Most parents own some form of baby carrier, yet despite this more than eight in ten parents in the UK transport their babies by pushchair rather than carrying them. But what exactly does baby carrying involve and should we do more of it? We talk to chiropractor, Julian Keel (pictured right carrying his 7 month old daughter in a baby carrier) and other experts about the ups and downs of using a baby sling or carrier.
What is baby carrying?
Baby carrying, also known as baby wearing, is exactly as it says on the box – using a sling or other form of carrier to ‘wear’ your baby. In fact, the many supporters of baby carrying say that babies should be carried constantly for the first few months of life. And not only by mothers, but by dads and even older siblings too.
Newborn babies love to be carried and, despite old wives’ tales to the contrary, you are neither spoiling nor giving in to a crying baby by picking him up. In fact, you are simply answering his instinctive cry for you.
The benefits of baby carrying have been recorded for many years, most famously by Jean Liedloff author of The Continuum Concept: Allowing Human Nature to Work Successfully, based on spending several years with the people of the Yequana tribe in South America. She noticed that the Yequana babies were content, happy and well behaved. She put this down to the benefits of baby carrying and from it she developed the Continuum Concept which she says, “Consists, simply, of the infant having 24-hour contact with an adult or older child. “For millions of years newborn babies have been held close to their mothers from the moment of birth. Some babies of the last few hundred generations may have been deprived of this experience but that has not lessened each new baby’s expectation that he will be held in his rightful place.”
And in 2004 the Johnson’s Baby report “Power of Touch” suggested babies are suffering from a mild form of sensory deprivation, because of the excessive use of car seats and prams.
Baby carrying not only benefits your baby, but both you and your partner, and anyone else who cares for your child.
Hands free parenting
Carrying your baby in a sling gives you the convenience of having both hands free while still being able to offer your baby the security of your presence. Author of ‘Ten reasons to wear your baby’, Laura Simeon, says, “When we carry a baby in a sling, we can walk around freely and not have to worry about negotiating steps, crowds or narrow aisles with a stroller.”
Carrying your baby in a sling helps you to breastfeed discreetly. Not only that, but having your baby close to you, stimulates you to produce prolactin, encouraging milk production. The constant motion also helps your baby to bring up wind easier, especially if you hold him in a more upright sling position. The sling also offers protection against distractions for your baby.
By carrying your baby in a sling, he is in tune with you in a way similar to when he was in the womb. He can hear your heartbeat and breathing, and feel every move you make. Because of this, babywearing is often described as the easiest transition from the womb.
When carried, your baby sees the world from where you do, rather than at knee level, and the extra stimulation benefits brain development.
Babies in a sling spend more time in the state known as ‘quiet alertness’ so they are awake but contented. This is the optimal state for learning for a newborn, who is more able to learn from his surroundings in a calm contented manner.
Because your baby is so close to you physically, he can communicate his needs to you without having to cry. Holding him close helps you become finely attuned to his facial expressions, to let you know when he’s hungry, or needs a nappy change. Paediatrician Graham Barr found that babies who are carried cry 43 per cent less overall and 54 per cent less during the evening hours.
Fathers don’t have the automatic bond with their children that mothers build up during pregnancy, but by wearing their baby in a sling, their child can become familiar with the sound of his heartbeat, breathing and movements.
Is it safe?
There is some debate about the safety of babywearing, with fans saying it’s perfectly safe when used properly. However, some medical sources are concerned about the risk of potential spinal damage. Regardless, if you do choose to babywear, you should be aware of any potential hazards.
Be more aware of things that could trip you up, such as kerbs, toys, icy or slippery paths. However, parents who fall while wearing a baby are better able to save themselves, and are less likely to drop a child.
Be aware of the need for more space to turn, or when walking by counters or through doorways. You should be aware of the position of your baby’s head at all times so you do not bump it.
It’s important that you keep an eye on your newborn to make sure his head has not fallen forward – chin to chest – and is not obstructing his breathing.
In a sling, a baby is higher up and has more freedom and movement, so be careful that he can’t grab things that would normally be out of his reach.
Spondylolisthesis is a condition where one of the vertebra in the spine slips forward, causing a bend and pain in the lower back. Some experts believe that wearing the wrong baby carrier can cause spondylolisthesis in your baby. Chiropractor Rochelle Casses says, “As we are finally realising the benefits of “wearing” our infants as we perform our daily activities, we must be careful not to compromise the integrity of our child’s spine through the use of improper carriers. “Spondylolisthesis is a condition that can result in the low back from excessive stress, such as a baby’s spine might experience in certain carriers on the market today. It is relatively uncommon, but when aggravated is extremely painful.
“If the trend continues to carry our infants in carriers (or place them in walkers, jumpers, etc.) that place our babies’ spines in a weight bearing position before the spines is intended to do so, the percentage of spondylolisthesis will increase.”
Choosing a sling
If you decide to babywear your child, you’ll need to choose which sling is best for you and your baby’s stage of development. There are several factors that you should consider before making your choice.
Chiropractor, Julian Keel has a special interest in treating mums-to-be and babies, he is often asked about the possible benefits or dangers, from a chiropractic point of view, of using baby slings and carriers.
Other than the obvious universal benefits of bonding he feels there is no one sling or carrier type that will do everything needed for every occasion. Many factors need to be taken into account:
- age of your baby
- fitness of the mother/wearer (e.g. the presence of any back problems)
- size/weight of your baby
- physical developmental stage of your baby
Aspects to consider
Carriers: front, side or back packs decrease a parent’s stability when walking or hiking and parents need to be in reasonable shape for carrying whilst on the move.
Straps should be wide for comfort and better weight distribution.
On the whole, baby slings are really only intended for very young infants and bear in mind that a baby can get very hot inside.
Physical development of your baby
Backpack type carriers should only be used after a baby has fully developed his neck muscles because until this stage your baby cannot control his head and putting him in a carrier causes a lot of ‘bobbing around’ of his head. Whereas with a front carrier, the wearer can keep an eye on the baby and give baby’s head additional support using his or her hands if needed.
Be aware that a significant cause of injury is due to the parent or carer slipping or falling – wearing sensible footwear and looking out for poor weather conditions are musts.
Your baby’s spine
Do not attempt to run or jog – a baby’s spine and nervous system are not yet adjusted to cope with the motion and stresses placed upon it through these movements.
Which type of sling when?
Julian says “Wrap around slings are best for providing good weight distribution so are suitable for parents with back problems whilst also providing support for your newborn.
Another thing to watch out for is using a baby carrier that supports your baby both around the thighs and buttocks rather than between the legs too early in your baby’s life.”
He adds “In general I would favour sling types for babies before their neck and back muscles are sufficiently developed because they provide the most support. When your baby can sit and hold his head up unaided, then the more upright carriers provide better straps and design for the parent – who is now carrying a heavier baby.
I do think that carriers and slings provide a good alternative to transporting your baby exclusively in a buggy or pram particularly in the first 6 months when a baby’s head is vulnerable to plagiocephaly (flat head) by constantly being laid on its back.”