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Baby Wearing

Sarah Barnard
From New Beginnings, Vol. 31 No. 2, 2010, pp. 18-21

There are emotional, physical, and practical reasons why wearing a baby in a sling is a good idea.

Human babies are born significantly less mature than babies of other species that, like us, give birth to single infants or small multiples. The human infant is born "prematurely" to allow its head to pass through the birth canal before it gets too big and it completes the gestational period outside the womb. The human brain quadruples in size after birth.

How mammals care for their young

Depending on how they care for their young, mammals can be divided into four different groups. There is an interplay between the baby's immaturity and the differences in mother's milk.

  • Cache mammals. These include the deer and rabbit. Their mothers hide their young in a safe place and return to them every 12 hours. Consistent with this behavior, the milk of cache animals is high in protein and fat. It sustains the young animals for a long time because babies are fed infrequently.

  • Follow mammals. The giraffe and cow are follow mammals. They follow their mothers wherever they go. Since the baby can be near the mother throughout the day and feed often, the milk of the follow mammal is lower in protein and fat than that of a cache mammal.

  • Nest mammals. These include the dog and cat. Nest mammals are less mature at birth than cache or follow mammals. They need the nest for warmth and remain with the other young from the litter. The mother returns to feed her young several times a day. The milk of nest mammals has less protein and fat than cache mammals but more than that of follow mammals, which need to feed more frequently.

  • Carry mammals. This group includes the apes -- including humans -- and marsupials, such as the kangaroo. The carry mammals are the most immature at birth, need the warmth of the mother's body, and are carried constantly. Their milk has low levels of fat and protein, and they are fed often, around the clock. Human milk has the lowest fat and protein content of all mammalian milks. That and our immaturity at birth mean human infants need to feed often and are meant to be carried and held.

Human babies are as vulnerable and dependent outside the womb as they are inside. Our babies need the same 24-hour nurturing and care that they had in utero. In the mother's womb, the baby never feels hunger, is never lonely or cold, experiences all sounds and sensations through the mother's body, which cushions and softens them. After the journey of birth, it seems natural that a baby would expect that same quality of 24-hour nurturing. Babies cannot get up and follow us on their own until about a year or so after birth. They cannot, like ape and monkey babies, cling to their mothers, although the strong grip reflex with which babies are born is thought to be a remnant of a time in our evolutionary journey when they could.

So we find ways to keep our babies close, using our large brains rather than our body hair. Primate mothers tend to take their infants with them as they go -- the infants following or clinging to their mother.

Keep them close

Recent research confirms that being close to an adult caregiver guarantees more than safety and convenience.

Crying

Babies in skin-to-skin contact have more stable heart and breathing rates, better blood sugar levels, significantly lower levels of circulating stress hormones, and warmer body temperatures. Studies show that carried babies cry less. (1) The crying pattern of normal infants in industrialized societies is characterized by an overall increase until six weeks of age followed by a decline until four months of age with a preponderance of evening crying. Hunziker and Barr hypothesized that this "normal" crying could be reduced by supplemental carrying, that is, increased carrying throughout the day in addition to that which occurs during feeding and in response to crying. In a randomized controlled trial, 99 mother-infant pairs were assigned to an increased carrying or control group. At the time of peak crying (six weeks of age), infants who received supplemental carrying cried and fussed 43% less overall, and 51% less during the evening hours (4 pm to midnight). Similar but smaller decreases occurred at 4, 8, and 12 weeks of age. Decreased crying and fussing were associated with increased contentment and feeding frequency but no change in feeding duration or sleep. They concluded that supplemental carrying modifies "normal" crying by reducing the duration and altering the typical pattern of crying and fussing in the first three months of life. The relative lack of carrying in our society may predispose to crying and colic in normal infants (Hunziker and Barr 1986).

Where baby wearing is the norm, babies demonstrate a strong attachment to parents and caregivers, and show greater social awareness. Happy babies make happy mothers, too.

Passive involvement

One of parents' tasks is to show their child what it means to be a member of a family, community, and country. It is not too difficult to achieve when your baby is not kept at a distance. He can be passively involved in all you do while you hold him securely against your warm comforting body -- he knows and trusts you. Jean Liedloff, author of The Continuum Concept, wrote, "The baby passively participates in the bearer's running, walking, laughing, talking, working, and playing. The particular activities, the pace, the inflections of the language, the variety of sights, night and day, the range of temperatures, wetness and dryness, and the sounds of community life form a basis for the active participation that will begin at six or eight months of age with creeping, crawling, and then walking." (2) You provide your baby with the security he needs to be able to look outwards and explore the world.

