mother and infant wondrous thing

The importance of soft touch for healthy infant development

A huge amount of work has been done in recent years to understand the role of soft touch in how babies' brains develop. Here I summarise the major points in one page! It has been a great privilege to visit the Affective Touch conference in Liverpool and all the ACE-Aware Nation events in Scotland (with Nadine Burke-Harris and Gabor Mate) and to see all this research coming together.

Soft touch changes the DNA and the brain

  • it switches certain genes on and off, thus affecting cortisol receptor expression and therefore modulates the stress response. This was shown by Michael Meaney and his team; rat pups who were licked and groomed frequently by their mothers became high-licking mothers themselves. The DNA methylation of these high-licking rats and their offspring were different from low-licking rats. When a pup from a low-licking mother was fostered in a high-licking nest, this pup became a high-licker, and was found to display the same DNA changes. Behaviour had altered the expression of these genes, and these epigenetic changes persisted into the offspring. 
  • Soft touch reduces anxiety and pain, thought to be via effects on the HPA axis, parasympathetic system and oxytocin release.
  • Deep pressure (as in hugs and massage) is also thought to play an important part in social touch, activating brain regions highly similar to those that respond to C-tactile stroking.
  • Neonatal studies have shown the impact of soft touch (skin to skin) on improving long term neurodevelopmental outcomes, as they are thought provide a scaffold for the developing social brain.
  • Soft touch and holding is know to help with regulating and stabilising cardiovascular parameters in premature babies and a good case for babywearing as a positive intervention has been made in a study in one NICU.
  • There are positive long- term effects of supporting early mother-baby close contact. The "Family Nurture Intervention" studies suggest that at age 4-5, the intervention arm showed more healthy autonomic regulation

 

Soft touch also affects the hormonal systems of the body.

  • Oxytocin is well known to be released by skin to skin tactile contact, as well as visual, auditory, olfactory stimuli, and works to promote further social interaction. Close contact stimulates release of this important hormone of bonding into both halves of the dyad (usually mother and baby).
  • Oxytocin reduces stress and increases a sense of wellbeing and connection, and it has been proposed that regular skin to skin contact can shift the overall balance of the neurohumoral system away from sympathetic activation (stress, flight/fight) towards the parasympathetic/oxytocinergic system (calm and connection). With what we know about the effects of prolonged stress and cortisol release on health, this is encouraging.

It is clear that there are major benefits to the frontal closeness that babywearing in the early months and years can bring!


Further reading

Skin to Skin

Epigenetic programming by maternal behavior, Nature Neuroscience volume 7, pages 847–854(2004) Meaney et al

Lick your rats!

The Dual Nature of Early-Life Experience on Somatosensory Processing in the Human Infant Brain, Current Biology Vol 27 Issue 7, P1048-1054 Maitre et al

Babywearing as an intervention in the NICU  Advances in Neonatal Care: September 29, 2020, Williams et al

Longer term effects of nurture on mother/child regulation Clin Neurophysiol Off J Int Fed Clin Neurophysiol. 2014;125(4):675-684, Welch et al

Why Oxytocin Matters, Kerstin Uvnas-Moberg, 2020

Neuroendocrine mechanisms involved in the physiological effects caused by skin-to-skin contactInfant Behavior and Development, Volume 61, November 2020, Uvnas-Moberg et al


carrying in special circumstances

Carrying in Special Circumstances

Sometimes there is a need for extra support with using slings; don’t be discouraged if you or your child have extra needs, there are always ways to keep carrying in special circumstances.

If your child can be held and carried in arms, there is likely to be a way to carry them safely in a sling. Twins can be carried in slings, as can a baby and a toddler at the same time (tandem carrying). There are ways to carry safely in pregnancy, to carry after birth, to carry premature babies. We will help you to carry your child if you have a disability, or if your child has special needs or physical health concerns. We are here to help you find a way to keep them close.

This page links to some useful information; personal stories about carrying in special circumstances, professional advice and useful links. Please see our Common Queries page for simpler situations.

If you have a special story, please get in touch to share them with me for the wider community!

Here is an excellent downloadable article on Potential Therapeutic Benefits of Babywearing by Robyn Reynolds-Miller.

