Thursday, July 14, 2011

Benefits of Babywearing: Digging Deeper

When you hear about the benefits of babywearing, you often hear how babies who are worn cry less and learn more. If you have any experience with babywearing, this makes sense. I have worn both of my babies since they were born, and it’s an uncanny way to soothe them when they are fussing—even more than nursing or rocking them. And I always heard that babies who are worn cry less. But I couldn’t help but wonder why.

And I know you can’t spoil a baby by holding them too much, but I always wonder what kind of habits my parenting will build. When my first son was a baby, I couldn’t help but wonder: would wearing him lead him to want to be held more as he grew older? My son is a creature of habit (if you have a toddler, you know what I’m talking about) and he certainly likes to be held, but I’m glad I’ve given him all the benefits that babywearing provides. Did my wearing him make him be the kind of kid who always wants to be held? I don’t know. I kind of think that’s the kind of kid he always was, which is why he liked to be worn so much.

It all finally came together for me while I was reading the book “What’s Going on in There?: How the Brain and Mind Develop in the First Five Years of Life” by Lise Eliot. She explains how the first senses to develop are touch and the vestibular system—the system that detects motion and position—and how stimulating these senses decreases stress levels in babies and can actually make them smarter.

Babywearing and the Sense of Touch

At birth, the sense of touch is far better than the sense of sight, hearing, or taste. Physical contact is essential to the growth and development of infants. Many animals lick their babies as soon as they are born. In fact, newborn animals often experience urinary or digestive failure and die if they don’t experience this touch.

You always see mothers of kittens licking their young, nudging them with their noses, and you think how sweet it is. But it’s also a matter of survival. Nature doesn’t usually do things by mistake. Everything happens for a reason. It’s amazing to think that that sweet mama cat is giving her kittens a better chance at living.

One study that really struck me involved baby monkeys that were kept with two surrogate “mothers.” One “mother” was made of wire mesh and held a bottle, and the other was covered in soft blankets. The monkeys preferred the soft, cuddly “mother,” even though she could not feed them. This shows the importance of snuggling your baby and holding baby close to you. Babies love to be snuggled.

Babies Who are Worn Cry Less

Another study found that newborn rats that are touched often by humans in their first 10 days of life experience less stress. Their stress hormones don’t rise as quickly and they recover faster than those in rats who are not handled during this time.

Reading this really drove home the benefit I’m always reading about: how babies who are worn cry less. Touch is so important to a baby. In fact, preemies in intensive care units used to be placed in incubators and had little human touch for fear of contaminating them with viruses and bacteria. But more and more hospitals are now using “kangaroo care,” which involves holding the babies skin to skin. Babies who are touched thrive more. It’s not just about crying—it’s about thriving. It’s about development and brain activity.

Babywearing Aids in Baby’s Development

Babies’ “sixth” sense, the vestibular system, is the next most developed system at birth after touch. The vestibular system is what helps babies establish a sense of balance. It’s what makes them recognize when you’re lifting them from a prone to a sitting position so they can hold their head up (once they strengthen the muscles to do so). Children with emotional problems, autism, and learning disabilities often have problems with their vestibular systems.

Once researchers realized this, they wanted to know the opposite: could you improve a baby’s development by stimulating the vestibular system? The answer was yes. In one amazing study, babies were spun on a chair while being held by their caregiver. Apparently they loved it. That study showed that the babies who were spun developed reflexes and motor skills earlier than those who weren’t.

In another study that compared soothing methods, babies who were rocked and jiggled when upset were soothed faster than those who were touched, but not rocked or jiggled. Again, this is the backup I was looking for in regards to the “babies who are worn cry less” statement.

Babies Who are Worn are Smarter

The sense of touch is intricately linked with babies’ cognition. In one study, babies who received an 8-minute massage were better able to recognize new objects compared with babies who received no touch. The ability to recognize new objects is the best predictor of IQ later in life.

The vestibular system is also tied to babies’ ability to learn. Newborn babies’ minds are highly disorganized. When their vestibular systems are activated, they become organized and more alert. Babies whose vestibular systems are stimulated are more alert than babies comforted in other ways. And it’s during these alert moments that babies learn and absorb what’s going on around them. If the vestibular system continues to be stimulated, babies become sleepy, and babies’ brains do a lot of growing when they sleep.

Babies Who are Worn are More Independent

So what about my fear that wearing my baby all the time will result in—well—a baby who wants to be worn (or held) all the time? In the experiment with the rats, those who were handled more in the early days or groomed more by their mothers were less fearful in new situations.

This matches what a lot of proponents of attachment parenting suggest: that by offering your child a loving, trusting space and responding immediately to their needs, you are making them more confident, and a confident child is more likely to explore new surroundings without fear. Wearing your baby could make him or her less clingy and more likely to be independent as he or she grows.

Wearing Baby Is Soothing

Similar to the idea that babies who are worn cry less, babies who are worn are soothed more quickly. I have a friend who worked at a school for blind children. Many of the kids there had other disabilities and were high needs. When she saw how quickly Baby T relaxed when we put him in the Ergo, she mentioned how many of the kids with sensory issues at her school wore weighted vests to calm them down. I’m not sure about the exact science behind it, but something about providing the children’s systems with deep, strong, consistent sensory messages organizes their minds and calms them.

It’s similar to the way swaddling soothes a baby. But when I swaddle my kids and try to hold them, sometimes they get squirmy and I feel like they want to be closer to our bodies. Using a baby carrier holds them close to our hearts and our bodies while still applying that consistent pressure that swaddling provides.

If you're looking for a babywearing class in Wilmington or are interested in learning more about babywearing and experimenting with different baby carriers, wraps, and holds, stop by Green Baby Diaper Service tomorrow (Friday, July 15) at 3PM for a babywearing class. You can register here and bring payment on the day of the class.

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