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The Benefits of Baby Wearing

From: NEW BEGINNINGS, Vol. 21 No. 6, November-December 2004, p. 204-208

There's nothing in the world that compares to having your baby in your arms - the feeling of a sleeping child against your chest, the sweet-smelling, down-covered head under your nose. In the early days with a newborn, mothers have time to enjoy these moments. Then reality sets in.

Baby is still dependent on you for nourishment, care, and comfort but everyday tasks and errands demand your attention. And you may have other children who need you. Life goes on, and there is always too much to do. But busy mothers do not have to give up the bliss of keeping baby close. They can accomplish those tasks that need to be done and still enjoy their baby’s companionship by "wearing" the baby in a carrier. According to Dr. William and Martha Sears, "Baby wearing does good things for babies, and it makes life easier for mothers."

Benefits for Baby

During the flutter of excitement and activity before birth, parents can get caught up creating lists of "necessities" for their soon-to-be newborn. Many expectant parents are led to believe that they will need a variety of specialized equipment in order to care for a baby. In reality, most babies need very little in the way of specialized equipment. Since you will be breastfeeding, the need for feeding equipment is non-existent. You already have the ability to meet baby’s nutritional needs without spending any extra money! The other thing, besides milk, that babies want and need most is human contact -— to be close to those who love them. This too requires little or no specialized equipment.

In many cultures, babies are constantly in the arms of caregivers. Anthropologists and psychologists who study the behavior of mothers and babies have observed that when mothers and babies are together, they are constantly shaping one another's behavior. When her baby whimpers or seems to be in distress, the mother responds and reassures her little one. If her baby seems hungry, she offers her breast. When the baby looks into her eyes, she smiles and talks to her baby, and her baby responds by gazing at her, smiling, or trying to "talk" in baby language. When babies encounter new people or new experiences, mothers and fathers who are holding them can help them overcome their fears and learn more about their world.

These sensitive, personality-shaping interactions happen most readily when babies are in the arms of their parents. When you wear your baby, the two of you move through your day together. You see the world from similar points of view. Your baby hears your voice as you talk to others, picks up on your emotions, and trusts you to provide safety and comfort. Even when a mother is focusing on other people or other tasks, a baby who is held in her arms or tucked into a sling is reassured by the physical contact. Wearing your baby provides closeness even when you can not give your baby one hundred percent of your attention.

Some parents worry that a baby who is constantly held or worn will become a fussy baby, always crying for attention. Actually, the opposite seems to be true. In cultures where babies are constantly in the arms of caregivers, infant crying spells are virtually unheard of. A study in North America showed that babies cried less when parents were instructed to wear or carry them for several "extra" hours each day. THE WOMANLY ART OF BREASTFEEDING comments:

These findings confirm what our mothering instincts tell us —- that plenty of loving contact does not "spoil" a baby or make him more demanding, but instead helps him feel more comfortable and happy in his new world.

A happy baby is quiet and alert. In this state of mind, he is ready to interact with people. When worn or carried by a parent, a contented baby can see what’s going on around him. When he sees facial expressions and hears his mother's voice, he is learning about the world.

In addition to helping infants develop emotionally and socially, baby wearing also meets their physical needs. Babies need and enjoy motion. In the womb, they become accustomed to the sound of mother's heart pumping blood and to the feeling of being confined in a small space. The experience of being in the womb also teaches them to enjoy the rhythm of their mother’s movements. After birth, the experience of being held close to a parent’s body helps them recall the peace they felt in the womb. A baby sling swaddles them and helps control the movement of their arms and legs. As parents move around the house or walk down the sidewalk, the motion soothes babies. Parents quickly discover that their newborn will sleep while in their arms, comforted by the rise and fall of mother or father’s chest. Lay that newborn down in a crib that neither breathes nor walks and baby wakes up in a hurry!

Bill and Martha Sears note that baby wearing stimulates the infant’s vestibular system, the parts of the inner ear that work like levels or sensors to control the body’s sense of balance. The stimulation "helps babies breathe and grow better, regulates their physiology, and improves motor development" (Sears and Sears 2001). This applies to both full-term and premature babies.

Baby wearing is usually associated with infants but it is very useful for toddlers, too. The world can be a scary place for toddlers. They will feel more confident when they know they can retreat to the security of the sling or carrier if needed, explains parent and writer Laura Simeon:

Toddlers often become over-stimulated, and a ride in the sling helps soothe and comfort them before (or after!) a "melt-down" occurs.

