Babywearing [verb] : carrying a baby in a soft pouch, sling or wrap - sometimes for several hours in a day. Babywearing is often about a physical convenience but advocates also believe it has an important emotional and psychological benefit to the mother/ baby dyad.
Why do you think babywearing often seems such a natural step for a breastfeeding mother? Why is it that when you go online the parenting sites that are openly supporting breastfeeding past 12 months inevitably have a membership also passionate about slings and babywearing?
It doesn’t seem much of a stretch to suggest that when a mother achieves the biological norm of breastfeeding successfully, babywearing naturally follows and is often an integral part of that instinctive natural parenting style.
If we are advocates of breastfeeding, then babywearing is profoundly and intimately connected with that and should be. There is evidence that is hard to ignore. It’s not fashion any more than breastfeeding is fashionable.
It is not the babywearers who should justify themselves but those found really only in modern industrial societies who value a baby’s ‘independence’ and ‘self-reliance’ over their natural evolutionary instincts.
As Meredith Small says in her book, ‘Our Babies, Ourselves’: ‘during 99% of human history the pattern of infant eating, sleeping and contact was thus – human infants were carried all the time, probably slept with their mothers and fed frequently throughout the day’.
A society losing touch with the concept of mother/child physical closeness finds that losing touch with breastfeeding is really not far behind.
And is it really just coincidence that as breastfeeding rates climb again it becomes less and less unusual to see a baby in a Moby Wrap in the supermarket queue?
To promote babywearing and discuss it as the biological norm obviously can make other mothers who choose not to do it uncomfortable or even feel guilty (here comes the 'uncomfortable reading' bit). There are able-bodied mums who would be perfectly capable of baby-wearing but will instead strenuously support their desire to travel around town with £400 worth of baby tank in the belief this is more 'convenient'.
A Bugaboo Cameleon currently retails at Mothercare for around £765. For that price, you could get a decent sling and actually hire someone else to walk alongside you carrying your baby for you.
The anti-babywearing group make statements like:
‘It wasn’t right for my family’,
‘Not all babies are the same’,
‘I didn’t do it with my baby and she was perfectly happy and healthy’
‘My friend did it with her baby and she was so attached she could never put her down’
‘Perhaps it was the best thing for my baby but I don’t think it was for me and of course – a happy mother means a happy baby’
‘I tried it but I could never get comfortable. I tried to find someone to show me how to do it properly but I could never get the hang of it so I gave up’.
These arguments sound familiar to those of us working in the frontline of breastfeeding support.
And just as we may tip-toe the line between promoting breastfeeding and NOT making those who choose to formula feed feel guilty, there is some evidence that is impossible to ignore with babywearing too. Whether or not we make past or present mothers feel uncomfortable cannot be the driving force. New families are entitled to the correct information and then they can use that to make the choice that feels right for their family. But without information, there is not a genuine choice being made.
Our society – that is the Western industrialized society – is an unusual one. As Gabrielle Palmer wrote in Politics of Breastfeeding: “Western culture seems to have a drive to separate mothers and babies. The goal of independence starts at birth and mothers who want to stay with their infants most of the time are viewed as ‘possessive’ or ‘eccentric’.”
In the society where babywearing is rare, breastfeeding rates are lower. Why? We can assume babywearing makes breastfeeding easier, more effective, more likely to continue.
Perhaps there are also reasons deeply seated in our culture. The society that wants a baby to be self-reliant as soon as possible, self-soothe and sleep independently then creates adults who as parents have less inclination to babywear or embrace breastfeeding.
Anthropologists have noticed an undeniable pattern.
Dr. James Prescott has made a career out of identifying the origins of violence and social alienation. In a series of studies for the American National Institute of Child health and Human Development, he found that he could predict with an 80% accuracy the peaceful or homicidal violent nature of 49 tribal cultures from a single measure – was the baby carried for the majority of the day for the first year of life?
Jean Liedloff in ‘The Continuum Concept’ places a very very high emphasis on this ‘In Arms Phase’. And if this is missed the child lacks a fundamental piece of their confidence and emotional development. So we can assume those reading (and writing this) are deficient then? Well, she would say ‘yes’.
She says “normal deprivations are now so tangled in the meshes of our cultures that they are almost unremarked except at such extremes as manifest themselves in cost and danger to the rest of us (through violence, insanity and crime for example)”.
