Carrying our Babies Towards Easier Parenting

As I have journeyed through mothering three children, attending many births as a doula, supporting families as a gentle parenting coach, and eventually becoming a busy IBCLC, I have realized that one single skill has made its way into each of my personal and professional toolkits. Babywearing.

Babywearing describes carrying your baby or child in a baby carrier such as a sling or wrap, buckle carrier, Mei Tei, and more less known styles. It is a way to make the demands of new babies easier on parents; a way to meet all of their needs while leaving dad with fairly free hands. I make an effort to mention babywearing to most clients I support, knowing that whether they’ve hired me for feeding, sleep or parenting help, babywearing fits in somewhere! By teaching simple carries whenever possible, I hope to introduce some comfort, surrender and connection where it may otherwise be hard to manage.

Anything to Make Parenting Easier

For me, being a new mother was hard to manage. I was straight out of university with a son born 3 days after moving into our first home. I had so much to do, but felt such a strong need to hold him when he needed me to. Learning how to use a carrier literally saved our relationship. I didn’t have to leave him to be upset too often, as he could just do everything with me. For many mothers, babywearing can feel literally like a survival tool!  It is a gentle way to meet the needs of our babies to be held – a lot. And no wonder babywearing is gaining in popularity, much more than when we started in 2005 – it’s truly just coming back, as something mothers have relied on for a very long time! Most of us even consider it a bioloigcal norm, an expectation to be carried that is instilled in our baby`s instincts. Within almost every culture there are examples of unique and beautiful baby carriers that are woven together with love, time, and tradition. Wearing and carrying our children close when they need it is the simple way society has welcomed babies throughout the world, throughout time.

Now that my children are older and no longer going for a ride in their favourite woven wrap, I spend a good part of my day helping new families wear their own babies. I get to witness firsthand the amazing benefits that develop when we lean in and hold our babies. I see so many things flourish, especially the connection and intuited responses between parent and child that develop. Wearing babies close can be a safe and enjoyable way to meet intense attachment needs, promote exclusive breastfeeding (even in premature babies), increase the duration of both exclusive breastfeeding as well as breastfeeding beyond solids, reduce crying and colicky behavior in infants, regulate the stress-response which requires other-regulation for many years, promote appropriate structural & spinal development especially in contrast to plastic seats and baby holders, and decrease the chance of mothers developing Postpartum Depression. This is quite the laundry list of advantages to wearing our babies!

Meeting Our Needs, While Meeting Our Baby`s Needs Too

Of special interest to me is how carrying and wearing our baby's reduces PPMD’s such as postpartum depression and anxiety and improves breastfeeding rates and duration of breastfeeding. This is something close to my heart, as close as my three babies were most of their first few years! I experienced what I now know was Post-partum mood disorders, and can look back on my trusty baby carriers as the bridge between my need for solitude and self-care, and my sons need to be with me constantly. I could wear him, knowing that he was safe and OK, while I somewhat ignored him and went about my day. He didn't cry or fuss, because he was attached to me… I didn't have to handle hours of crying or upset that I just didn't have the ability to take care of, which I know would have made me feel worse. And having him close slowly over time, helped me connect with him, communicate with him, and eventually work our way into a strong bond. As more children came to us, babywearing allowed me to run after my 2-year old at the park and know exactly where the baby was! And one there were 3 little ones all under 3 years… well… if one wasn't strapped to me, I worried they might get lost!

Babywearing and Better Breastfeeding Outcomes

Babywearing also allowed me to keep up with the demands of frequent breastfeeding. I could have swaddled my daughter and put her down to spend tie with my toddler, but I would have missed so many of her subtle cues for food!! On my chest, she would begin to squirm and lick her lips, and I knew quickly that she needed to eat. She barely cried for food, as I could get to her before she needed to. And this was all after a good start skin to skin, in our wraps.

A newborn baby’s ability to find the breast on their own and their capacity to continue to find the breast successfully climbs when babies remain skin to skin. Although Skin to skin contact gets a lot of lip service, PSA’s, posters, and placement in hospital protocols, it doesn`t get enough actual implementation. After attending hundreds of births as a doula, and experiencing my own three in three different hospitals, it still isn’t occurring as a standard in practice the way it could be. In the first few days, it may be inconvenient to remain skin to skin with babies beyond the first hour of life as hospitals aren’t set up for safe unlimited skin to skin care. Parents aren’t always guided towards safe contact guidelines, or given options for products that make it safe.Incorporating baby carriers into the care of families in the first few hours and days could dramatically increase the amount of skin to skin contact happening both at home or in hospital.

