For as long as there have been busy humans, we have been trying to figure out ways to avoid holding our little ones in our arms so we can actually do things and not just wait until they are 16 and old enough to look after themselves. Traditionally Inuit mums had sled dog strollers placed on top of skis. Native Americans used a type of baby "backpack" called a cradleboard that protected their little one whilst allowing get on with general village life or travel without worrying about dropping their child.
We can see this behaviour in our distant ancestors as well, with Apes and monkeys carrying their babies around with them (although admittedly they are hanging on as opposed to being wrapped in!) so for most of our history, our little ones have been swaddled, slung, carried, grasped, hugged, and otherwise attached to our bodies for a significant portion of their early development.
There is good reason for this as well as there’s plenty of evidence that carrying your baby gives beneficial physiological and psychological effects – to both child and parent.
Why do it?
There’s one benefit that’s immediate and obvious, even to those without kids. Have you ever noticed how babies, who burst into tears when placed in a pram, cot or car seat, immediately start to calm down and settle when we hold them? Ever notice how screaming babies become pacified once their caregiver picks them up?
The idea behind babywearing is based upon the fact that unlike other species in the animal kingdom, human babies are pretty helpless for the first few years of their lives. We are born "early" in comparison to other species because it is the only way our relatively large brains (and therefore heads) can fit down the narrow birth canal. So actually, you could say birth is not the end of the pregnancy as such, it's just that the fourth trimester happens outside the body.
Babywearing allows us to provide support and reassurance our children need to develop into independent, intelligent, thinking, learning, growing individuals. We want them to reach that potential, and nurturing them in this way maybe the best way of doing it.
But what does the research say about maintaining close physical contact with your baby?
Benefits for baby.
Increased socialisation. it's weird to talk about socialisation of babies, after all, they barely pay attention anyone for long, but it is hugely important.
We all want our little ones to be well adjusted member of society and part of a 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 hiding them away with brief moments of engagement with the world (playdates, playgrounds, car rides, shopping trips, etc.). You’re letting them see their surroundings and the world through your eyes on a constant, daily basis. If nothing else they’ll have exposure to communicating adults, both in listening to verbal conversations, and exposure to body language, facial expressions etc - worn babies will likely learn speech and facial expressions more quickly
Improved development of the vestibular system. This is the sensory system that provides the leading contribution to the sense of balance and spatial orientation for the purpose of coordinating movement with balance (Thanks Wikipedia).
In layman's terms it’s the bit of the brain that detects motion and controls balance. it’s one of the earliest parts of the brain 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 pram they feel the constant motion of a moving adult.
Benefits for caregivers.
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.
Can help with Postnatal depression. Physical contact with your baby increases (and decreases, when appropriate) a number of physiological markers, including oxytocin, and reduces the maternal anxiety which is thought to contribute to postnatal depression.
Bonding. Being physically attached through wearing or carrying, increases the bond between parent 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.
Oxytocin release. This strengthens bonds between parent and child, increases empathy, and solidifies and establishes familial ties. Oxytocin is so powerful that even administering it in a test to the parent alone has beneficial effects on their child, improving their “physiological and behavioural readiness for social engagement.”
Benefits for premature infants.
I was asked though our Facebook page if our wraps were safe for preterm babies. The answer is yes, good supportive stretchy babywraps are great for premature babies as they need physical contact with their parents more than anyone – remember, they’re still “supposed” be in the womb.
Improved bonding. Skin to skin contact is very important for premature babies. 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. Beneficial to the bonding process.
Lower stress. Wearing your preterm baby will help lower both your stress and help them manage theirs.
Improved pain tolerance. One study compared skin-to-skin care to incubator care for modulation of the the pain response in preterm infants; babies who got kangaroo care showed improved behavioural 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 normalised 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.
Benefits for 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 baby within easy reach of a food supply it seems to happen more often often. Babywearing streamlines the logistics of breastfeeding, oftentimes allowing the mother to nurse hands-free.
Promotes exclusive breastfeeding. One randomised controlled trial found that early skin-to-skin contact “significantly enhanced the success of first breastfeed and continuation of exclusive breastfeeding.”
Easier bottle feeding. Babywearing is not the exclusive right to just breastfeeding babies! Having your baby attached to you whilst bottle feeding, rather than laid out on a mat, allows you to bottle feed and still reap the benefits of being physically close to your child.
There is a lot if information above, but be reassured that when you do babywear, just that act is having a fantastic effect on your little ones development and the bonding and attachment with you. So ensure you are being safe, follow the T.I.C.K.S basics and enjoy!
For more information on our Baby Slings