You can find more educational resources here for downloading (such as infographics and leaflets and images)

If you need more specialised support or have a query not covered here, please do get in touch with me or find your local sling library at Sling Pages.


carrying a premature baby

Carrying a Premature Baby

This is Kay and Alex's story of carrying a premature baby. She tells us about their lives together and what role slings have played in their rocky journey. It is a truly inspiring story of great courage and endurance and I am honoured to have played a small part.

 

"For as long as I can remember I have wanted to be a mum, but my real journey to parenthood started 5 years ago. I decided that I didn't want to wait for the "right person" to come along and started looking into fertility treatment for single women.  Unfortunately the process wasn't was easy as I expected; after lots of tests and surgery I discovered that I had endometriosis which may affect fertility..

I started out doing IVI with donor sperm but after two attempts with no success it was suggested that IVF might have a better chance of working. I decided to take part in the egg-sharing programme to reduce the cost and hopefully help someone else too. During this time there was a lot of compulsory counselling to ensure I was aware of all potential outcomes. I'm very lucky that I have a fantastic support system of family and friends around me, especially my parents.

The first attempt at IVF was not straightforwards, I got 14 eggs, (7 of which were donated), but only one was fertilised. This was put back and I got a chemical pregnancy but miscarried. I also got a relatively rare condition called Ovarian Hyperstimulation Syndrome (OHSS) which made me really ill and I had to be hospitalised on numerous occasions. Due to the poor fertilisation rate it was thought that I had poor egg quality so had to pay the full cost of IVF treatment (as a single woman I was not entitled to any NHS treatment.)

On the second IVF attempt, medications were reduced to try lessening the risk of OHSS but because doctors were anxious about this, the egg collection was done too early and 5 eggs were lost during retrieval. This attempt was unsuccessful. I again got OHSS but much milder this time. The emotional rollercoaster or IVF is unimaginable and the hormones of treatment don't help! You spend all your time so focused on preparing to become pregnant, trying to stay positive, eat well etc, then once the embryo is implanted you have the longest two weeks praying you are pregnant and counting down to the day you can take a pregnancy test... but as soon as it is test day comes you don't want to do the test because you are until then "Pregnant till Proven Otherwise" ( PUPO). Internet support groups become your sanctuary because others undergoing IVF can understand what you are feeling, while your family and friends sometimes don't understand why you put yourself through so much. IVF became my only focus.

After the second attempt I had an eight month break to save up as I had used all my savings. I decided that the next would be my last attempt and I would do everything I could to try to help it work so I would have no regrets. I changed my diet (cutting out all processed food), saw a nutritionist, had regular massage (including Mayan abdominal massage) and acupuncture. We changed the IVF regime to one that had a higher chance of success but also a higher risk of OHSS. It was a risk I was willing to take. I had partly given up hope of this round working, as I got two fertilised eggs out of 19 when I began getting the OHSS symptoms again on day 2.

I did a home pregnancy test two days before test day..... and it was positive!

I didn't know how to react, so burst into tears before laughing maniacally then calling my best friend and my parents. The excitement wore off quickly though when I was admitted to hospital with OHSS at just 4+1 weeks. At a point when I had hoped that the hard part was over, it turned out that this was just the beginning of another difficult journey.

kay USSAt 18 weeks pregnant, I began getting tightenings. As a midwife, I knew that Braxton Hicks could start early, so I just assumed it was this. though I also worried it might be something more. At 19+4 with continued tightenings, I was seen by my consultant for review and thankfully everything looked ok and possibly just a urine infection causing all this. I was reassured two days later when I had my anatomical scan and everything looked good with a healthy active baby.

I continued to have tightenings but tried to ignore them as everything else seemed OK. Then exactly two weeks later after my scan at 21+6, I started with the smallest amount of bleeding. Again I was reassured as baby seemed OK and it had settled, possibly caused by a cervical erosion, and just to observe. I continued spotting on and off but nothing major, until I was at work on a shift on labour ward at 23+1 weeks pregnant.

I had a significant bleed and was terrified. I felt it was too far on in the pregnancy to lose the baby now but it was far too early to be born. I burst into tears. I am so grateful that I was at work surrounded by fantastic colleagues. I was admitted to the antenatal ward for observation overnight and I didn't go home again.

