Babywearing describes carrying your baby or child in a baby carrier, like a sling or wrap. It’s a way to make the normal and important demands of babies easier for parents to read. Babywearing meets both the baby’s need to be held and the parents’ needs to feel less ‘stuck’. It can allow some comfort, surrender, and connection where it may otherwise be hard to manage.
Ever find yourself craving the time to actually eat an entire sandwich? That is, without putting it down halfway through to pick up your baby once again!? I remember this feeling so well; from when I had three little ones hanging off of me while I ate or while using the bathroom. I don’t think I made it through one single shower without having to stop the water, peer out of the curtain, and assure my little one that I was still there (not gone forever)! Babywearing is in my personal AND professional toolkits as a necessary tool to keep moms and babies together.
With my children older and out of their favourite woven wrap, I teach new families about wearing their own babies and witness the amazing benefits. And no wonder babywearing is gaining in popularity – it’s something mothers have relied on forever! Within many traditional cultures, parents weave baby carriers together with love, time, and original designs. Wearing and carrying our children close when they need it is the simple way society welcomes babies throughout the world.
Wearing our babies close can be a safe and enjoyable way to:
- Meet babies intense attachment needs
- Promote exclusive breastfeeding (even in premature babies)
- Increase the duration exclusive breastfeeding
- Increase breastfeeding while using solid foods
- Reduce crying and colicky behavior in infants
- Promote appropriate structural & spinal development (especially in contrast to plastic carriers such as chairs and swings)
- Decrease the chance of mothers developing Postpartum Mood Disorders
This is quite the list of advantages to wearing our babies! Of special interest to me is how carrying and wearing our babies improves breastfeeding rates and duration of breastfeeding.
Skin to Skin Contact
Newborn babies’ ability to find the breast on their own—and to continue to find the breast successfully—climbs when babies are placed skin to skin and stay there. Skin to skin contact gets a lot of lip service, PSA’s and posters, and placement in hospital protocols. However, after attending many births as a doula and working with clients in hospital, I know it isn’t practiced properly. It can seem inconvenient to remain skin to skin beyond the first hour of life without proper guidance in the beginning.
Incorporating baby carriers in the first few hours and days could dramatically increase the amount of skin to skin contact at home and in hospital. Dr. Nils Bergman, a renowned pediatrician from South Africa, has shared wonderful research on skin to skin contact. He suggests that babies should be skin to skin without interruption for the “first 1,000 minutes of life” – approximately 17 hours. Also, he shows babies benefit from skin to skin care for many months and while carried close to primary caregivers for many years. This recommendation can seem overwhelming, especially when new parents are part of a culture valuing early independence. But our babies need contact time with caregivers, especially skin to skin contact. Using simple cloth carriers provides mothers a proven, easy, safe, and successful way to keep their babies skin to skin for days and weeks.
Beyond the 1st Hour
Unfortunately, families are not necessarily encouraged to keeping babies skin to skin beyond the first hour of life. Many caregivers promote early skin to skin and early initiation of breastfeeding. However, once ‘completed’ they typically swaddle the baby and the family moves to their next room or goes home. If they don’t unwrap baby and place them skin to skin again, this momentary separation actually lasts hours or days. This does not allow for that integral uninterrupted 1,000 minutes of skin to skin contact that Dr Bergman’s research has shown is essential for early brain wiring. Instead, baby is alone in blankets, left to sustain its own energy and vital processes without the support of mother’s energy. It best for mom and baby to snuggle, gaze into each others eyes, and learn the subtleties of their new relationship.
Preemies and Babywearing
There are many products for preemies to safely keep them skin to skin while their level of care is unchanged. Dr Bergman has even developed the Kanga Carrier, a babywearing shirt that mothers can wear, sleep in, and walk around in. It’s designed to keep preemies safe, skin to skin, and in many instances, alive. Also, NICU’s around the world use the Sleep Belt, another great example. For a full term baby, these special carriers are less necessary but still useful for families who feel nervous about their babies sleeping on them. Alternatively, a simple wrap or ring sling would be enough to comfortably and safely wear a baby skin to skin. A wrap provides the most versatility for use on day one, month one, or year one! Whichever carrier you choose, learn how to use it before the baby comes so that the carrier is useful as soon as possible. If not, babywearing educators are available in many cities to support new families.
Babies love being snug and warm, encased as they were in the womb. In a typical tight cloth swaddle your baby doesn’t have your body to keep him warm, your heartbeat to keep him stimulated, or his umbilical cord to keep him continuously fed. Generally, he stays well outside of mother’s arms, too far for hormones and pheromones communicate back and forth between the mom-baby dyad. The tight swaddle will conveniently keep him quiet, but will not satisfy his need for close contact to mom.
Rather than this artificial womb (which really isn’t much like a womb after all) that same baby would do far better “swaddled” onto mom in a wrap. The wrap puts baby near her warm breast, feeling her breath and heartbeat, and able to demonstrate subtle hunger cues. When so close to mom, she notices these cues and responds quickly. A traditional swaddle set up away from mom in a crib or bassinet often misses these subtle cues. Unfortunately, this may interrupt feeding on demand, which is an important breastfeeding best practice. The independent swaddle may decrease asking for food. And we potentially decrease milk supply with decreased demand, especially in the first few days and weeks of life. Many parents then turn to scheduled feeds and waking babies’ to remind this baby to eat.
Knowing Our Babies
Newest mothers should get to know their babies, read their subtle cues, and anticipate their needs. This way they meet those needs with prompt, nuanced care. Yet our swaddling and compartmentalizing of newborns has possibly led to a culture of distant and distracted parenting.
For many families, this has resulted in:
- Lower milk supply
- Lower breastfeeding rates
- More not yet latching babies
- Higher rates of jaundice
- Low blood sugar and weight loss
- Higher postpartum depression
- More colic and crying
- Lower levels of subconscious communications between mother and baby
Shifting the care of our newborn from swaddling and scheduling to babywearing and baby-led feeding may lead to a swing in “normal” infant care—with immense benefits to both mom and baby. Babies benefit from their parents’ quick response times when mothers and fathers carry their babies close from the start. When we allow for their increased demand for food then we may see an increased and abundant milk supply as a result.
Keeping babies close helps families understand that baby could be hungry again and that it’s OK to feed again. This will help families feel confident in meeting their babies’ needs, with kindness and empathy, without concern of creating bad habits. Not to mention in ways that promote and protect a great and prolonged milk supply! However you choose to parent, carrying your baby close has clear and evidenced benefits that can only inspire better outcomes.
And as a mother of three small children, all born within three years, I call surviving those early years my “better outcome”! I remember how we navigated nursing while pregnant, tandem nursing, early and frequent skin to skin, nursing while chasing toddlers, and generally meeting my children’s intense and constant needs. We let out a huge sigh of relief that we made it! I know deeply that there’s no way I could have met these needs with such ease and kindness without my beloved baby carriers. They helped me keep my babies close, safe, connected… and well fed.
Ashley Pickett, IBCLC
CBS Babywearing Educator