For hundreds of thousands of years, humans have been trying to figure out ways to avoid carrying their infants so that they could drink Frappucinos and update their Facebook status on their phones. Ancestral Inuit mothers had sled dog strollers placed on top of skis. Native Australians kept several varieties of marsupials megafauna as pets and infant caretakers, using their pouches to store up to a half dozen human infants at once. I’m kidding, of course. Just as all members of the family hominidae are and were ardent co-sleepers, apes, humans, and (most likely) all extinct hominids carried or even wore their infants on their bodies as a general rule. And so, for most of human history, our infants have been swaddled, slung, carried, grasped, hugged, and otherwise attached to our bodies for a significant portion of their early development. Like other environmental inputs to which our ancestors were routinely and consistently exposed, there’s plenty of evidence that carrying your baby confers beneficial physiological and psychological effects – to both child and parent.
What are they?
Well, there’s one benefit that’s immediate and obvious to anyone, even those without kids. Parents, ever notice how your babies, who’re liable to erupt into tears when placed in the stroller, in the crib, or in the car seat, clam up when you decide to carry them? Non-parents, ever notice how those screaming hellions who annoy you in public places become pacified mutes once their caregiver picks them up, quiet and sweet enough that you can even imagine having one someday? Exactly. The kid stops crying, or maybe never even starts.
The idea behind babywearing/babyholding/kangaroo care/attachment parenting/whatever you want to call it is that since infants are helpless sacks of fleshy potential, we should provide all the support and reassurance they need to graduate to independent, intelligent, thinking, learning, growing, maturing kids and, eventually, adults. We want them to realize that potential, and it just might be that being what some might characterize as “overly nurturing” is the best way to do it. What does the research say about maintaining close physical contact with your baby?
Easier breastfeeding. Babywearing increases the mother’s ability to breastfeed, just like co-sleeping increases it, simply because of proximity. When you’ve got a hungry little fella within striking distance of the “bottle” at all times, it’s hard not to do it more often. You all know how important breastmilk is to a baby. Babywearing streamlines the logistics of breastfeeding, oftentimes allowing the mother to nurse hands-free.
Promotes exclusive breastfeeding. One randomized controlled trial found that early skin-t0-skin contact “significantly enhanced the success of first breastfeed and continuation of exclusive breastfeeding.”
Not breastfeeding? Having your baby attached to you, rather than laid out on a mat somewhere, allows you to bottle feed and still reap the benefits of being physically close to your child. The composition of the breastmilk is a huge benefit to breastfeeding, but I’d argue that the mutual touch is equally important.
Increased socialization. I told myself I wouldn’t talk about children in terms of dog training, but it just works so well in this case. Children need to be socialized. They’re going to be a part of this world, this society, this community, and wearing or carrying them around as you go about your day, interacting with people, and doing “adult” things as often as you can will introduce them to that world in a safe way. You’re not keeping them cloistered in a pen for years interspersed with brief moments of engagement with the world (playdates, playgrounds, car rides, shopping trips, etc.). You’re letting them see the world through your eyes on a constant, daily basis. Because with all else being equal they’ll have more exposure to communicating adults, carried/worn babies will likely learn speech and facial expressions more quickly (that’s how babies learn language, after all).
Improved development of the vestibular system. No, the vestibular system is not a collection of hospitable planets that the colonial fleet from Battlestar Galactica used to hide from the Cylons. It’s the brain system that detects motion and controls balance, and it’s one of the earliest brain systems to develop (ten-week old fetuses already have working vestibular systems). When a baby is worn or carried on the body, rather than lying in a stroller staring at the sky, the inside of the stroller, or a baby iPhone, the baby is privy to the constant motion of an ambulating adult. The worn baby is moving as you move. To the baby, what you’re doing – walking on two feet without tripping over them or teetering over to either side – is amazing, it’s unheard of. And it will help the baby develop balance, motor skills, and general movement ability.
Improved ergonomics. I cringe every time I see a mom or dad carting around those removable car seats. Imagine lugging around an oversized kettlebell where ever you go and you’ll get the idea. You might get stronger, but the added, unceasing, ever-increasing weight, plus the awkwardness of the size and shape of the seat which forces you to hold it away from your body and thereby increase the lever arm, can put your musculoskeletal system at risk. Factor in the sleep deprivation-induced poor posture (PDF) common in parents of youngsters and you have a potent recipe for body pain.