I continued to have tightenings and bleeding to varying degrees over the next three weeks. Getting to 24 weeks was a major milestone and I was given steroids to mature the baby's lungs. At around 25 weeks my waters went though because of the bleeding it wasn't obvious. Baby was breech and because of the situation I kept being told I might be taken for a Caesarean if bleeding increased or I went into labour. I saw paediatricians who told me stark statistics about survival rates and disability. As a midwife I knew these things but as a mum it just didn't sink in. I was tearful and losing hope. At 25+5 I had a major bleed that got me taken to labour ward and starved in case it continued and and I needed theatre. I spent the next two days in high dependency being observed and in denial.

Writing it down now it seems so silly but even given the bleeding, tightenings and water break it still never clicked to anyone that the pain I was in could be labour. At exactly 26 weeks I was found to be 7cm dilated. Two hours later I had a vaginal breech delivery complicated by the head getting stuck.

Alexander Benjamin was born weighing 1lb 12 oz and in a very poor condition.

newborn Alex

The room was full of people but no-one was saying a word. Looking back at his notes now it says it took 18minutes to stabilise him before taking him to intensive care but it didn't feel that long to me. It seems awful to think about it now but at that point once Alex was born all I felt was relief. I was glad the pregnancy was finally over after months of feeling ill and stressed. I had spent the last few weeks trying to detach from the pregnancy as I feared the worst, but in the moment when Alex was taken away and we (myself, my parents and my friend) were left alone the silence said it all.

phototherapyI know it can often take up to an hour to get a baby settled into neonatal unit with all the lines, Xrays etc so we patiently waited. After nearly two hours I went to ask if we could see him.. the midwife came back saying the consultant wanted to come and talk to us first. I know the language of medical professionals and I honestly thought we had lost him. The consultant came round and told us that "Alex is a very sick little boy" and that the first 24hours would be critical. I think the adrenaline stopped me from feeling the full effects of the situation but looking back now at pictures and videos of those first hours has me choked up. Alex was beautiful to me, but so frail. You can count every rib and due to the manipulation of delivery his leg is almost black with bruising. He was covered with monitoring leads and various IV lines plus on a ventilator to keep him alive. He was put under phototherapy immediately.

Only I was allowed to touch him but couldn't hold him yet.
kay first holdMy first hold came on November 17th, aptly, World Prematurity Day. I was nervous about pulling a line or hurting him but also so excited to hold him! He was put skin to skin down my top and his ventilator tubes taped to me to keep him safe. I can still smell him now and it brings me to tears. As a parent you take for granted the milestones you will see; the birth experience you imagined, the crying baby just born and put skin to skin at once. I didn't get these, and my milestones with Alex are different, but even more amazing after the challenges he has faced. We spent 135 days in the neonatal unit and I was there 12 hours a day for 133 of those days. (Two days I was ill from sheer exhaustion and wasn't allowed in.)

skin to skin ventilatedI spent my time holding Alex as much as I could and when he was too poorly to be held I touched him through the incubator and spoke and sang to him. I felt being physically close would help us both bond better, especially after an awful pregnancy and so much separation. I was already aware of the Sheffield Sling Surgery due to friends attending and had contacted Rosie early on in pregnancy as I had planned to carry my baby in a sling. Once Alex was over the first big hurdle of coming off the ventilator at a month old, I got back in touch to find out if slings could help us while still in the NICU. The physiotherapist on the unit was very in favour of using slings and gave me a Vija top to try, but I felt it was more comfy just using my strappy top as we got so tangled with the wires.By the time we moved to HDU it was a slightly more relaxed environment with staff that seemed more in favour of breastfeeding and skin to skin. I decided, after discussion with Rosie, to buy my first sling, a Hana stretchy wrap.

It felt complicated at first getting used to the technique of wrapping and because of all the monitoring it would often take someone else to help me get all the wires sorted, but once Alex was put into the sling he fell straight to sleep. I noticed that often his heart rate and oxygen sats would improve too and it made me even more determined to keep him close.

skin to skin ventilated

Our journey through special care gives me mixed emotions. On the one hand I would never wish this experience on anyone. The constant stress, not just for myself but also family and friends around me. The fear that if I leave, something might happen. Every time the phone rang panic would set in and don't even get me started on the paediatricians coming up to the ward!

