people believe human babies need to be supported in a womb-like state for another 9 months after birth in order to system all their immature systems, physical mobility, communication, digestion etc.
The immature digestive system includes lower enzyme levels, the stomach adjusting to it’s role of digestion, weak valves in the esophagus, naturally occurring gases during digestion getting stuck, intolerance’s etc. For some babies it’s just about not coping with Mum’s abundant amount of foremilk! Burping your baby is highly recommended in helping them to release the gaseous pockets as is stomach massage and keeping them upright to support the esophageal valve to work at keeping milk down.
Babywearing provides for many of the recommendations for supporting your baby’s immature digestive system. Wearing your baby in an upright position as we recommend uses gravity to help the esophageal valve work in the right direction, keeping the milk in the stomach. An inward facing baby, also what we recommend, gets a wee bit of a tummy massage and the straddle squat position with the knees pulled up is a position we naturally go into when we have a sore stomach. Wearing your baby helps them to develop strength in their upper back and neck more-so than if they were lying down. This strength will also support the valves in the digestive system.
Correct positioning supports correct physical development
Until very recently and even today you’ll hear that ‘Babywearing should mimic how you carry your baby in your arms’. What this doesn’t explain is that we can not maintain some carrying positions with our arms alone for any length of time. For example I would carry my baby facing out with one arm over his shoulder, down his stomach and my hand would support his crotch, but I couldn’t maintain that position for long. So I would wrap one arm around his chest and use the other to support his thighs, still facing out. Even then I wouldn’t last for long and have to turn him into me propping him on one shoulder with one arm under his bottom and thighs. Here I could swap arms and maintain this position for some time. I could cradle him in my arms for quite sometime when he was small but would adjust him often as his weight put pressure on my arm. Unlike in a cradle carry in a sling he could pull his legs up and out and my arm supported the length of his spine without squashing him into me or having him sag into a chin down position.
It’s for these reasons that I recommend, along with Dr Evelin Kirkilionis and other experienced babywearers, an upright, inward facing position that supports a baby’s legs in the straddle squat position. There are so many benefits to this position. An upright baby who is firm against their carer can not slump into the dangerous chin down position. They have the benefit of gravity to help their immature digestive systems move food in the correct direction. The acupressure points in the tummy and lower inside of the thighs and are massaged when the baby is held with their tummy against the wearer and with their legs in a straddle squat type position. These acupressure points support good digestion and sleep. (Bonnet, Dr E. 1998).
In the ideal straddle squat position the head of the baby’s femur is orientated correctly to the socket of the pelvis. This allows the cartilage type bone to calcify to solid bone and the ligaments and tendons around it to strengthen in the correct position for strong, healthy hips. You can read more about this in the safety section and on the International Hip Dysplasia Institutes website.
The upright, inward facing position puts your baby close to the height of your own face. Here they experience more equality. They can hear, see and interact more with the adult carrying them. The close bodily contact that babywearing allows has been shown to stimulate the brain, regular heart rate and breathing as well as providing the security that a baby experiences when close to their caregiver.
The rhythmic movement of someone moving is quite different to the movement of a pram or vehicle. Baby’s are more innately tuned into the movement of a human, having been inside their mother for 9 months. Rhythmical movement helps a baby to relax and fall asleep easily.
Still to come:
Final words on the importance of attachment and bonding
Ainsfield, E., Casper, V., Nozyce, M., & Cunningham, N. 1990. Does Infant Carrying Promote Attachment? An Experimental Study of the Effects of Increased Physical Contact on the Development of Attachment. In CHILD DEVELOPMENT, 1990, 61, 1617-1627.
Bonnet, Dr. E. (1998). (specialist in paediatrics, youth medicine, environmental medicine and sports medicine). Krankengymnastik 50 Jg No.8.http://www.didymos.de/en/DIDYMagazine/Opinions-and-Photos/Experts-Opinions/Studies-Opinions-and-scientific-papers-Dr-E-Bonnet/
Feldman, R., Weller, A., Sirota, L and Eidelman, A. (2003). Testing a Family Intervention Hypothesis: The Contribution of Mother–Infant Skin-to-Skin Contact (Kangaroo Care) to Family Interaction, Proximity, and Touch. In Journal of Family Psychology. 2003, Vol 17, No.1, 94-107.
Mead, Margaret and Calas, Nicolas. (1953). Primitive Heritage: An Antropological Anthology. Random House. New York.
Small, Meredith F. (1998). Our Babies, Ourselves. How Biology and Culture Shape the Way We Parent. Anchor Books.