We have ‘worn’ our son (using different soft slings and woven wraps as he’s grown) since he was three days old and still do, now he’s two, when we’re out and about, or at home on clingy, cuddly days. We would have worn him earlier had we been more prepared for his arrival. It was instantly clear that it was going to work well both for us and for him.
In the early days, when he slept a lot, we described it as ‘lazy parenting’. Whereas friends using prams had to check on their babies frequently and rock them to sleep, we could carry on as normal knowing that he’d fall asleep when he was tired (usually within minutes of being tucked into the sling) and we’d be instantly aware when the warm little bundle on our chests woke-up or started looking for his next meal.
It’s fair to say that, in spite of the use it’s had since, for the first six months our swish new pram was in fact a glorified (and expensive) shopping trolley. We often found ourselves pushing it around, loaded with books, shopping or picnics (the joy of a spring baby!) while wearing our son in a sling.
Any new parent will recognise this preference in their baby for being held, but without a sling, even the smallest of newborns can rapidly feel like a heavy burden. Recent BBC footage of a baby langur monkey refusing to be put down by his extremely reluctant babysitter reminded us that, in young babies, the desire to be held goes beyond mere preference to a strong survival instinct. The biggest evolutionary risk to any baby – human, ape or monkey – is to be left unheld and unprotected.
“Touch is not an emotional fringe benefit. It’s as necessary as the air we breathe.”
Intriguingly, recent evidence, whilst limited, points to developmental and survival benefits that far exceed simple protection from predators. Benefits ranging from increased breastfeeding success to more secure attachments, enhanced muscle and cognitive development, and better sleeping have been documented for babies that are carried frequently in slings. Research into Kangaroo Mother Care (skin-to-skin babywearing for pre-term and low birth weight babies) has even demonstrated a 30% decrease in neo-natal mortality in resource poor health settings. Skin-to-skin babywearing helps babies to regulate their temperature, heart rate and breathing as well as boosting their immune system, supporting weight gain and helping them to build strong bonds with their carers. We had first hand experience of just how important this can be, having used Kangaroo Care to help establish breastfeeding when our son was born prematurely and wouldn’t latch.
Perhaps the most surprising thing about this evidence is, simply, that it is surprising. Mothers, grandmothers, aunts, sisters and other caregivers have carried babies for millennia – as we started to walk upright early humans would have had to carry infants that were no longer able to hold on for themselves. Prams and pushchairs, now so widely used in higher income countries, are little used in much of the developing world and only became common here following the improvement of pavements and paths in the late 19th century.
“The crib baby experiences long periods of non-interaction, punctuated by bouts of intense parental interest. The carried baby experiences no such contrasts, but probably sees more of the world about him. By being taken everywhere, he will slowly learn to take his place on the family stage. His learning is more passive, streamlined and conducted from the same reliable vantage point: an older person’s arms.”
Babies have evolved, over millennia, to be most at ease when close to the warmth, sound, smell and touch of their parents and caregivers. While we are far from babywearing purists, there may be significantly more to be gained from keeping our babies close than simply the convenience of more easily navigating stairs!
This post was first published in 2015 on Louise’s (much neglected!) personal blog: monkeyandmama.com