The Neuroscience of Babywearing

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.

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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.img_1893-1

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 timg_3731hat 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!

Neuroplasticity

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 wimg_6668ay 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 strengthimg_8197-1, 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.

Go babywearing!

References:

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

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Why I Started Babywearing

 

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Day 1 with this little girl. Even then she was happiest in my arms, held tight.

As a first time mom with a fussy child, I was seriously struggling to adjust to new motherhood and I was having a hard time figuring out how to keep my baby happy. I had always considered myself to be good with kids but I had little experience with babies. In addition, I initially felt like I was on my own for a good part of this journey. My husband returned to work after taking just one week off and our parents, who visited and were extremely helpful while they were with us, lived about 1,000 miles away. I cried when my mom had to return home even though I knew that I’d be ok. What was I supposed to do with this baby that seemed to cry all the time? We tried going for walks in our stroller. She hated it. We tried getting in the car and going for a drive. She screamed the whole way. She was only happy when swaddled and carried close, and she would only sleep if she was laying on top of me or by my side. I really loved holding her all the time and was willing to do anything I could to make her happy, so I just carried her in my arms most of the day. It was exhausting (and I developed deQuervain’s Tendonitis)! But still, much better than dealing with a screaming baby.

 

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The only was that I could get my baby to sleep for more than a few minutes, before I tried wrapping.

When my daughter was about 7 weeks old, a couple of my best friends, who also live very far away, visited. One brought along her son who was almost a year older than my daughter. When my more experienced mama friend saw what I was up against, she said “have you tried a baby carrier yet?” I had not and I was sure that she was too small for one, but she wasn’t. So the next day we tried our Moby wrap and a few days after that we tried our Beco Gemini (two carriers that I had received as baby shower gifts, thank you, thank you). You can probably guess what happened… She loved it! She was no longer a fussy baby when in the wrap (if all other needs were met). I could suddenly leave my house without fearing that my daughter would have a meltdown in public and I wouldn’t be able to regain control of her. And, though somewhat limited, I suddenly had the use of my arms again! It was liberating really.THIS was why I started babywearing. Initially it was just a tool– another  necessary baby device that she’d outgrow at some point. But, it turns out that there is so much more to babywearing than I could have ever imagined!

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Moby Wrap success!

A couple of months went by of happily wearing my daughter in our Moby and Gemini and then I saw that a friend’s facebook profile picture was of her wearing her son in a woven wrap ON HER BACK! How did she do that? And what was that beautiful fabric that was holding him? I sent her a message asking these questions and she suggested that I join the local babywearing group on facebook. That was the first time that I had ever heard of a “group” on facebook. I joined and immediately met several like minded local mothers who were very understanding of my position. They became my postpartum support group of sorts—something that I had not even realized that I needed. Through this group I learned how to properly use a variety of baby carriers, but more importantly, I made new mama friends, went on play dates, learned about family friendly events in town, found other parenting groups online, and learned of other tips and tricks for just about every type of baby related issue from breastfeeding, to diapers, to baby shoes! You see, I think I was having a really hard time transitioning into motherhood. Feeling completely on my own, I was not performing at my best as a mom until I found this group. It may have been postpartum depression or maybe just a slow transition into motherhood. But things started looking up once I found the support that I so desperately needed and everyone was happier.
THIS was why I got hooked on baby wearing. As a friend once said, and is now common language in the babywearing community, “I found my tribe.”

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