Welcome to our third installment of the Attachment Parenting Series - Babywearing! Don't forget to use the Mister Linky at the bottom to share your own babywearing information and experiences!
What is it?
Babywearing is the act of carrying a baby close to the caregiver using a cloth baby carrier. When done frequently for the first nine months after birth, it effectively doubles the infant's gestation, with the "womb" now on the outside rather than inside the mother. At that point, the infant's neurological and muscular development is at the same level as other primates' "full term" offspring.
How can we encourage it?
Babywearing is an ideal way to promote attachment between parent and child. There is a widely held misconception in our culture that a child can be held "too much", thus creating a clingy, spoiled dependency in the child. Quite the opposite holds true, however; the emotional security resulting from physical proximity and prompt nurturing allows the child to grow into a confident independence.
Recognizing the benefits of babywearing - physical, emotional, intellectual, relational, and practical - will help to dispel this myth of "too much" nurturing.
Physically, worn babies are more regulated, receiving the benefits of a prolonged gestation. When inside the womb, the baby's systems were automatically regulated. The external womb-like environment of a sling assists the infant in re-regulating after the disruption of birth. The baby hears the parent's heartbeat, feels their breathing, and experiences the soothing rhythm of their walking and movement, all of which encourage him to regulate his own physical responses. Without this regulating presence, the baby may develop disorganized patterns of behavior, such as colicky cries, irregular breathing, and disturbed sleep.
Babywearing develops muscles in the baby that will later be used for sitting, standing, and walking. The baby's sense of balance is also heightened due to the stimulation of the vestibular system, thereby enhancing motor skills. Breastfeeding is encouraged as the baby feeds more frequently due to both the physical proximity to the mother and the ability of the mother to promptly respond to her baby's cues.
Emotionally, babies who are worn cry less and have decreased levels of stress hormones. This means the baby is happier and more relaxed. The comfort and closeness of his parent encourages a sense of calm in the baby. The baby receives immediate feedback from his parent in response to external stimuli, and is able to withdraw into the parent when overwhelmed or frightened. Babies who are forced to self-calm waste valuable energy that could otherwise have been used to grow and develop. Babies thrive on touch, and babywearing is an ideal way of meeting this need. The effects of touch are particularly pronounced in premature infants, as demonstrated by the dramatic results of kangaroo care.
Intellectually, worn babies less time crying and more time in a state of quiet alertness, observing and learning about their environment. Their proximity means that they receive more interaction, hear more conversations, and see more of the world around them. Speech development is enhanced. They become more aware of patterns of behaviour - facial expressions, body language, emotions, heart rates, breathing patterns, vocal inflections, and tones. This increased exposure and learning stimulates brain development, creating more neural connections and expanding future learning potential.
Relationally, babywearing enables the parents to experience heightened sensitivity to their baby's cues. As the parents learn to read, trust, and respond to these cues, the baby learns that his needs will be promptly attended to. The resulting emotional security and trust reinforces the baby's cues and enhances his ability to give them. This cycle of positive interaction strengthens the communication and connection between parent and child, allowing the relationship to become increasingly natural and instinctive. Closeness breeds familiarity, making babywearing an ideal bonding tool for mothers, fathers, extended family, and caregivers.
Practically, babywearing is simply convenient. Parents are able to keep the baby close and secure while going about their daily routine. They are left with two free hands to tend to other children, do housework, or prepare food. Fewer pieces of baby equipment are needed in an attempt to entertain or pacify the baby who just wants to be held. Mobility is enhanced without the need to lug heavy car seats or maneuver bulky strollers. Taking a walk while wearing the baby provides the dual benefits of cardiovascular exercise and weight training. Breastfeeding can happen on the go. The reluctant napper can be worn to sleep. This extra freedom is particularly desirable during stages of teething, sleep disruption, or separation anxiety.
Styles and uses
There are a number of different styles of baby carriers. While all can be used at any stage, each style has its own individual strengths and weaknesses. A local babywearing group or baby store will allow you to try a variety of carriers to find the one that works best for you.
A ring sling is a length of fabric that goes over one shoulder and fastens with a pair of adjustable rings. This is particularly useful for frequent up-and-downs, as it is simple to use, quick to put on and take off, and fully adjustable. Because it is a one-shouldered carrier, it is less ideal for longer periods of wearing, especially with older or heavier babies.
A pouch is a tube of fabric with a curved seam, folded in half lengthwise to create a pocket for the baby and worn over one shoulder like a sling. It can be folded quite small, making it perfect for the diaper bag. The pouch is sized to the individual wearer and must fit well in order to be comfortable. Again, because it is a one-shouldered carrier, it is better for shorter lengths of time or smaller babies.
A wrap is a long length of fabric. The fabric is wrapped around the body and tied securely in place, creating a pocket for the baby. A stretchy wrap is comfortable for newborns, while older babies require the support of a non-stretchy wrap. The most supportive of these wraps are known as German-style wovens and are specially designed for strength, breathability, diagonal stretch, and secure texture. The wrap can be worn on one or two shoulders, comes in a variety of lengths, and can be used to wear the baby on the front, back, or hip. The wrap is the most versatile, supportive, and adjustable baby carrier, but also has the steepest learning curve. The most comprehensive wrap instruction chart can be found here.