However, my life has changed completely in so many good ways. I have realised and experienced how fantastic the care is from my colleagues. I have become closer to my family and friends and I love watching my parents with Alex. I feel I will be an even more sympathetic and understanding midwife and I hope my practice will change to support women who go through similar experiences. Most of all I have realised my dream of becoming a mum and to the most incredible little fighter I have ever met.

fighter Alex

 

I feel I have a strong bond with Alex and many people have commented on how well I can read him. I believe it is because of staying close to him as much as I have and having him in the sling has facilitated this.

Alex has Chronic Lung Disease and came home on oxygen in March. He is doing incredibly well on the lowest level now, but transporting the oxygen has been a bit of a challenge for me. The canister is heavy and the container rucksack has narrow shoulders so has hurt my shoulders; trying to balance that weight against Alex has not been easy. At times I have felt isolated simply because of that. However I have met some wonderful people on my journey through special care and in the sling community (often the two groups mix!) and we wouldn't be where we are now without these challenges.kay alex hana

We are still using our Hana wrap, and I've been trying out a snuggly Sleepy Nico! I've learned how to use woven wraps; we are beginning to back carry; the end of the oxygen is in sight! Time to tuck Alex up into the Sleepy Nico and reconnect after a long day.

back carry o2


carrying in the postnatal period

Carrying in the Postnatal Period

lindsay 10days

Is carrying in the postnatal period (in the early weeks after a baby is born) safe?

Babies want to be held close from the very moment they enter the outside world; they crave contact and many will spend their first few days and weeks sleeping in their parents’ arms and feeding frequently, enjoying this close interaction.

Pregnancy can be tiring and uncomfortable for many, due to our changing bodies and habits. We are no longer an upright species but a sedentary one, to our great anatomical and physiological disadvantages; chronic pain is a significant problem for increasing numbers of people in our society. Symphysis Pubis Dysfunction can be debilitating for pregnant women, and there is a growing belief that many women’s bodies are frequently not in the optimal condition to carry a child and thus take much longer to recover from pregnancy than our forebears. Ligament softening and laxity (from the hormonal changes preparing a body to deliver a fetus) can take some time to resolve fully especially if there has been pre-existing back pain and poor posture, and breastfeeding may prolong the effects of relaxin.

Labour, while exhilarating and empowering for some, can be exhausting for others, especially if prolonged. The recent historical practice of lying down for delivery is in marked contrast to how most women around the world across history and cultures have given birth (upright, squatting or kneeling). The natural birth movement and the emergence of doulas to support women with their delivery choices mirrors a growing desire to get back to our ancient human roots, which may also encourage speedier recovery from labour and birth.

Women are becoming prouder of their bodies and what they have achieved; bringing forth life. As a friend of mine once said, how can you ask a butterfly to return to being a caterpilllar? Women's bodies are designed to carry and nurture children before birth and after. Here is a photo of one mum carrying her newborn in the early days after birth, proudly showing her post-partum body. martha RS

The rate of caesarean sections (both planned and as emergency) is high in Western society, currently between 20-25% of births in the UK (with some regional variation). A caesarean section is major abdominal surgery and some recovery time from this is to be expected, and varies enormously from woman to woman, depending on the reasons for the operation. Women are advised to avoid heavy lifting, “carry nothing heavier than your baby”, and not to drive for at least six weeks after birth. Scars can be uncomfortable and slow to heal for some, and some may experience abdominal pain for a while afterwards. Babies may come early and be very frail for several weeks.

Therefore it is not surprising that many mothers worry that after labour and birth, they may not be strong or well enough to carry their newborns in their arms for prolonged periods. Many will have toddlers at home needing the reassurance of their mother’s loving arms to help them cope with the newcomer’s arrival. Paternity or parental leave is often short; in a few weeks mothers are often required to manage at home alone.

Carrying your child in the postnatal period is important.

The early weeks are vital for bonding and attachment, providing continuity and security, promoting breastfeeding and helping to reduce depression. So yes, we should carry our babies somehow after birth. This doesn’t need a sling; people can hold their babies while sitting down and while reclining just as much as while they stand and walk around; it is the closeness and the contact and the skin to skin that promotes bonding and oxytocin release that matters. It helps to shape baby's brain, and also has a positive effect on yours!harriet

Carrying a newborn baby can be very healing if birth has been traumatic or there has been previous bereavement.

