The benefits, joys, and ease of carrying babies
Enjoying the Closeness
Research and anecdotal evidence indicates carrying babies brings many benefits for babies and their families, as well as the wider community. Carrying your baby in the first year and beyond promotes secure attachment for your baby and helps you bond with him more easily. This closeness brings a cascade of other advantages such as ease for parents, healthy emotional development and reduced crying. While carrying your baby as much as possible throughout the day, and as long as possible in the first years is recommended, everyone has their own preferences with baby-carrying. Some people carry their babies everywhere, using a sling, wrap or carrier. Others carry part-time. Regardless of your style, carrying allows for the entire family to be involved in the bonding process. And most of all,it allows mum and dad to be hands-free, still immersed in family life, while baby comes along for the ride.
Benefits for baby
Vital need for closeness and touch is met
Closeness and touch not only stimulates the developing brain, it provides a safe continuum from the womb environment into the big world.
‘It is especially necessary for the parental generation of the human species to fully understand what the immaturity of its infants really signifies: that the infant is still continuing its gestation period…… Among the most important of the newborn infant’s needs are the signals it receives through the skin, the first medium of communication with the outside world.’ Montagu (1986)
Aletha Solter, founder of Aware Parenting, also describes how the newborn infant thrives on experiences similar to those in the womb. ‘Postnatal life should … be considered a direct extension of prenatal life.’ Needs of newborns include warmth, touching and holding, gentle movement, a heartbeat sound, and the mother’s (and/or father’s) voice. These and the other essential needs are met optimally when a baby is carried. Carrying a baby in a sling or wrap resembles the ‘carrying’ inside the womb (enclosing, comfort, warmth etc.). Meryn Callander, of the Alliance for Transforming the Lives of Children, stresses the prime importance for babies to experience the ‘rocking and jostling’ that a baby experiences when carried on the caregiver’s body. Maria Blois, author of Babywearing, says, ‘Babywearing allows for the continuation of a womb-like environment, giving the baby a chance for optimal brain and nervous system development.’
Promotes secure attachment
The closeness and responsiveness that comes with carrying a baby means that the baby is more likely to be securely attached. Secure attachment is associated with positive developmental outcomes. These include enhanced emotional flexibility, social functioning and cognitive abilities. Babies found to be securely attached at 12 months have been found to be more confident, independent, socially competent, curious, self-reliant, empathic, with more friends at four to five years of age. Unlike the notion in popular culture that babies who are left alone become independent, research indicates that babies who are carried often become independent at an earlier age. Martha Sears and William Sears, authors of The Baby Book, suggest that the contact that comes with baby carrying means that the parent becomes more aware of the baby’s needs, and the baby becomes able to more clearly tell his parents what he needs.
Leads to healthy emotional development
Being carried on the body of the mother or a close relative, throughout the day for the first year of life, has been shown as highly predictive of the levels of peace or violence in a tribal culture. Dr. James Prescott describes love as a ‘brain gestalt that is formed primarily from sensory stimulation: body movement, body touch, and body smell…… I have concluded that the single most important child rearing practice to be adopted for the development of emotional and social healthy infants and children is to carry the newborn/infant on the body of the mother/caretaker all day long.’
Promotes healthy physical development
Carrying allows a child to develop more physical strength, balance, greater co-ordination, and easier digestion. The baby’s motor skills develop as he uses his muscles to adjust to the movements of the person who carries him. The straddling position of the baby that happens with certain types of carriers helps promote healthy hip development.
Jean Liedloff, author of The Continuum Concept, discusses carrying as a way an infant can discharge energy, through the body of the person carrying him. ‘In the infant kept in constant contact with the body of a caretaker, his energy field becomes one with hers and excess energy can be discharged for both of them by her activities alone. The infant can remain relaxed, free of accumulating tension, as his extra energy flows into hers.’ She compares this to Western babies who are held much less, and how they stiffen, kick, arch, or flex to relieve themselves of an uncomfortable accumulation of energy.
Promotes cognitive development
Since a baby is at voice and eye level, he develops more quickly socially and cognitively.
The baby learns about his culture and is included in it
Rather than being the centre of attention, and apart from the flow of life, carried babies are an integral part of family life, able to experience the fullness of the world within the safe closeness of being in arms.
Jean Liedloff, author of The Continuum Concept, describes importance of the in-arms phase because it lays the foundation for all later experience. ‘The baby passively participates in the bearer’s running, walking, laughing, talking, working, and playing. The particular activities, the pace, the inflections of the language…. and the sounds of community life form a basis for the active participation that will begin at six or eight months of age with creeping, crawling, and then walking.’
Babies who are carried cry less
When cultures where babies are carried almost continuously are compared with those where babies are carried much less, less crying is found. Decreased crying happens even when babies are carried for a proportion of the day. One study asked one group of mothers to carry their babies an extra two hours a day and another group to provide extra visual stimulation. At six weeks, carrying mothers reported that their babies cried 43% less overall (about 1 hour on average) and 51% less during the period of 4pm to midnight. There was also less crying reported at eight and twelve weeks.