Benefits for Parents

Baby wearing can make the hectic lives of parents much easier. For example, wearing baby frees mother’s hands for basic cleaning, preparing food, running errands, and other day-to-day activities. With baby tucked in a sling or carrier, she will not have to stop what she is doing when baby fusses or needs reassurance. A few words, a soothing touch, and baby goes back to being contented. Leaving the house doesn’t require as much preparation, either. No large stroller to pack into the car and navigate through crowds and no heavy, removable car seat to carry around. A sling or baby carrier can be folded up and stuffed into a diaper bag so that it is readily available for use. Some mothers automatically put their sling on, like a jacket, whenever they head out the door.

Parents also experience a boost in confidence when practicing baby wearing. A baby who is contented makes a mother feel more competent. Because her baby is there, right under her nose, she knows what has frightened him. She can sense when her baby is growing restless or hungry and can fix the situation before baby’s complaints become disturbing and upsetting to her. "The more confidence parents have, the more they can relax and enjoy their children," explains Simeon. She continues:

A large part of confidence is the ability to read baby’s cues successfully. When a baby is held close in a sling, a parent becomes finely attuned to baby’s gestures and facial expressions....Every time a baby is able to let his parent know when he is hungry, bored, or wet without having to cry, his trust in the parent is increased, his learning is enhanced, and a parent’s confidence is reinforced. This cycle of positive interaction enhances the mutual attachment between parent and child, and it makes life more enjoyable for everyone.

Breastfeeding and Baby Wearing

Breastfeeding mothers who practice baby wearing find it easy to nurse their babies more often. This may help babies gain more weight. The shorter the time between feedings the higher the fat content in mother’s milk. By wearing baby, a mother can easily respond to his early feeding cues:

When a baby is near his source of milk and comfort, he does not have to use much energy to get his mother’s attention; he can use this energy to grow instead. (Sears and Sears 2001)

If a mother thinks that she will feel uncomfortable breastfeeding in public, baby wearing can help her overcome this worry. Breastfeeding in public is likely to attract more attention if the baby has reached the point that he is crying frantically when mother tries to offer the breast. If baby is already close to mother in a sling, she can respond as soon as he shows early feeding cues, such as rooting for the breast or sucking on his hands. She can adjust his position and her clothing and have him peacefully nursing before anyone even notices. The extra fabric from the sling can easily be pulled over baby’s head, and mother can continue shopping or eating dinner without any fuss. With the fabric of the sling blocking out distractions, baby will settle down to the business of eating and may nurse quietly off to sleep.

Practical Points

Parents use baby carriers for many different reasons and in all kinds of situations. Carriers allow baby to enjoy being in your presence even when you are concentrating on other activities. Your baby does not need constant face-to-face stimulation from you, just the reassurance that you are there. Whenever you find yourself trying to juggle the needs of your baby and the demands of everyday life, it’s likely that baby wearing will make things easier. For example: If you need exercise, put baby in the carrier and go for a walk. Babies fuss less when held close to you. Bundled in a stroller, baby can not see your face or feel your body.

A baby sling can help support baby at the breast, giving mother a free hand to cuddle a toddler or work a puzzle with a preschooler.

A baby carrier puts baby up where the action is when mother or father is preparing dinner. With lots to watch, baby won’t demand your full attention, allowing you to peel potatoes or knead the bread dough. You can shift baby around to your back to keep curious fingers away from sharp knives and other hazards. Or use a backpack carrier in the kitchen.

Strollers are hard to push across the sand or over the wood chips under the playground equipment at the park. With baby riding along in a carrier, you can trail along behind an older child and go wherever you need to be. You can catch a three-year-old at the bottom of the slide or help an adventuresome climber find his way back down.

Many parents choose to bring their breastfeeding baby along when they go to adult gatherings, so that baby can nurse when needed as mother enjoys an evening out. A baby carrier will keep baby happy and contented when awake and provides a safe, comfortable place for baby to settle down, nurse, and sleep.

Mothers who bring their babies to their place of employment or who bring baby along to their volunteer activities use baby slings or other types of carriers to care for their babies while they do their work.

Many babies sleep better when they are in contact with a parent’s body. If you have put baby down in bed for a nap and he wakes up while you are in the middle of a project, ease him into the carrier. You may be able to get him to nap a little longer, giving you a chance to finish what you were doing.