“"I had a tiny baby (4lb5oz) and experienced a traumatic birth, I suffered with PTSD. At times this meant I was very anxious and wanted to keep my baby close to me to be sure she was safe. I started with a stretchy wrap when P was just 3weeks old. I truly believe babywearing strengthened my attachment with her and helped me to cope every day." Anon

There are some garments of clothing that can be worn in hospital or in the early weeks after birth; mimicking the practice of putting a tiny newborn down the front of the shirt. Some of these garments (known as skin to skin tops or kangaroo care clothing) are designed for keeping baby skin to skin to the parent while reclining, and are not hands-free.

carrying in the postnatal period
Others are a little more structured (at least two layers of stretchy fabric) and provide enough support for baby that a parent can be hands-free and walk around, similar to a stretchy wrap. These can be most useful in hospital environments for their coolness and simplicity. (in the UK the Vija Design range is the most commonly used).

Please note that if your baby is premature or very small (under 6lb) it is wise to seek the advice of a specialist baby-carrying consultant; many "newborn" carriers, including some stretchy wraps will not provide enough support without guidance on how to use for these babies with special needs.

Breast and bottle-feeding can cause back, neck and shoulder pains, as can prolonged periods of one-sided carrying (which can also affect the pelvic floor and the symphysis pubis.) Being alert to the body’s signals of discomfort and acting on them to frequently redistribute the strain is of great benefit in building up tolerance and strength.

As women recover their strength and are able to do more each day, their mobile carrying abilities will grow too.  As womens’ bodies settle back down after pregnancy, with appropriate pelvic floor toning and correction of posture and alignment, carrying will become easier. Furthermore, as baby gets bigger and heavier, the parent’s muscles will adapt to the gradually increasing weight and become more toned day by day, the more often they carry.

“Much of my pre-pregnancy life was spent in the mountains, and carrying my babies after their birth helped me get back in touch with my "home". It enabled me to very gradually and gently regain some fitness away from busy streets, and felt like less strain on the scar area than pushing a double buggy uphill.” Carissa

twin stretchies

Keeping a baby’s weight high, snug and central will encourage loading across the large weight-bearing axes of the body, thereby preventing strain on muscles, ligaments and the pelvic floor, and avoiding abdominal pressure. Lifting a baby to the chest should be done carefully, with knees bent and upright posture maintained, and pelvic floor and core muscles engaged and active. Most types of carriers will be possible to use after a vaginal birth, and it will be a very individual and personal choice which. On the whole, most babies enjoy the gentle all-around pressure of carriers that can mould softly around them and be reminiscent of the uterine walls they have just left; and carriers that distribute weight widely across the parent’s upper body will be more comfortable. 

If you have a sling that makes your back ache, please visit your local sling library or consultant for a fit check (often a few tweaks make all the difference) or to try an alternative. Cheaper carriers from supermarkets/Ebay often work much less well than better designed carriers and therefore last much longer. "My baby is too heavy for a sling" is usually an issue with the sling not fitting/not being well designed.

14362622_10154509030856228_1258803144230351965_o

Carrying after a Caesarean

post CSNICUThis is also very possible, and it could be argued, perhaps more important post section than after a normal non-instrumental vaginal delivery, depending on how the individual feels after the surgery. Achieving skin to skin as soon as possible is ideal,  for promoting oxytocin release and bonding.  This is vitally important after a section, especially if it was emergency and traumatic, thereby interrupting many of the biofeedback mechanisms around bonding. It is also important if the section was planned and baby was thus delivered before the biological hormone cascades of labour and birth were able to begin. There can be a strong tendency for women who did not have the birth experience they wished for to feel robbed and deprived of an important part of their baby’s arrival. The subsequent feelings of sadness and grief, or disappointment or that they have let themselves or their baby down somehow, however untrue, can significantly hamper the forming of attachment bonds and play a part in later postnatal depression or other mood disorders.

