These days, people are often searching for the term babywearing. This suggests that parents see it as a potential benefit for themselves or their babies. Until now, when I’ve thought of the benefits of babywearing, I’ve thought more in terms of “nice-to-have” rather than “need to have.”
But while I was interviewing Dr. Rosie Knowles, author of Why Babywearing Matters, I had a major eye-opener. You’ll want to hear her very touching story, I’m sure. Certainly, babywearing was a benefit — and perhaps even a necessity — for her.
Maybe you’re hoping to find a litany of the benefits of babywearing. I haven’t found a succinct evidence-based list, but some benefits have been detailed by Robyn Reynolds-Miller, BSN, RN, CCRN. I will attempt to briefly summarize her details here, and add several of my own ideas as well.
Similarities to skin-to-skin contact
Unquestionably, the benefits of skin-to-skin contact have been well-established. (Listen to my interviews with world-class researchers Dr. Nils Bergman and Dr. Susan Ludington.) However, we cannot extrapolate those benefits to the benefits of babywearing, because there are many distinct differences.
Yet, look at the similarities! With both skin-to-skin contact and babywearing, the baby is in a ventral, upright position. He can hear the mother’s heartbeat and feel her warmth. (Note, too, that skin-to-skin contact can occur when the baby is worn.)
The ventral position, championed by Dr. Suzanne Colson and others, stimulates the C fibers of afferent nerves (sometimes call C-afferent nerves) of the somatic sensory system. Everyone has these — mothers, fathers, siblings, grandparents. These nerves, when stimulated, evoke a pleasant feeling in humans.
Further, if you’re looking for more benefits of babywearing, just think about how the ventral position may help an infant has gastroesphogeal reflux.
Analgesic and calming effects from holding the baby
For nearly two decades, we’ve had good research to show that breastfeeding (which, of course, entails holding the baby) contributes to an analgesic effect on newborns during an invasive or painful procedure. (See landmark study by Gray and colleagues which showed that babies did not have a significant increase in heart rate during an invasive procedure; crying and grimacing were reduced, too.)
Can we extrapolate that to babywearing? Maybe! Certainly, babies are being held when the parent does babywearing. Perhaps some of this analgesic effect is related to the newborn sensing his mother’s warmth, hearing her heartbeat, and more.
Motion as one of the benefits of babywearing
Importantly, Reynolds-Miller points out that “children with sensory processing disorders, visual deficits, or developmental delays often seek calming self-stimulatory behaviors…rocking or swaying themselves.” That makes sense.
In my interview with her, anthropologist Tracy Cassels pointed out that humans were originally hunter-gatherers, and even today in hunter-gatherer societies, infants rarely cry. Hence, our ancestors would have been carrying their young, rocking or swaying as they gathered. The baby moves in all six planes of motion.
Such motion stimulates the vestibular system, which is very important for neurological development.
Maybe you’ve noticed that going for a walk with your baby can help him to relax. Meanwhile, you’re getting some exercise! As you talk about the benefits of babywearing, that’s for sure a two-fer!
Core muscle development
Ah, yes. We’ve all heard about the benefits of developing a strong core. How about the baby?
The baby’s core must respond to the movement of the adult who is wearing him. And likely as not, these core muscles will tighten over and over again to maintain his position. Reynolds-Miller cites Brentnall-Compton who says that this repetitive action strengthens the core muscles in both the infant and the caregiver.
Similarly, if you’re the adult, maybe you don’t have time to go to the gym and lift weights to strengthen your core. But if you’re babywearing, you’re lifting plenty of weight! The benefits of babywearing aren’t just for the baby.
Development of language capabilities
Research has shown that when parents talk to or read to infants, they develop better language skills. So, let’s think about this for a moment. Might the parent be more likely to talk to the baby when she or he is wearing the baby? Again, we don’t have cause-and-effect proof, but unless and until we do, it makes sense, don’t you think?
Attachment, bonding and the human need for touch
Wearing your baby appears to have a positive effect on attachment. The authors say, “We infer from these results that…there may be a causal relation between increased physical contact, achieved through early carrying in a soft baby carrier, and subsequent security of attachment between infant and mother.”
Being in close contact with your baby stimulates hormones that create feelings of attachment and bonding. In the 1950s, Dr. Niles Newton referred to it as the “love hormone”, which dramatically affects breastfeeding and lactation. Prolactin, primarily responsible for milk production, is increased, and reduces feelings of maternal stress.
Meanwhile, the benefits of babywearing are extended to fathers and other family members who get a special kind of closeness by wearing the baby.
Reynolds-Miller also points out that by wearing the baby, parents are automatically including him in regular activities: grocery shopping, hiking, or whatever. She says that, in this way, the baby feels included in the family’s usual routine and activities.
This is especially true of the baby who is in the NICU. In my interview with Jennifer Canvasser, she said what a great relief it was to be able to walk around with the baby instead of being tethered to a chair in order to hold (and/or be skin-to-skin) with her baby.
It would be tough to talk about benefits of babywearing without talking about convenience.
Certainly, babywearing allows for discreet nursing. And, if you’ve ever struggled to get a stroller through a crowded street or onto a city bus or pushed through the sand at the beach, you know that babywearing is a much better alternative!
But most of all, babywearing is a hands-free experience for the mother to do anything else she wants to do. How great is that?
As you listen to Dr. Knowles, notice how she emphasizes her observations that mothers had so much more confidence when they were wearing their babies.
Other benefits of babywearing
Maybe you’ve noticed that newborns have a strong grasp reflex? When they are being worn, they can instinctively grasp the mother’s clothing or body.
And, nowadays, with as many as 44.6% of young US infants affected with plagiocephaly (“flat-head” syndrome), babywearing is an excellent alterative to being supine for many hours.
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I doubt I’ve captured all of the benefits of babywearing in this short post. What can you add? Tell me in the comments below!