Baby carriers are not just for mothers and fathers. If your baby spends time with a substitute caregiver, encourage the sitter to wear your baby. The familiar feeling of being cuddled close to a loving adult will be reassuring.

You can use a baby carrier even in cold weather. Some mothers wear their jacket open over the baby carrier. Others adjust the carrier to a larger size and wear it over their coat. If you want to be fashionable you can drape a shawl or poncho around yourself and your baby. The warmth of your body will help keep your baby warm.

Styles of Carriers

Nowadays, there is a wide variety of slings and carriers to choose from. Some parents like to have different types of baby carriers for different kinds of outings and activities. Others find it helpful to have one sling or carrier for mother and a different carrier for father. Then neither parent has to fumble to adjust the various straps and rings to fit. In some cases, parents use one type of carrier or sling for their newborn and switch to another type as baby gets older. A backpack type carrier can be useful with a toddler if the family does a lot of walking or hiking.

Using a sling or other type of baby carrier takes some practice. It may take a few tries for you and your baby to feel comfortable and secure. But since both of you will benefit from baby wearing for months, even years, to come, it’s worth the effort. One suggestion for getting the baby used to the sling is to start walking as soon as you get things adjusted. The baby will be comforted by the movement as he gets used to being carried in a new way.

Several styles of slings are sold through the LLLI Catalogue and online at www.lalecheleague.org. Many are featured in ads in LLLI publications. It may be helpful to discuss the choices of slings or carriers with other mothers at LLL Group meetings. Hearing their opinions may help you decide which type would be best for you.

The following gives a brief description the various styles of carriers that parents can consider for baby wearing.

Slings with Rings. These popular slings are widely available and come in a variety of fabrics, patterns, and colors. They can be used for newborns, older babies, and toddlers. Slings are worn over one shoulder and around the parent’s body, with baby nestled in the fabric, either in front or on the parent’s hip. The sling is adjusted by threading the "tail" fabric through the rings and tightening or loosening it until mother feels comfortable and baby is secure. Sewn tails thread and tighten more easily. Most brands of slings offer petite and tall sizes, but these may need to be special-ordered.

It is sometimes difficult to feel that a newborn is comfortable in a sling. It may seem that he is engulfed in all the fabric! You can try placing a small folded blanket under the baby to raise him higher in the sling. As baby gets older, he can be placed upright in the sling with the fabric adjusted to support his head. When baby is able to sit on his own, he can rest in the sling on mother’s hip.

Ring slings come in a variety of styles —- with and without padding; in natural, synthetic, woven, and knit fabrics; and with loose or sewn tails. Depending on the amount and distribution of the padding, some slings may seem bulky to some mothers. The fabric will cover most of the mother’s torso, so the pattern and color you choose should be something you will enjoy wearing! Sometimes mother will choose a colorful pattern for her sling and buy a second sling in a darker solid color for dad to use. Most slings are machine washable so keeping them clean is no problem. Slings with rings range in price from $40 to $60. Most come with a free instruction video.

Pouch Carriers. Related to the slings with rings are pouch carriers, which go across one shoulder and holds the baby across the mother’s body in the front or back. These carriers have fewer options for adjustment so they are sold in small, medium, and large sizes. Pouch carriers range in price from $40 to $60.

Long Tied Wraps. For many years, mothers around the world have been carrying their babies in long pieces of cloth that they tie around their bodies in various ways. Now there are commercial brands of long tied wraps that are sold with instructions showing mothers how to carry their babies in various ways. These carriers are typically 12 feet long and may be made of woven or knit fabric. Mother can wrap and tie the fabric in various ways depending on baby’s age and size and mother’s preference. The fabric can be wrapped across both shoulders and around the waist so the weight of the baby can be distributed more evenly. At first, the amount of fabric in these carriers may seem intimidating, and you’ll need to follow the instructions carefully the first few times you use them. After that, you may not need to fully untie the wrap each time you use it and it will become much easier. Mothers find that the versatility in positioning the baby in a long tied wrap makes the initial learning period well worth the effort.

Since there are no weight or size restrictions, this type of carrier can be used from birth through toddlerhood. Also, as he grows, baby can be positioned in the carrier according to his preferences and moods. Sometimes he may want to be snuggled close facing mother; other times he may want to face outward to see the world. Long tied wraps can be easily adjusted to accommodate discreet breastfeeding. Baby can usually be put in and taken out of the wrap without a lot of disruption. The fabric does not have to be retied every time you use the carrier.

