As my son turns nine months old, this is a wonderful time to publish this article. He is reaching the end of his period of ‘extero-gestation’ and becoming more independent: a little more like a little boy than a little baby. However, baby-wearing is still proving a blessing for us, even with his increasing weight. In fact it is much easier than carrying him on my hip when he needs to feel close! But what is ‘extero-gestation’, and what has it got to do with baby-wearing?
Well, you may have heard of the ‘fourth trimester’, the three months after a baby’s birth, as they transition from their ‘womb world’ to ‘our world’.
Imagine being suddenly thrust from a world where you are in constant contact with your mother, a ‘womb world’ that is dark, with muffled sounds and a constant temperature, to a world that is bright, often cold or too hot, where you suddenly experience thirst and hunger, and where contact with your mother is dramatically reduced. During this time of adjustment, using a sling to hold your baby close is tremendously comforting for them. Read more about the ‘fourth trimester ‘and how to help your baby adjust in Sarah Ockwell-Smith’s article, here.
When a baby is attached to his mother by riding in a sling, he is in tune with the rhythm of her breathing, the sound of her heartbeat and the movements she makes. This helps him regulate his own physical systems. Co-sleeping expert James McKenna explains that the mother’s body is the only environment to which the human infant is adapted; Being in physical contact with infants changes their breathing, body temperature, blood pressure, body temperature, stress levels and growth.
But the ‘fourth trimester’ is only three months long and I believe this adjustment period is much longer. Anthropologist Ashley Montagu believes this too, and has coined the phrase ‘extero-gestates’ to describe human infants. As our species evolved to walk upright, plus possessed larger brains, the pelvis became less suited to giving birth. To survive childbirth, we began to give birth earlier in our gestations, when the infant has only 25% of their adult brain volume. This is why we have longer childhoods compared to other mammals, and significant brain growth and behavioural development is delayed until after birth. Compare this to our closest ape relatives whose infants have 50% of their adult brain volume at birth. These statistics indicate that human babies are born roughly halfway through their ‘original gestation’ and so therefore experts quote ‘nine months in and nine months out’ for a baby to reach a stage where they are ready to spend periods of time without being in physical contact with their mother. This coincides neatly with the development of crawling, and babies are able to choose when they wish to venture away, and come back again. Jean Liedloff explains this essential period of constant contact in more detail in her work ‘The Continuum Concept’.
Traveling at ‘adult level’ means that babies get an adult’s eye view of the world, experiencing the activities of day-to-day life, including socialising. Other adults are far more likely to engage and interact with the baby that is on their level and in their eye line. When I carry my baby in the sling, he gets plenty of attention out and about and he loves this communication and the reaction he gets to his smile! And ever since he first started smiling at only five weeks old (though he was two weeks late…so maybe this counts as a less precocious seven weeks!) …people comment on what a happy baby he is!
Yep, a sling carried baby is a happy baby! Studies show that the more babies are held, the less they cry. Many parents find their baby cries when put down even if it has a dry nappy and a full tummy. Babies have a need for human touch, which offers them security. Babies will still cry sometimes but in cultures where baby-wearing is the norm, babies tend to cry for only a few minutes each day. There is an even deeper scientific twist to this. Perhaps you have heard that the raised cortisol levels created from crying may have lasting effects on babies’ brains as they are flooded with stress hormones during these delicate developmental stages. Research has shown that the presence of a responsive caregiver during periods of crying can actually inhibit this cortisol spike and protect the baby’s brain. They key here is responsiveness. That is why using a sling or carrier is very useful if your baby is hard to settle.
It is very common in Western mainstream parenting for new parents to be made to feel they ‘should’ be able to put their baby down to nap, but the baby wakes up as soon as they are put down. This is completely normal, but parents are encouraged to ‘battle’ with their babies to get them to nap in the appropriate place. If you decide to break the mainstream mould and let your baby nap on you during the day, it can be frustrating as it is impossible to get anything done! Cue a sling! And magically you can carry on with the housework and baby can sleep in secure comfort. The sling is essentially a ‘transitional womb’ for a baby. Being held close to a warm body and feeling its movement swaying and rocking, plus hearing the breathing and heart beat is a much more familiar state to a newborn than lying alone and still. Research shows that pre-term babies who are held and touched gain weight faster than those who are not and that people who were cuddled as children grew into more well-adjusted adults with less anxiety and better mental health. Happy babies, held in slings, instead of wasting energy on crying are able to calmly observe and actively learn about their environment.
Baby-wearing improves your own communication with your baby too. Parents can become finely attuned to their baby’s facial expressions, gestures and sounds and respond to him without him having to cry. This increases his trust in his caregiver, and boosts the parents’ confidence. This cycle of positive learning and interaction enhances the mutual attachment between child and parent. Slings are a bonding tool for other family members too. Fathers may not have the head start on bonding that comes with carrying a baby inside your womb, but they experience this physical and emotional closeness through carrying baby close in a sling. The same goes for grandparents and other caregivers too.
Slings are a safe way to transport your baby, securely next to your body. They also provide emotional safety when needed and allow the child to explore the world as they are ready. Toddlers will also appreciate the security of the sling and many slings can accommodate a child up to 40 pounds. Carrying your baby in a sling makes places accessible that would not be with a buggy, such as woodland, cliff or rocky paths, steps, narrow aisles or crowded places. You can breast-feed your baby on-the-move (a sling also helps a distractible baby focus on her milk by creating a comforting barrier between her and the outside world), and you can keep your hands free whilst feeding or travelling…SO much easier than pushing a bulky buggy or carrying a heavy car-seat!
Baby-wearing builds up your strength! Finding time to exercise is certainly challenging for new mums, but carrying this loveable weight around with you as you go about your day (why not add in a brisk walk) will strengthen your back and core. As you move, make sure you adhere to good movement principles, such as keeping your tummy gently drawn in and pelvic floor softly lifted (mula bandha) plus bending your knees to reach low down items rather than stooping. As you move around with your baby in the sling, this is helping your baby develop good balance by exercising his vestibular system (knowing where his body is in space).
I have included a short yoga sequence with this article, which can be done with your baby in a sling and will help build your strength and flexibility, plus increase your confidence in moving around while baby-wearing.
It is important to get a good sling, one that spreads the weight evenly and comfortably across your shoulders and back…and then away you go! As well as safety tips for you, there are also essential safety points for your baby:
Check out this post on facebook to hear much more from Mums about their favourite baby carriers!