Mothers who experience this are very likely to find that skin to skin contact and frequent close touch and carrying extremely useful; the process of initiating and mantaining contact and loving touch often acts as a catalyst for the oxytocin release; this positive feedback mechanism will encourage loving feelings to develop despite the less than “perfect” start and get bonding well under way.

As soon as surgery is safely over and a well baby can be given to its mother, skin to skin can begin; resting on the mother’s chest under a blanket, inside a shirt or with kangaroo care clothing. Women are entitled to this skin to skin and should insist upon it; baby does not need to be washed or the cord to be cut before contact is achieved; the sooner the better.

Once mother is ready to move around and carry her child in her arms she can; she is advised to carry nothing heavier than her baby. Some women will choose to use slings immediately, if they feel ready (especially if they are already familiar with slings and feel confident with their use), others will wish to wait, especially if they feel unwell or are in pain. If the mother is confined to hospital and alone for parts of the day and wishes to move around, she may find the sling will help her to feel safer than carrying her baby loose in arms while she is still a little unsteady.

“Having a sling for carrying was very useful, as much easier and less painful than carrying in arms (less stress on abdominal muscles).  It was great for bonding, especially since we were having trouble with breastfeeding.” Rebecca

The key factor is to avoid any carrier from irritating the wound or putting pressure on the abdomen. Double layer kangaroo-care shirts or other soft carriers such as stretchy or woven wraps, high-carrying waistband-less meh dais or buckle-tais and ring slings in frontal tummy to tummy carries, may be options to consider. Baby’s legs should ideally be tucked into the M shape, and this will also help to avoid feet kicking against a still tender wound. As the scar and any abdominal pain heals, carriers with more structured waistbands will become more accessible.xmas connecta

General tips about post-partum carrying (including fitness classes)

Post CS connectasarah hatBaby carrying in the post-partum period is possible, if done in a mindful, responsive way, and can actually help promote recovery.  Holding a baby close in the anatomically correct position so that their weight is well distributed through the large weightbearing axes will tone muscles and improve posture more than pushing a pram with a strong forwards lean. Being able to go for gradually longer and longer walks with your baby in a soft and comfortable sling will rebuild strength and release endorphins which are natural feel-good hormones.
Participating in postnatal recovery programmes can be useful; however combining carrying and exercise/dance is usually best done with great caution as not every provider will have adequate knowledge about postnatal recovery (pelvic floor and diastasis recti issues) or about the rate and speed of each woman’s individual recovery from birth. Many may have no specialist knowledge about safe sling use or how to protect a baby from sudden shaking movements, as well as how to avoid overloading still-recovering tissues with certain stretching or weight-bearing activities with the extra load of a child in a sling. Walking with a baby in the sling, ensuring good alignment and posture, gradually increasing the speed and duration, is usually enough exercise for most women in the early months. Please do not rush; pelvic floor dysfunction is very very common (14 million women in the UK are known to have an issue, and many many more never seek help and remain undiagnosed). Leaking is NOT normal or to be expected. If you are unsure if your pelvic floor is recovering normally, please see your GP.

Read more about babywearing fitness classes here.

Using a sling allows families to settle back into the normal rhythms of daily life.

Often, older siblings are uncertain about the new addition to the family and uneasy about their place in it; they may need extra reassurance with the birth of a new baby. They may wish to return to their mother’s arms and be close to her body, for reassurance and reinforcing of the attachment bond.walk after birth

Toddler carrying after birth

“During the intense post-birth bonding period with D I began to use a couple of wraps that had been favourites of R (the new big brother). It almost felt like a betrayal! But one afternoon, R asked if he could come up for a front carry in his favourite wrap, something he hadn't done for ages, and we twirled round the lounge together laughing while my husband cuddled the new baby. I think that was a really healing moment for us and let my eldest know he still had an important place in my arms too.’  Emma

However, toddler carrying after birth is much more of a challenge, especially if the pelvic floor is weak and there is diastasis recti (separation of the abdominal muscles from the stretching during pregnancy). Please seek help if your floor or core are weak.

tandem Many specialists would suggest it is wise to wait until any pelvic floor/diastasis recti issues have resolved and the mother is functionally strong before beginning to carry toddlers again; this will of course vary widely from woman to woman. Generally those mothers who are well used to carrying toddlers will find it easier to resume carrying than those beginning for the first time, and front carrying may be the most suitable position (rather than hip or back carries, to avoid straining still-healing tissue). Sitting down cuddles may be wise for a while!