A soft-structured carrier (SSC) is a square piece of fabric with two padded shoulder straps and a padded waistband, secured in place with buckles. This subset of baby carriers would include framed backpacks and Bjorn-style carriers. The Bjorn-style carriers typically have a very narrow crotch piece which result in the baby dangling from his crotch, putting excess pressure on his spine. A more ergonomically-correct baby carrier will have a wider base which spreads the baby's hips and holds them in a seated position.
The mei tai, or Asian-style carrier, is a square piece of fabric with two shoulder straps and two waist straps. This carrier combines the adjustability of a wrap with the ease-of-use of an SSC. The child's weight is distributed between the shoulders and torso, making this, along with the wrap and SSC, a good choice for long carries.
What if it doesn't happen?
Whether for physical or personal reasons, a parent may find themselves unable or unwilling to wear their baby in this manner. A baby who is held less will require more interaction in order to gain the physical, emotional, intellectual, and relational benefits that would otherwise be provided through babywearing.
Encourage physical closeness
To help regulate the newborn and to develop the connection and responsiveness that physical closeness brings, hold or lay with the baby as often as possible. Look at books while holding the baby on your lap, take a warm bath together, and nap together. Skin-to-skin contact is particularly beneficial. Breastfeeding and co-sleeping are both ideal methods of providing this physical proximity, system regulation, and enhanced communication.
Interact verbally and make eye contact
To encourage brain development, language skills, relational abilities, and bonding, be particularly intentional about interacting verbally with the baby, including making frequent eye contact. Talk as you push her in the stroller, feed her dinner, or get her dressed. Narrate your daily life as she sits near you, watching. Read and sing to her. Naturally, all of these things are important for all babies, but for the baby who is not frequently worn, they must be particularly emphasized.
I credited babywearing with being my sanity-saver during my first year of parenting. We use a variety of baby carriers, each with their preferred use. Wraps were perfect for long walks; a longer wrap length provided the support I needed to carry him comfortably, while a shorter wrap length came in handy after he started walking but needed up halfway through a walk. Our ring sling was well-loved for short carries, particularly during the up-and-down toddler stage. A mei tai allowed me the confidence of a back carry when out in public.
With my oldest, I found the convenience of babywearing to be indispensable. In his early weeks, he often napped in a carrier, preferring the warmth and movement over a flat bed. It also provided him with a familiar place to nap while out of the house. When teething hit, it hit hard, and many days I would walk around the house with him tucked contentedly in a wrap and a book in my hand. During each evening's "witching hour", I would wrap him up snuggly and go for a long walk through our favourite trail. With him secure on my back, I could browse our local farmer's market without the inconvenience of a stroller. During stages when he wanted to be held more often than not, it allowed me to get housework done and food on the table while meeting his needs at the same time.
When my second son was born, I expected that babywearing would be even more useful. Instead, I had a baby who, unlike my first, was perfectly content to nap alone and for long stretches of time. Also unlike my first, he was a quick and efficient nursling, not interested in spending hours at the breast. I found that I wore him mainly outside of the house, where babywearing was still very useful in allowing me two hands free to, for example, tend to my older son at the park while keeping the baby snuggled close and warm.
As he got older, however, I found that I was spending quite a bit of time annoyed with him. I needed to cook supper and he wanted up. I had laundry to do and he wanted up. I was trying to read with his older brother and he wanted to sit on my knee and nurse. I felt like I was constantly trying to fend him off, and the more I did so, the more clingy he became.
Finally I was able to recognize and consciously acknowledge this negative cycle we had fallen into. While trying to cook supper one evening, I grabbed our long-neglected ring sling, popped him in, and carried on. He nestled silent against me and I finished preparing the meal. Instead of urging him to go play or plopping him unceremoniously on his father's knee, I spent that time inhaling his sweet smell, kissing his soft hair, and talking to him about what I was doing. It was a significant turning point in our relationship and a much needed return to connection and attachment. We haven't looked back since.
Babywearing is the most natural way to keep your baby close while tending to the demands of daily life. It provides numerous physical, emotional, intellectual, relational, and practical benefits for both parent and child. It regulates the infant, provides emotional security, encourages learning, enhances parent/child communication, and brings with it many conveniences.
There are several styles of baby carriers, each with their own strengths and weaknesses. Both use and comfort should be considered when purchasing a carrier.
When babywearing is not an option, the parent should place particular emphasis on physical closeness, verbal interaction, and eye contact. This will provide the baby with many of the benefits that would otherwise be gained through babywearing, including system regulation, brain development, language skills, responsiveness, and bonding. Ultimately, communication and connection must be encouraged in whatever form best suits the needs of the parent and child.
Babywearing Information by Dr. Sears
The Vital Touch: How Intimate Contact With Your Baby Leads To Happier, Healthier Development by Sharon Heller, PhD
Now it's your turn! Add your link using the Mister Linky below to share your thoughts, experiences, resources, or struggles as they relate to babywearing. I look forward to reading them! See you next Monday for our fourth installment - Bedding close to baby!