Noone wants to be told they have made parenting mistakes. It is the sort of discussion that cuts to our core and there is noone angrier than a mother who is told, 'perhaps you didn't make the best choice'. I didn't babywear my first child anything like the way I wore my second. He spent time occasionally travelling here and there in a popular brand of upright carrier which I have since learnt resulted in his body weight being compressed on his lower spine and did him no favours either physically or emotionally. Will he be emotionally stunted? A damaged adult? A less responsive father?
I don't know.
Has it been painful reading and researching babywearing? Learning how true babywearing optimises infant respiration, heart rate and growth and reduces crying? Remembering how he spent hours lying in a moses basket with no human contact? I was physically able to carry my baby in a sling for a significant portion of the day but I didn't. Largely because I had never heard it was a good idea. I had never come across a discussion of the evidence and noone had ever mentioned it to me as a possibility. Carriers and slings were simply for getting from A to B. They weren't 'better' than prams. They were just easier than on the bus.
It's not easy reading about what he might have missed out on. But I am not about to stick my fingers in my ears and say, 'La La La La La' and ignore the overwhelming evidence.
It would have been better for him to spend more of his first year in a sling. It would have made his life easier and my life easier.
In a society which prizes mother/baby separation, the promotion of babywearing and breastfeeding is an inevitable struggle.
We may blame the 20th century baby 'scientists' for instilling us with the strong sense that sleeping through the night, longer feeding intervals and baby self-soothing are the ultimate goals. But in the 21st century the core values appear to be the same.
For Tracy Hogg, 'the baby whisperer', and another best-selling nanny 'guru', the central aim for parents is assumed to be independently sleeping babies with appropriately spaced intervals between feeds.
In ‘Secrets of the Babywhisperer ‘, we are told that on the fourth day a baby should start their EASY routine – feeding ‘every 2 1/2 to 3 hours’. When Hogg discusses babywearing she says, “Parents often don’t know when the comforting ends and the bad habits begin. They continue to hold the baby way past meeting his need...Instead of holding him endlessly, pick him up when he starts to cry but put him down as soon as he is calm...You might have to pick that baby up twenty or thirty times or more”.
It seems that for many baby 'gurus' and sadly for some health professionals in the community too, the baby is not to be trusted. Rather than being seen as a sophisticated product of evolution it is mistaken or at worst attempting to manipulate.
When a baby wants to be constantly held something is wrong. Mothers can create ‘rods for their own back’ with constant attention. It is not in some 1950s nightmare where people talk of how you can spoil a baby.
When we trust baby and trust our own maternal instincts to hold, to respond to cues – breastfeeding is more likely to succeed and humans fit their evolutionary expectations.
Unless we face up to the juxtaposition between our society’s desire to increase breastfeeding rates while simultaneously valuing the separation of mother and baby what can the future be? Will breastfeeding rates simply plateau?
Why do we think breastfeeding is a good idea? It’s not just about nutrition, white blood cells, enzymes and lower rates of diabetes – it’s also about nurturing and emotional health. As Gabrielle Palmer again says, ‘it’s not just the milk that counts’.
Babywearing aids breastfeeding and also aids us to meet the goals that breastfeeding also strives to meet. When we speak to a mother struggling to ‘put a newborn down’ and pushing against her maternal instincts or guiltily 'confessing' she let her baby sleep near her let’s not assume she has chosen her parenting style or was even consciously aware she had options.
In the future a decent sling may be seen as important to a baby’s overall health as a car seat. And future generations may look back on our sluggishness to babywear as I look back on my parents’ generation in the 1970s who didn’t breastfeeding in their millions and commented they 'didn’t even realize it was important’.
A collection of articles here: http://www.thebabywearer.com/index.php?page=bwbenefits
Hunziker UA, Garr RG. (1986) Increased carrying reduces infant crying: A randomized controlled trial. Pediatrics 77:641-648
The Baby Book. William and Martha Sears
The Continuum Concept. Jean Liedloff.
Dream Babies: Childcare advice from John Locke to Gina Ford. Christina Hardyment.
Why love matters: how affection shapes a baby's brain. Sue Gerhardt.
Our babies, Ourselves: how biology and culture shape the way we parent. Meredith Small.
For support with babywearing:
Copyright Emma Pickett 2011 (portions appeared previously in Association of Breastfeeding Mothers magazine and in an ABM conference report)