Dr. Nils Bergman, a renowned pediatrician in South Africa who coined Kangaroo Mother Care, has shared wonderful research on skin to skin contact and suggests that babies should be skin to skin without interruption for the “first 1,000 minutes of life” – approximately 17 hours. He also shares that babies benefit from skin to skin for many months and benefit from being carried and close to primary caregivers for many years. This recommendation can seem overwhelming to new families!! New parents here where I live near Toronto, Canada are born into a culture which seems to value independence and separation as early as possible. Parent are being told the opposite to what research suggests, and it can be very hard to sort out what is best for their own family. Our human babies need contact time with caregivers, especially skin to skin contact, and some of us work very hard to help families meet the true needs of their babies while still finding ways to feel well, rested and find time for self-care! Babywearing is one of those tools. Using simple cloth carriers or more structured buckle carriers provides new parents a proven, easy, safe and successful way to keep their babies skin to skin for as long as the baby needs it.

For preemies, Dr Bergman has even constructed the Kanga Carrier, a babywearing shirt that mothers can wear, sleep in, and walk around in, designed to keep preemies safe, skin to skin, and in many instances, alive. The Sleep Belt is another option, as are the many skin-to-skin shirts on the market. Fall prevention for babies in hospital beds is a current hot topic, and these eliminate the worry. For a full term baby, a simple wrap or ring sling would work well to maintain skin to skin time, hands free!  Whichever carrier is chosen, prenatal information and instruction is a great goal so families can use these tools right when baby is born and needs skin to skin time. If parents haven't gotten the information prenatally, most cities have a babywearing group with babywearing educators who can support new families.

Unfortunately, there is a lack of encouragement to keep babies skin to skin beyond the obligatory first hour of life. Caregivers promote early skin to skin and early initiation of breastfeeding, however, once “completed” baby is swaddled and the family is often transferred to their next room or sent home. This momentary separation may last hours, or even days, when it was just meant to be temporary. The transfer to a new place and the swaddling that accompanies it is a common barrier to breastfeeding, and 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, left to sustain its own energy and vital processes without the support of mother’s warmth and “skin food”.As parents and caregivers, we can remember to unwrap those babies once they’ve reached their destination, and place them back skin to skin, or in their carrier, to continue to benefit from snuggles, gazes into each other’s eyes that in real-time wire the brain, and help learn the subtleties of their new relationship.

Recreating The Womb

Babies do love to be snug and warm, and 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. Babies can use up energy that they wouldnt be wasting when left skin to skin! This can mean increased weight gain, decreased levels of jaundice and hypoglycemia, and more time for parents to rest. Generally, swaddled babies are placed well outside of the parents arms, too far for hormones and pheromones to easily communicate back and forth between the dyad. The tight swaddle will conveniently keep him quiet, but will not satisfy his need for close contact to his parent or frequent communication of hunger.

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, near their warm breast, feeling their breath and heartbeat, and able to demonstrate subtle hunger cues. Being so close to his parent, these cues are then be picked up and responded to quickly. In a traditional swaddle away from mom, in a crib or bassinet, these subtle cues are often missed, and the swaddle keeps baby asleep and unable to communicate well.  This may interrupt an important piece of breastfeeding advice we like to give to parents about feeding on demand, rather than on a 3-hour schedule. The independent swaddle may decrease the ability for him to demand for food, and when we decrease demand we can also potentially decrease milk supply - especially in the first few days and weeks of life while milk supply is establishing. Quite often, swaddled babies and scheduled feeds create the need to wake babies as it becomes necessary to remind this baby to eat.

Time to Switch from Parent-led Care to Baby-Led, Parent Guided Care

Instead of encouraging our newest parents to get to know their babies intensely, to read their subtle cues, and to begin to anticipate their needs and meet them with prompt nuanced care 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, more colic and crying and lower levels of subconscious communications between mother and baby.

Shifting the normal care of newborns from swaddling and scheduling to babywearing and baby-led feeding may lead to a swing in “normal” infant care with immense benefits to both parent and baby. When mothers and fathers carry their babies close from the start, and possibly use baby carriers as a tool to do so, babies are generally more secure and benefit from their parents quick response times. When we surrender to and allow for their increased demand - and have our babies close enough to notice their communications with us - we also may see increased milk supply and increased parenting confidence follow. Keeping babies close helps families understand that yes, your baby could be hungry again and that it’s OK to feed again. Keeping babies close helps parents understand that it is OK to meet each and every need of their baby, even if it is 3am, or they need to be held through a nap. This may help some families feel confident to meet their babies’ immediate needs with kindness and compassion, and to loose any concern of creating bad habits, in a way that promotes and protects a great milk supply.  However you choose to parent, carrying your baby close has clear and evidenced based benefits that can only inspire better outcomes.

And as a mother of those three small children, all in diapers at the same time, I call just 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 – and let out a huge sigh of relief that we made it!  But, I also know deeply that there’s just no way I could have met these needs with such ease and with acceptance without my beloved baby carriers helping me to keep my babies close, safe, connected… and well fed.

Ashley Pickett