Involving the whole family!

The post-partum period may be a great opportunity for other caregivers in the family to share the carrying and begin the bonding process.  Whole families thrive when children are kept close; it spreads the load of child care around. Partners can carry their newborns, or their older children to provide reassurance.

“Carrying our eldest son (3) enabled my wife to give her attention to our new baby. It gave us much needed daddy and son bonding, at a time when he was feeling insecure with the arrival of the new baby.” Mal

Remember, it is the closeness and contact that matters; in arms carrying is as valuable as using a sling, and the shifting of your growing baby around your body as your muscles tire will help to rebuild your strength and endurance. Sharing the carrying with other members of your family will help to strengthen relationships and reduce the strain on your own body too.

family


The unhelpful "rules" of babywearing

There are so many unhelpful rules of babywearing. I'm not talking about basic safety guidelines, but about the unspoken rules about how things must be done.

This needs addressing. I love babywearing. I love how special it is. I love how empowering and enabling it can be and what a difference it can make to children and their carers and the society around them.

I also love that it just makes life work for so many people on a practical level, regardless of all the benefits and reasons about why it is an activity that matters. Babywearing may be magical for many, and has so many positive effects on a physiological and neurological level, but really, for some, it’s just about getting stuff done, keeping the cogwheels of daily life turning, or helping to survive very tough situations.

I have watched thousands of people carrying their children all around the world and I love that I am part of a tradition of child rearing that goes back beyond the history books into our anthropological origins. I love it so much that I wrote a book all about it!

Carrying children is normal human behaviour, and it isn’t, and shouldn’t be, complicated or difficult. It shouldn’t be scary, inaccessible or expensive. It does not belong to groups of people to “own” or to build tall walls around to make things secret or elitist. Babywearing (the use of a sling or carrier to keep a child safe and close to a parent) is for everyone, every gender, every colour, every ability, every size, every shape. Babywearing should bring us together, not divide us. It should not alienate or exclude entire groups of people.

However, as the practice becomes more mainstream and the industry grows, this alienation is unfortunately happening more and more often. Marketing campaigns and the general make-up of many babywearing groups suggests that this is an activity for relatively well-off middle class “standard sized” white women in nuclear families, carrying able-bodied and healthy children. This is a direction that needs to be arrested before it becomes too entrenched. I’ll say it again, babywearing is for everyone and can be done in so many ways.

the unhelpful rules of babywearing
carry me daddy
the unhelpful rules of babywearing
Smiling Carrying Woman carrying baby - credit Steph Oliver-Beech benefits of babywearing

One way that babywearing can become elitist is in the development of complex rules, and I’d like to have a discussion about some of these “rules” and “guides” of babywearing that I am seeing shared around. I understand that it can feel reassuring to have black and white lists of what you can and can’t do, and schedules for certain types of carrying. These can act as a framework for where to begin with using a sling. This is valuable, especially as many of us have lost the shared collective wisdom that comes from living in communities and no longer learn how to parent from the people living around us. Many of us turn to books and to the internet and ask for guidance.

However, I think these “rules” often end up making things harder and disempowering the very people who need the most support. Here are some common examples.

Some commonly stated "Rules"

  • Do not use a stretchy wrap beyond three months
  • Do not back carry with a stretchy wrap
  • Do not use a soft structured carrier for a newborn
  • Do not do any form of sideways cradle carry
  • Do not use a narrow based carrier
  • Do not face your child out in a carrier
  • Do not back carry a baby before they can sit unaided
  • Do not back carry a newborn in a ring sling
  • Low back carries are dangerous, high back carries are much better
  • Once your baby is walking you must begin to use a toddler-size carrier
  • Bigger children must be carried on the back
  • Do not use footed pyjamas for babies in slings

I could go on…

These rules can be useful, but often they exclude significant proportions of the population. You can use a stretchy wrap to carry an older child, if they are safe and comfy. You can use your stretchy wrap in many ways, including on the back, if your child is safe and comfy. You can use a soft structured carrier for a newborn, if it fits them and is safe and comfy. You can carry a child in a sideways seated position or even a cradle carry, and facing out, if they are safe and comfy. You can use a narrow based carrier for a baby or a baby sized carrier for a toddler, if they are safe and comfy. You can carry a baby on your back in any form of carrier if they are safe and comfy. You can carry any age baby on your back or your front if they are safe and comfy. You can carry your child who is wearing footed pyjamas if the child is safe and comfy (ie their toes have room to wiggle). You can carry your child whatever size you are. In fact, you can do pretty much anything you want to do, if your baby is safe and comfy.

