I’m wondering whether I’ve been looking at everything from the wrong angle. It’s always interesting to re-look at something from a different point of view, and so that’s what I’m going to try to do now.
I have a well-read page on this site about the ‘Benefits of Babywearing‘; but have recently realised that this whole page was written starting from the assumption that the ‘normal’ baseline for how to move around with your baby is to put them into a buggy or other container. So, when compared to those being pushed around in a buggy, babies who are carried regularly cry less, sleep better etc. etc. But is ‘using a buggy’ really normal? It may be the most prevelant baby transport solution in the UK, but it certainly isn’t so in many other cultures. And even if it wasn’t, is ‘culturally most prevelant’ necessarily the same thing as what should be considered ‘normal’ for a baby?
What is ‘normal’ for a baby?
So, to work out what might be considered ‘normal’ for a human baby, I’m going to try to look at a baby’s needs without assuming the presence of any particular cultural approach or solution to meeting those needs. Since I also find myself spending a lot of time telling people that the range of ‘normal’ for a baby is very broad and to not worry if they feel their baby isn’t what books or other parents might lead them to expect, I’m going to try not to assume any particular level of need for a baby and just assume the very basics.
Human babies need feeding at least every few hours, and often much more regularly, and so must remain reasonably close to their food source at all times. Since the normal food source for a human baby is it’s mother, I’m going to assume that this implies that a baby needs to stay close to it’s mother.
Babies are also not very well suited to being left on their own – as well as being unable to protect themselves from various harms, they need help regulating their own body temperature and must be kept warm. The easiest way to keep a baby at the right temperature is to to hold it against the body of a nearby adult. Caring physical contact, especially by a known person like it’s mother, also meets baby’s needs for comfort, familiarity and reassurance, promoting healthy brain development and a baby’s ability to learn from it’s surroundings. We’ve already assumed that the baby’s mother will need to stay close to it for feeding, and will be one of the adults most motivated to ensure the baby gets everything it needs so lets assume that the person most likely to hold the baby is it’s mother.
Compared to other animals, human babies are clearly not adapted for getting themselves about very easily (though actually many newborn babies are capable of wriggling themselves up to the breast to latch on), so now if the mother wants to go anywhere, the easiest and safest option is for her to just carry the baby with her. This assumes no particular cultural object or bias, and also allows many of baby’s immediate and most pressing needs to be easily met.
Using ‘being carried’ as the normal baseline for a baby
So, if ‘carrying your baby’ is the normal standard for human infants, anything else that replaces (or attmepts to replace) this should be compared to it. So, taking ‘carrying your baby regularly’ to be the normal situation, what are the effects for baby and mother (or other primary carer) of not doing this? Taking some of the items from my ‘Benefits of Babywearing’ page, lets see what happens.
When NOT carried regularly a baby:
– will find it harder to regulate their body temperature, heart rate and breathing.
– will be less settled, more agitated and cry up to 50% more than a regularly carried baby. When crying or stressed, a baby’s brain is flooded with stress hormones, which impedes healthy brain development and their ability to learn. They will be less alert to their surroundings, find it harder to take in and deal with new experiences.
– will not sleep as much, and will take longer to settle into a regular long sleep at night-time.
– is more likely to suffer from physical problems caused by the pressure from lying on or hanging from flat/rigid/unsuitable surfaces (such as lower blood oxygen and flat head).
– will take longer to develop good muscle tone and balance.
– will find it harder to digest as comfortabley and effectively.
– will find it harder to form a close, bonding attachment with it’s care givers, which would provide a secure base from which the baby can learn to be independent.
When not regularly carrying their baby a mother:
– will find it harder to establish sucessful breastfeeding
– will be more anxious and at more risk of post natal depression
– will find the task of learning to be a parent harder because she will not be meeting as many of her baby’s needs and so her baby is likely to be more fussy and demanding.
And, assuming that, in many situations, it is easier, more comfortable and more practical for a mother to use a well-fitting sling than to carry her baby in her arms, let’s take using the sling as the ‘most normal’ position and compare it to another common baby transport solution.
When a buggy is used rather than a sling, baby:
– talks and communicates less
– is held out of eye-line of those around him/her
– is held at traffic fume level
– is held in an unnatural posture and at risk of physical problems caused by this
And for a mum, using a buggy rather than a well fitted sling:
– will increase risk of damage to her vulnerable pelvic floor, back and abdominal muscles
– be bulky and difficult to store and to fit into a home, car, shop, up stairs etc.
