There are many reasons to wear your baby and if you were to ask parents or caregivers that practice babywearing why they do it, you would get a variety of answers.
In the scientific community babywearing has been studied in the form of kangaroo care, primarily for premature or low birth weight babies. In some studies, kangaroo care was found to be as effective or even more effective than neonatal intensive care, and for the most part, positive outcomes have been associated with kangaroo care (for more on this see Conde-Agudelo and Díaz-Rossello, 2016).
This is very impressive and important information, but the majority of babywearers are wearing full term infants into toddlerhood. So what does this mean for the average babywearer?
To my knowledge there have not been any hard scientific studies on the effects of babywearing on child development. Most of the current research and information out there is funded and supplied by baby carrier companies.
As the culture of babywearing becomes more mainstream, I imagine that scientists will begin to perform studies on the benefits of wearing infants and toddlers, but in the meantime I’d like to share my own personal observations on the effects of babywearing that are mostly rooted in the principles of neuroscience and human physiology.
Less stress for babies and caregivers
If you were to look inside the brains of the baby being worn and of it’s wearer, my guess would be that the important neural circuit at play would be the hypothalamic pituitary adrenal axis or HPA axis. This is commonly known as the stress response circuit and over activation of the HPA axis early in life can contribute to lifelong issues with vulnerability and stress. HPA axis dysregulation has also been associated with mood disorders, digestion issues, altered immune responses, and addiction.
By wearing your baby, you mimic the comforting position of being held in arms, while still maintaining some of your freedom, being hands free to do things. Another benefit of having them attached to you is that you can better pick up on their cues to meet their needs quicker and more effectively. A happy, less stressed baby will not experience HPA axis over activation, and could potentially have a reduced risk for related disorders as an adult. Additionally, the happy baby can then in turn lower the caregiver’s HPA axis activation, improving mood and overall level of stress in the caregiver as well. (For more on the HPA axis and it’s role in development see Flinn, et al., 2011)
May help with PPD
Some degree of postpartum depression (PPD) is commonly experienced after birth. This is a condition that is complicated and is thought to involve the stark drop off in hormones antepartum, fatigue and feeling overwhelmed (as easily experienced in the early days of caring for an infant), as well as struggles with the transition into motherhood.
There is significant anecdotal evidence from the babywearing community (based on chatter in Facebook babywearing groups) that babywearing may help lessen the degree of PPD or help treat it altogether. This is likely due to the fact that using a baby carrier can make many facets of early parenting so much easier. For example, babywearing can help with breastfeeding since nursing in a carrier allows for nursing on the go. One doesn’t have to feel like they’re putting their life on hold just because they had a child. You can nurse in a carrier while shopping, even walking full stride down a busy NYC street, and your baby will be happy (and so will you).
Wearing your baby promotes bonding with your little one and that love and sense of accomplishment can be very positive and mood lifting. This is due in part to the reduced cortisol levels that the wearer experiences, as well as the release of oxytocin and dopamine from the constant baby hugs. Also, I’m pretty sure that baby carrier naps cause the release of endorphins in parents because there is nothing like the feeling of a sweet little baby sleeping all cozy and cuddled up against you. Of course, you do not need to use a carrier to experience your baby nap close to you, but it sure makes life easier and more enjoyable when you don’t feel confined or trapped in one spot. You can still go on with your life, taking a moment every now and then to look down, breathe in some magical sleeping baby dust, and then continue with whatever you were doing.
Lastly, by joining babywearing groups online, parents build new friendships and find a network of support. Maybe your friends aren’t having kids yet, or maybe your friends do have kids and are super busy with their own lives so you are feeling alone in your journey. The babywearing Facebook groups always have active members to chat with because babies have crazy sleeping schedules and people from all over the world participate in these groups so when you’re up nursing your baby at 3 am, you might find yourself chatting with a mum in England! Talk about 24 hour support!
As we learn new things our neurons are forming new connections, strengthening some connections and pruning others. This is a phenomenon known as neuroplasticity. It simply means that that our brains are constantly rewiring based on our experiences. You may have heard that playing chess, doing Sudoku puzzles, or learning a new language can enhance your brain function or neuroplasticity, and indeed they can, but so can learning any other new thing!
For the developing infant, babywearing is a great way to enhance your baby’s neuroplasticity because they are constantly being stimulated by you when they are held close to face level. Even if your baby is just a newborn and not very interactive yet, hearing your voice helps them learn language, watching your facial expressions helps them learn emotions,and your movements are always challenging their vestibular system!
For the wearer, babywearing is also a great way to challenge your brain as you learn how to use a baby carrier. Using a soft structured carrier is probably the easiest carrier to learn for a babywearer, but even then, there are still many opportunities to engage your mind as you work to find the correct fit, adjusting straps and buckles, positioning your baby, and also learning to navigate in your new physical space once your barnacle is attached to you.
Learning to wrap, however, I would consider an advanced skill of the mind and body. It requires you to memorize sequences of movements (aka passes) that ultimately result in your baby wrapped up tight into a nice little package, sometimes on your front, other times on your hip or your back. It requires balance and physical strength, especially in your core muscles. It also requires good spatial reasoning, being able to predict where along the wrap to start, how much fabric you will need to finish the carry and the ability to improvise when your spatial planning is off 😉 With research, practice, and determination, wrapping parents often learn 10-20 different ways to wrap their babies. That equals a whole lot of new synaptic connections!
In summary, there are many ways to meet your baby’s basic needs, but babywearing allows the parent or caregiver to be hands free, giving them a sense of freedom or ease while actively tending to their baby. Babywearing can promote good emotional health in babies and parents as well as provide ample stimulating learning scenarios for healthy brains.
Conde-Agudelo A and Díaz-Rossello JL. (Aug 2016). Kangaroo mother care to reduce morbidity and mortality in low birthweight infants. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. (8) http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/14651858.CD002771.pub4/epdf
Flinn MV, Nepomnaschy PA, Muehlenbein MP, Ponzi D (June 2011). Evolutionary functions of early social modulation of hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal axis development in humans. Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews. 35 (7): 1611–29. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21251923