The cost of long tied wraps varies dramatically, depending on the fabric. Some are made from designer fabrics or organically grown cotton. There are also patterns available so this kind of wrap can easily be made at home.

Soft Backpacks and Front Carriers. Other options for baby wearing include soft front carriers and backpacks. In a soft front carrier, baby is in front of mother, either facing her or facing out. These carriers are adjusted by straps or hooks (sometimes both) and usually have weight restrictions. Some are designed for smaller babies; others can be used up to toddlerhood.

In a soft backpack, baby is facing forward with his tummy against mother’s or father’s back. These are usually designed for use with an older baby who can support his head. There are many different brands available on the market.

Some mothers find that front carriers and backpacks are not as convenient to use as ring slings or long tied wraps because baby can’t be breastfed as easily and there is less flexibility to positioning.

Backpacks with lightweight aluminum frames. These carriers can be used for babies who are old enough to sit up on their own. Some are large enough to accommodate a toddler up to two or three years old. Parents find them useful for long walks or hiking.

In Conclusion

Baby wearing is incredibly helpful in integrating baby into your daily life. You can interact with your baby throughout the day, breastfeed frequently, and still play with an older child and accomplish adult tasks. Babies benefit from spending time in the rich learning environment of the adult world. Parents feel more confident and less isolated. Baby wearing also makes the world more baby-friendly. As Bill and Martha Sears explain:

When adults wear babies, we let our children know that babies are important and that they belong with their parents. We teach our children...that big people care for little people and that babies are fun to be around.

References

Sears, W. and Sears, M. The Attachment Parenting Book. Boston, Massachusetts: Little Brown, 2001.
THE WOMANLY ART OF BREASTFEEDING. Schaumburg, Illinois: La Leche League International, 2004.
Simeon, Laura. Ten Reasons to Wear Your Baby, www.wearsthebaby.com.

Sling Stories

  • My third child, Mariëtte, was a high-need baby, who refused to be laid down. My baby carrier allowed me to carry her and continue with everyday tasks. I remember doing the ironing with her on my back! The baby carrier helped me survive those very intense months and today I can enjoy the benefits when I look at her and see a happy teenager.
    Esmé Nel
    Wolseley South Africa
  • Baby carriers are great for newborns, who like to stay close and to hear mother’s heartbeat. I found mine so helpful because I couldn’t stand to leave a fussing baby. I could carry her in a front pack and have my arms free to get clothes from the dryer, stir a pitcher of frozen juice, etc. So much easier and less tiring than carrying a baby in one arm.
    Mary Hake
    Crooked River Ranch OR USA
  • My husband and I have always loved the outdoors! Our favorite activity is hiking and when our children were born, we really didn’t want to stop. Since our daughter, Evangeline, and son, Jacob, are only 17 months apart in age, there were many hikes that we took, each of us with a child in a backpack-style carrier! Not only could we continue our hiking, but our children grew up with a love of nature and an affinity for the outdoors! As soon as they could toddle, they became hikers with us! Now, at age 12 and 13, they are expert hikers, campers, and nature lovers!
    Meg Sondey
    Torreon Coahuila Mexico
  • The thing I remember most about my baby carrier, is how easy it made keeping track of three children at the beach. The baby was in the sling, sitting cross-legged and facing outward, and I had one girl holding each hand. The girls could jump in the waves and the baby was entertained watching them. Everyone was happy, including me. These "babies" are now 17, 14, and 12 and much harder to keep track of at the beach!
    Mary Wagner-Davis
    Roseville CA USA
  • I found that using a sling with my son made my life much easier and made me feel much calmer, I’m sure it helped him... all I know is I felt that he was much safer if he was right with me all the time. I really enjoyed going for walks with him in the sling because my hands were free and I could talk with him any time without stopping.
    Heather McCutcheon
    Calgary AB Canada
  • My boys are ages 6, 4, and 22 months. I started using a sling with the first one at around five to six weeks, as soon as I was able to buy one. I started with the other two from the day they were born. It has always been my must-have baby item. I stopped using it with my oldest when he was 21 months only because his brother was due in a month. Then with the next one I can’t even remember how old he was, a little older than two. And I still wear my youngest.
    Aisling Jones
    Fort Worth Texas USA
  • Around my house, we called our long-tied wrap carrier "the magic bag" because every time we put my son in it, he fell asleep.
    Stacy Anderson
    Los Angeles CA USA
Last updated 11/17/06 by jlm.
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