– will be inconvenient when on holiday, on public transport or anywhere not designed with buggies in mind
Oh dear, I don’t use a sling much – is it really that bad if I don’t carry my baby all the time?
The good thing is that, even if they’ve never seen a baby carrier, most parents will find themselves carrying their baby in their arms a lot of the time, especially when at home. You carry your baby from room to room, from car seat/buggy to cot/play mat/bouncer, you carry them when they need feeding or winding or changing, and you often carrying them around in desperation to see if that will calm them when nothing else works! And even when a baby gets big enough to be more physically independent; to be better at regulating their own body and to be able to move around more by themselves, they’ll still want the reassurance and convenience of being hugged, held and lifted at least some of the time.
But what about out of the house? Assuming that carrying your baby (in arms or in a suitable sling) is still the ‘normal’ position, why might a parent choose to not carry their baby in a certain sitution? I can come up with a few reasons that are very compelling in some situations:
Safety? A car is not designed to be a safe place for an infant; and infant car seat is specially designed protect baby in the car environment in the case of an accident. Though your baby may protest that the car seat isn’t suitable to meet their instinctive needs for reassurance and human contact, using a suitable infant car seat when travelling in a car is safer (and less illegal) than holding your baby. As far as I’m aware, there is no evidence that buggy use is more or less safe for baby than carrying them.
Convenience? In some situations, it may be more convenient to have a buggy in which to put baby if the parent wishes to be able to do something without baby. For example, when shopping for clothes, it’s not very convenient attempting to try something on when you’re carrying a baby and there is nowhere suitable to put them. If baby prefers to nap alone rather than in their parent’s arms, then a buggy would allow a parent to go out for the day without having to plan to be home for nap times.
Culturally Expected? I suspect that this is actually the most compelling reason for most parents choosing not to carry their babies in many situations. In the UK using a buggy is the more culturally expected option, and because of this, good information about other options may not be as easy to access. Where there is a strong cultural bias towards one particular solution, it is often very difficult to find and to use an alternative without feeling that you are having to justify and fight for what you’ve chosen to do.
Which is why it’s very interesting looking at this from a different angle. Normally you might look at buying a buggy. You might ask whether you really need one, and find that most information available suggests that you do. Or you might think that it’s a choice between a buggy or a particular sling and weigh up the advantages of those. But to instead compare all options to a completely culturally unbiased position of just ‘carrying your baby in your arms’ really helps to put all of the so called ‘advantages’ and ‘disadvantages’ of each choice in perspective.
When looking at all of the disadvantages of not carrying your baby regularly, and comparing them to the few advantages, I can easily see why I found that I chose to use a sling for more and more of the time until our buggy ended up abandonded in the shed! Without knowing any of the background research, I simply found that, if I carried my baby whenever possible, my job as a mother was much easier. Thst doesn’t mean that I carried her all all day every day; I carried her whenever it was practical and I could fit it in with whatever else I was doing. Using a sling allowed me to fit carrying my baby into many more parts of my life than I could have done otherwise.
Finally, and I hope reasurringly, no single solution is going to be perfect for all babies and all parents in all situations. A solution can be the ‘most suitable’ or ‘best’ given a wide range of different factors that vary from individual to individual and from circumstance to circumstance. I’ve just tried to put forward a particular view that the baseline should always be the most simple, needs-appropriate solution, and that anything else (when taken as an over-arching baseline) is going to be more artificial and less suitable in various ways. This doesn’t mean that any particular choice is necessarily ‘bad’, or that you shouldn’t pick and choose your solutions to best meet the individual needs of you and your baby in each particular situation you’re in. Each parent must choose what they feel meets their family’s needs best, and I’m just trying to provide different ways of thinking about it all.
This article was written by Emily Williamson for the http://www.southlondonslings.com website on 20th February 2012. If you have any comments or questions, please either post below, or email email@example.com
Significant inspiration for this article was taken from the approach in the following excellent article about breastfeeding: http://www.infantfeeding.info/IsBreastBest.htm
I’m aiming to add proper references for many of the claims made here in due course, but some may be found on the Research Articles page.