Less crying. Picking up a crying child doesn’t just halt the crying right there and then. Done habitually, carrying or babywearing can also reduce crying in general. Babies who are held for at least a few hours a day are less likely to cry at night.
Reduces the risk of postpartum anxiety disorder. Physical contact with the infant increases (and decreases, when appropriate) a number of physiological markers, including oxytocin, and reduces the maternal anxiety thought to be a risk factor for postpartum depression.
Improved attachment. It ain’t called “attachment parenting” for nothing. Being physically attached to your kid, through wearing or carrying, increases the bond between parents and child. You really can’t separate the two. Physical attachment breeds psychological attachment. If you maintain physical contact with your baby as much as possible, you’ll have a stronger, more lasting bond with that child, that teen, that adult. Even the first few moments of a child’s life are crucial. Immediate post-birth skin-to-skin contact between mother and naked child had a positive influence on mother-child interactions one year later. The same benefits were not observed when the infants were dressed/swaddled before being handed over to the mom after being born.
Oxytocin release. Oxytocin has been called many things, but it’s most famous as a promoter of bonds between people (and animals). Pleasing, welcome touch – like the caress of a lover or the skin-to-skin contact of a babywearing mother-infant duo – causes oxytocin secretion. This strengthens bonds between parent and child, increases empathy, and solidifies and establishes familial ties. Heck, oxytocin is so subtly powerful that even administering it exogenously to just the parent alone has beneficial effects on their child, improving their “physiological and behavioral readiness for social engagement.” Imagine how important the endogenous steady drip of oxytocin in habitual babywearing is for child-parent relationships.
Babywearing is particularly beneficial for preterm infants. These little guys and gals need close physical contact with their parents more than anyone – remember, they’re still “supposed” be in the womb.
Improved bonding. Remember how skin-to-skin post-birth contact improves mother-child interactions later on down the line? That holds true for preterm infants as well. Mothers allowed to practice skin-to-skin holding of preterm infants in intensive care also reported feelings of increased comfort and “being needed” by their babies – an excellent feeling, as any parent will attest, and a particularly important one for mothers of preterm infants.
Lower stress. Wearing your preterm baby will help lower stress and modulate the infant’s cortisol response, which tends to be exaggerated in that group.
Improved pain tolerance. One study compared kangaroo care (skin-to-skin) to incubator care for modulation of the the pain response in preterm infants; babies who got kangaroo care showed improved behavioral and physiological responses to physical pain.
Improved brain development. Preterm infants are at risk of impaired neuronal development, but one recent study found that kangaroo care effectively normalized premature brains when compared to standard care. The neonates (who were “very pre-term”) given skin-to-skin contact displayed brain motor function comparable to adolescents who were born at term, while the neonates given standard care did not.
Better breastfeeding. It’s crucial for preterm babies to get breastmilk, since, well, it’s the perfect food for them, and early skin-to-skin contact between mom and baby helps the youngest neonates breastfeed.
All that said, the reality is that 24/7 babywearing is tough. These days, most parents work outside of the home. We generally don’t spend our days at home, doing the day-to-day things to survive like cooking, cleaning, foraging, that pre-industrial cultures were able to do while wearing their children. Carrie and I tried out the slings with our kids, but it didn’t really work for us as a constant, regular thing. We carried them as often as we could, usually without the use of a carrier or sling, and were sure to get plenty of skin-to-skin contact, but we didn’t do it all day, every day. And you know what? They turned out to be fantastic, independent kids. Constant baby-wearing isn’t necessary, but some daily contact is probably (definitely) best.
Babies, and humans in general, need to be touched in a loving, reassuring, comforting way. I wrote about this in The Primal Connection, and I’m adamant about it: we’re largely afraid of touch, and that’s a real shame. If you’re not going to hug your friends, at the very least hug (and carry, and hold, and wear) your kids. I realize the lawyer’s not going to wear her newborn into court, nor is the pilot going to wear his baby on the plane. But babies need touch. Full-on attachment is probably ideal, in a perfect world – but don’t beat yourself up if you can’t. It’s not a perfect world.
Lack of meaningful touch, though? There’s no excuse for that one.
When you do carry or wear a child, you should do it safely (for both mom/dad and kid) and effectively. Next week, I’ll discuss how to do it. In the meantime, just go pick up a baby (preferably yours).