Do you get the theme?

I think the only “rules” when it comes to carrying a child in any form of sling are

  1. Can they breathe safely and without any obstruction at all times?
  2. Are they being held safely and securely in a carrier that fits (to ensure they are able to breathe easily and cannot slump into a position that would obstruct their airway)?
  3. Are they as comfortable as the circumstances allow?

How do you check if a child is breathing safely in the carrier?

  • Look at them, listen to them, be aware of them.
  • Check their airways are free of any fabric and they are not slumping or folded over with their ribcage compressed and chin on the chest.

How do you ensure they are safe and snug in the carrier and that it fits?

  • A well fitting carrier holds a child close to the parent, close enough that if the parent leans forwards, the child does not swing free. This helps to avoid slumping over in the carrier.
  • If a child’s body can slump, the carrier does not fit or is not tight enough.
  • The “knee to knee” rule is often overstated in its importance for older children (the M shape can be protective for children at risk of hip dysplasia in the early months.)

How do you ensure they are comfortable in the carrier?

  • This is all about being responsive and connected to the child being carried.
  • They should fit inside the carrier, be able to breathe safely, and should not be too hot (overheated babies are more likely to stop breathing).
  • Check on your child, be aware of their experience and how they are behaving in the carrier. The more you interact with your child the more you will know that they are OK (or not!)

If your baby is safe, able to breathe and is comfortable, and you feel confident that all is well, then it probably is well. Carry right on! And if you would like some encouragement, find a friendly educator and help them learn how to support you in a way that builds you up and keeps you carrying happily.

It is important to remember that every child and every parent has different needs. Parents of twins may need to be able to back carry one twin from a very early age, to be able to cope with family life. They may choose to use a buckle carrier on the back, and if the child is able to breathe safely and is not uncomfortable then that makes their lives work. Telling them this is forbidden creates needless barriers and makes life harder. A stretchy wrap for a one year old may not be as comfortable as a woven wrap, but for a parent on a budget who now has a less-unhappy toddler held close while the baby can be cleaned, this is a win-win situation. A four month old who will will only tolerate facing out in a narrow based carrier can be happily transported on a school run. Millions of women around the world have carried young babies in low torso carries with simple pieces of cloth.  A disabled child who cannot sit unaided can be held safely and securely on the back in several types of carrier which will definitely make everything much easier. Do be aware of how your language and how you educate can affect others and significantly disempower people.

Oh, but these rules are for normal people!” This is a common dismissal of any criticism of “rules” and is unbelievably inappropriate. Our society is made up of people of all abilities and all skills. More than one billion people in today’s world have a disability; that’s 15% of the population. This ratio may not be reflected in the proportion of children who are brought to babywearing groups, just like people of colour are missing from these gatherings. The fault is not theirs; it is ours. We must be more inclusive and we must make efforts to reach out to people. Just imagine how different things could be, if some of these walls of prejudice were pulled down from the inside.

Grainne and Tessa are a great example of how babywearing can actually empower beyond the “rules.” Little Tessa was born without a nose (arhinia) and had to have a tracheostomy when she was very young. Her family were told that she was safest to be sleeping in a separate room with various wires and monitors attached to her for any alerts in a change of breathing. In fact, Grainne decided to wear Tessa in a sling, keeping her close and safe and visible at all times; if Tessa stopped breathing, Grainne would see it and feel it as it happened, thanks to the sling (read more about them here.) The sling made life work for them, and also made it much happier during some very tough times. Common sense, knowledge of safety and a willingness to bend the rules worked together to enhance their lives, when they could so easily have missed out.

carrying in special circumstances

This is a superb blog for further reading; all about ableism in the babywearing community and I urge you to read it.

http://bindungtraegt.de/ableismback-wearing/