Finland-based Kiwi mum-of-two Liisa Hattinen shares her experiences with the benefits of babywearing.
The benefits of babywearing
The return to babywearing has become increasingly popular in recent years, with New Zealand doing a little better at it than we are over here in Finland. Here in Europe, Germany is the true babywearing capital, boasting its own babywearing school, which has now branched out into a few other European countries.
Why carry your baby?
When a newborn is in close contact with his or her mother, the mother's body will help to regulate her baby's breathing, body temperature and heartbeat. Studies have also shown that a mother's closeness boosts her baby's immune system. A parent's body is the best tool for regulating the basic functions of an infant as well as providing emotional nourishment.
When children are carried, they can see, hear, smell, feel (and perhaps even taste) the person carrying them. They feel the motions of the adult's movements, much as they did in the womb, which helps them to establish balance and muscle tone. In cultures where babies are primarily carried, there are less space related phobias present in adults, such as fear of heights.
In societies where babywearing is the normal practice, there are also very few cases of colic or separation anxiety. An upright carry in particular can aid with digestion and ease symptoms for babies with gaestroesophageal reflux disease. It can also help in avoiding inner ear infections in infants. Research has shown that carried babies eat better, sleep better, have better digestion and cry less than other babies that are not carried. There are many benefits to carrying a child, and the benefits continue into toddlerhood and beyond.
So how long do you have to wear your baby to experience the benefits?
Studies have shown that approximately half an hour a day, not necessarily in one go or even every day, is enough to enjoy the physical and emotional benefits. For those that have to return to work shortly after having their baby, it can be reassuring to know that these short, precious moments can make a world of difference for your child. If you are able to wear your baby for longer periods of time, it is not only great bonding time, but also great exercise.
Physical contact with your baby is also beneficial for breastfeeding, as it increases your levels of oxytocin, which in turn increases milk production. Many women enjoy wearing their babies as they are able to breastfeed discreetly in the carrier. Despite having been a very avid babywearer myself, I never got the hang of breastfeeding my children while wearing them. There was always a wrong angle and we'd always end up soaked. So although feeds have taken place outside the carrier, the other benefits of babywearing have still made it very enjoyable for us.
If you are unable to breastfeed, babywearing is an excellent tool to help you bond with your child and engage in the same kind of closeness. It is also a great way for Dads, Grandparents and other caregivers to bond with baby.
How should you wear your baby?
Wearing your child is really just like holding your child, and a good baby carrier should ideally mimic how you would carry your child in your arms. With the help of some fabric, your child's weight can be dispersed evenly across your back and shoulders, leaving your hands free and allowing you to carry your child for longer periods of time.
Positioning is the most important aspect when carrying an infant, whether in a carrier or just in your arms. Proper support of a newborn's head and neck is essential, but equally important is the rest of the body, particularly the hips and spine. Correct hip and spine positioning is necessary in order to support healthy development. When a baby is picked up he or she will instinctively assume a flexed abducted position, often referred to as the frog-leg position, or a squatting straddle. This is the ideal position for an infant. The baby's legs are spread, knees up and bottom down, ready to wrap itself around its mother. An infant's spine is not straight, but is instead slightly curved in a C-shape. It will begin to resemble an adults gentle S-curve around one year of age. Some structured carriers force a baby's spine into a straightened position, which places unnecessary stress on the spine and is detrimental to good development, and something to be aware of when choosing a carrier.
There is a jungle of carriers out there and it can be very difficult to choose one that is safe for both the child and the person wearing them. Some important things that should be taken into consideration are the support the carrier offers to both the child and the wearer. It is also a good idea to choose a carrier that can be worn on both the front and the back, as well as the hip. As your child gets heavier you will need to start carrying him or her on your back.
Some of the quick-use slings available such as pouch slings and ring slings are great for short use with an older child, from approximately 6 months onwards, when the child can sit unaided. For either newborns or prolonged carrying these slings do not provide enough or any adjustment options. This can cause the baby to slump when he or she falls asleep, which can be very dangerous as it may restrict the airways. A baby's chin should never be against its chest, there should be at least one adult finger of space inbetween. When carrying a child in an upright position, there should be as little space between the baby and the wearer as possible. The child should also be carried as high up as possible, with small babies they should be above your bellybutton. This is the most comfortable and ergonomic way to carry a child.
Carrying older children
As much as toddlers love to walk and run, they also still love to be carried. In researching this article I have rediscovered carrying my children, whom are now 2 and 3 years old. I have had an amazing experience. I have been able to re-establish and enjoy a special bond with my firstborn and feel that carrying has really reaffirmed our relationship. Often when we think of babywearing, we think of just that - babies. Although it is certainly harder to carry a toddler, those short moments really do make a difference. We have found carrying to be a wonderful tool in cases of sibling rivalry, toddler tantrums and difficulty falling asleep.
A Finland-based Kiwi mother-of-two, Liisa Hattinen is a freelance writer and advocate of attachment parenting.
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Published 27 September, 2012