From an Aware Parenting perspective, frequently carried babies cry less because their primary need to be touched and held is met. In addition, Aware Parenting indicates that carried babies are protected from over-stimulation. Aletha Solter says, ‘Over-stimulation occurs when the infant cannot make a meaningful connection between new information and familiar experiences. Most of the information that young babies take in is of this nature because of their limited experiences.’ When stimulation is reduced, so is infant crying. When we see things from a small baby’s perspective, we can see how washing machines, telephones, shops, cars, and strangers, can all be over-stimulating. Not only that, but simply getting used to the physical sensations of their body outside of the womb provides lots of stimulation. ‘Much of the crying that occurs in the early months may be due to over-stimulation. As a general guideline, the younger the baby, the easier he is to over-stimulate.’ When a baby is carried, (particularly in a carrier and where he is facing inwards), the familiarity of the sensations of body closeness and heartbeat, and the decreased amount of input he receives, protect him from more over-stimulation.
Benefits for parents
Getting on with the other things in life
Instead of choosing between being with the baby or getting on with everyday life, which can lead to isolation and depression for new parents, baby-carrying provides another option. Doing the things you want to do and need to do (shopping, working, cooking, caring for the home, caring for other children, meeting with friends, gardening, dancing, going for a walk, having fun) whilst contributing to your baby’s need for closeness and stimulation is a sure fire way of being a satisfied parent of a contented baby.
In many situations, carrying a baby in a carrier is much easier, particularly compared to getting heavy strollers out of the boot of the car, in places with lots of steps, and on buses, trains and aeroplanes. Baby carrying also makes breastfeeding easier – it is possible to breastfeed a baby in a carrier whilst caring for an older child or on an outing. Baby can also sleep in the carrier, which means more freedom and flexibility – and not needing to go home when the baby is tired.
Gives more support to the parent’s body
If a parent wants to help their baby be close but does so without a sling or carrier, their arms get sore and not much else gets done! A carrier means extra comfort for the parent’s body. Carrying a baby from birth means our body gets stronger and fitter as the baby grows – no need to go to the gym for weight training!
Helps mum, dad, and other carers bond with the baby
The frequent closeness when carrying a baby helps the adults bond with the baby. This is particularly so when the adult was not securely attached with their own parents. Baby carrying promotes levels of the mothering hormone prolactin. Mothers who use a carrier may feel closer to their babies, which can enhance the ease and joy of breast-feeding. Mothers who work outside the home reconnect with their babies more easily if they carry them when they are at home. Carrying a baby can help dads connect with their babies and feel empowered. The bonding process also happens much more easily with other carers if they too carry the baby.
Helps siblings adjust to a new baby
When a parent carries the baby in a carrier, her arms are free to play with and care for an older sibling. Older siblings can also have their own carriers to carry their dolls, and some older siblings can carry the baby this way too.
Helps in special situations
Baby carrying can have a significantly positive impact with twins, adopted babies, special needs babies, ill babies, premature babies, and special needs parents.
Tips for easier baby-carrying
In our modern nuclear family culture, baby wearing has its challenges. One (or even two) parents carrying a can sometimes be tiring for the muscles. Babies in other, community based cultures, are carried by many different people. Barbara Wishingrad’s pioneering observations show this, ‘I saw the Indian babies in rebozos (slings) all day, but first a little cousin might be wearing the baby, while the mom tended the fire, or did handiwork; and then a young aunt was holding the baby, bringing her to mom when she wanted to nurse: and afterwards the mother helped secure the little one on her aunt’s back….. Yes, babies had close and constant human contact, but not exclusively with their mothers.’ Jean Liedloff saw this too, ‘He may then be passed to someone else and feel himself losing contact with one person and coming into the new temperature, texture, smell and sound of another, a bonier one perhaps, or one with the reedy voice of a child or the resonance of a man’s.’ Sarah Blaffer-Hardy’s book Mother Nature describes the Agra foragers of the Phillipines, a hunter-gatherer society where women hunt alongside men and dogs. The mother may leave her infant to be cared for by an older sister, grandmother, or the father. The baby will be passed from caretaker to caretaker about eight times an hour, to as many as 14 different ‘allomothers’ (carers) in a day.
So how can one or two parents carry their baby much of the day and still feel comfortable? One way is to carefully choose a carrier or carriers – researching which ones suit your needs. Having more than one carrier (or a carrier that can be used in different positions) can also improve a parent’s comfort as different muscles and pressure points may be used. Make sure you are using the carrier correctly – often discomfort occurs if the baby is not pulled in close enough to the parent’s body or if she is carried too low down their body. Carrying an older baby on your back can be more comfortable, especially when doing tasks that require bending over or carrying things. Talking to other parents who use baby carriers will help garner information and recommendations. Carrying a baby from early on also helps, since as the baby grows, the carrier’s muscles grow in strength and endurance. Having times of closeness without carrying gives rest for the muscles – such as cuddling up together during a naptime.
Parents can enjoy the closeness and ease that carrying their baby brings. Many of the challenges of baby carrying may be overcome through researching carriers and getting support from others. When parents feel overwhelmed or tired, they can avoid the guilt-trap by reminding themselves that in other cultures, there are many people around to pass a baby to.
When I carry my baby son close to my body I feel the warmth of his skin, his breath rising and falling, and his calm or agitated movements. I love to look upon his little face in sleep, his smiles and his intent gazes at the world. Carrying him brings an intimate knowledge of him that I will carry with me for the rest of my life.