Flat head syndrome

In recent years there has been an increase in the number of babies with plagiocephaly or flat head syndrome, a malformation of the head marked by an oblique slant to the main axis of the skull or a persistent flattened spot on the back or side of the head. Wendy S. Biggs (3) describes how the length of time babies in Western society spend supine has increased the likelihood of suffering from this malformation. She directly attributes this to the infant spending "more time reclining with his or her head on a hard surface such as in a car seat or swing." Babies who spend less time in seats and more time being carried in a sling are less at risk of developing this deformation. It seems logical that if your baby is often upright against your body, his head supported not by rigid plastic but by soft fabric or by your arms, he is less likely to suffer from flat head syndrome.

Carrying is practical

When you have a new baby, while your hormones do all sorts of wonderful things such as helping you to make milk and promoting feelings of love and attachment to your baby, they do not, unfortunately, grow you a spare pair of hands! A sling, however, can act as an extra pair of hands -- gentle, warm, snugly hands that hold your baby close to you while you are able to do other things.

Chief among the things I wish I had known when my daughter was born is that a sling should be on everyone's Essential Newborn Accessories list, rather than being considered just as a nice optional extra. Even if you only have practical concerns there are a multitude of reasons to use one. I somehow managed without one, partly through extreme laziness -- "I can't do that at the moment, the baby needs cuddling!" -- and having a lot of support with things that required more than one hand. For months I held my baby in my arms, instinctively knowing that in my arms was the best place for her to be, but it did make it challenging to get things done!

Those evenings in the early weeks when your baby cluster feeds for hours are not so stressful if you are not obliged to stay in the same place. If you wear your baby in a sling you can keep her at the breast and still get up, eat dinner, or go to the bathroom. If you have older children who also need your attention and your hands to cuddle or help them, a sling allows you to meet their needs as well as most of the baby's needs more easily.

So which kind of sling do you need?

There is a bewildering array of slings available. Of course you can, and many baby wearers do, have a different style of sling for every occasion, from an easy pouch, an everyday wrap, a silk ring sling for glamour, or a structured soft carrier for life in the great outdoors.

Wrap slings are basically a long piece of fabric that you tie around yourself. They can look daunting to the sling novice but the basic positions are easily learned and are well worth the effort. The spread of fabric across your back, particularly in a basic cross over tie, gives good weight distribution. The weight of the baby is spread all over the back and then tied round the hips, meaning that the pelvis rather than the lower back carries the bulk of the weight. A stretchy wrap with a proportion of Lycra or Spandex in the fabric is often a good place to start, particularly if the idea of tying yourself up in five meters of cloth is frightening. A stretchy one can easily be tied into position while the baby is safely elsewhere, and worn as long as desired, allowing you to take your baby in and out as necessary. Many offer a good variety of carrying positions, cradle hold for newborns (and ideal for breastfeeding), front, hip, and back.

Woven wraps, especially in a long length, give even more variety and once you master the art of tying in the back carrying positions, a wrap that offers such a possibility will allow you to use the same sling from birth till the moment your child has no further need to be carried. There are even varieties that work like a wrap sling but have the tying done for you.

Pouches and ring slings are easy to use, simply put one arm through and slip over the head. It is important to get the size that fits you comfortably to ensure the safety and comfort of your baby. Others are adjustable and offer more flexibility if more than one adult will be using the same carrier. It is easy to slip this type of carrier off with the baby fast asleep in it and lay the baby down. It's great for a quick transfer from car seat to sling when you are out and about. Mesh slings such as the Tonga, designed to be worn in the shower or swimming pool, are a useful addition to your sling collection if you have a baby who likes to be close to you everywhere you go. Asian-style or Mai-tei carriers have the advantage of great simplicity and often come in the most gorgeous designs. They offer front and back carrying positions. They are not the easiest to breastfeed in, although women have done so. (Slings that offer a cradle position are the easiest for nursing.) Structured soft carriers are also easy to use as they are more likely to have buckles and more shaped fabric. They are often popular with dads.

It is hard to overestimate the importance of touch to the well being and development of a new baby. Wearing your baby is good for both of you. In a society that urges new mothers to "get their life back" following childbirth, a sling enables you as a mother to redefine that life and to broaden your horizons to include rather than exclude your baby. With access to the security that your body represents, your baby can learn what it means to be human.

References

1. Hunziker U.A., Barr R.G. Increased carrying reduces infant crying: a randomized controlled trial. Pediatrics 1986 May; 77(5):641–8.
2. Liedloff, J. The Importance of the In-Arms Phase, Mothering, Winter 1989.
3. Wendy S. Biggs, MD, The 'Epidemic' of Deformational Plagiocephaly and the American Academy of Pediatrics’ Response Journal of Prosthetics & Orthotics, Vol 16, 2004; 5–9.

The CPSC (Consumer Product Safety Commission) issued a warning against the use of baby carriers and slings on March 12, 2010. The Academy of Breastfeeding Medicine issued a press release dated 3/19/2010 in response, which you can read on their Web site: http://www.bfmed.org/

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