Babywearing is definitely not a new trend. Human mothers have always carried their babies, on and close to their bodies.
Originally, like other primates, our babies grasped our body hair tightly with their hands and feet.
You can still see the reflex for this when you place your finger on a newborn’s palm; she will grip your finger and hold on!
Babywearing – The History
When we evolved to become hairless, the baby sling was one of the very early human tools, allowing our ancestors to go about their daily tasks, hands-free, while keeping their babies safe, warm and close to the breast.
Around the world, many cultures continued the practice of ‘babywearing’. But in the Western world, women of wealth and status turned away from maternal responsibilities. They employed less-affluent women as nurses and nannies, and the use of baby slings became associated with the poor and uneducated. In the 1800s, the first baby carriages became fashionable, and by the 20th century, baby slings were rarely seen outside the pages of National Geographic.
In the 1960s, in suburban Melbourne, founder of the Nursing Mothers Association of Australia (now the Australian Breastfeeding Association) used a pattern she found in a Le Leche League magazine to make a mei tai – a traditional Chinese baby carrier. After she was featured wearing it in a newspaper article on family life, NMAA began to produce the slings during sewing bees, held around kitchen tables.
Australian mothers quickly embraced the baby sling. In Germany in the early 1970s, Erika Hoffmann was gifted a traditional South-American woven carrier when she had twins, and she popularised their use in Europe. And in the mid 1980s, Dr William Sears brought the ring sling to the US, and babywearing soon became synonymous with his Attachment Parenting philosophy. Commercial baby carriers soon followed and their use increased rapidly in the 1990s and 2000s.
So, what led to this resurgence in popularity? What does babywearing – the regular use of a baby carrier – offer mother and baby in the modern world?
#1: Babywearing Offers ‘Womb-Service’
Human babies are born the most neurologically immature primate of all, with only 25% of their brain volume (compared to 60-90% in other mammals).
Timothy Taylor of Bradford University, author of The Artificial Ape, claims that “increased brain size was made possible by the invention of the baby sling, a development which enabled slower growing, physically and mentally immature offspring to survive and flourish.”
Often called the ’Fourth Trimester', the first three months of a baby’s life involves intense nurturing, frequent breastfeeding, irregular sleep patterns and a near-constant need to be held. Babywearing supports all these needs while allowing the mother to care for other children, herself and her other responsibilities.
#2: Babywearing Is Soothing
Carrying babies has been proven to reduce crying. The gentle movement, proximity to the mother and upright position naturally soothes and settles.
Babies suffering from reflux benefit from the upright position in a baby carrier, and those with colic are soothed by the physical contact and rhythmic movement.
Babies worn in carriers tend to sleep longer, as the rocking motion of the mother’s body help settle them into the next sleep cycle.
#3: Babywearing Is Sibling-Friendly
A new baby, born into a busy household of older siblings, rarely has the same experience of one-to-one connection with his mother, as she balances the needs of this baby with those of her other children.
Babywearing not only gives the baby closeness which promotes bonding, but allows the integration of the newborn into the existing activities and routines of older children. Mama can push the swing, take part in toddler classes and hold a small hand while she also keeps her baby close and connected.
Learn more tips for your toddler and the new baby here.
#4: Babywearing Is Bonding
Dads, grandparents and older siblings all get to enjoy the closeness which comes with babywearing.
Mothers recovering from birth trauma or unfulfilled breastfeeding plans can reconnect with their baby through wearing their baby and keeping them close. Adoptive or receiving mothers who have not experienced pregnancy or birth can enhance bonding through touch, while wearing baby skin-to-skin in a soft woven or stretchy wrap carrier.
Mothers of premature babies practice a form of babywearing known as kangaroo care. This can help them to adjust to the abrupt end of pregnancy and the life of an infant in NICU, while her baby is reassured by the familiar sounds, smell and voice of her mother.
All mothers enjoy the opportunity to hold their babies close enough to kiss, smell, touch and stroke. Indeed, these are often done without conscious thought when a mother wears her baby, allowing her to make these tiny connections with her baby as she goes about her day. Her baby, in return, will gaze, touch, hear and smell her mother. She will feel her heartbeat and her breath – all known to be part of the bonding process.
Mothers of multiples can enjoy special time with their babies as individuals as they wear them.
Where mothers are affected by Postnatal Depression (PND), babywearing allows them to connect physically when it can be hard to do so emotionally. Babies worn in carriers can reach out and touch their mother, which can strengthen the bond between the two.
#5: Babywearing Helps Maintain Privacy And Protection
Once breastfeeding is well-established, many mothers find that the right baby carrier allows them to breastfeed while babywearing. This allows extra privacy when she needs it is public.
Of course, babywearing is the ultimate tool to keep unwanted intrusions from family, friends and strangers! Many people see a baby in a pram — or even his mother’s arms — as an opportunity to touch, kiss or even pick them up without permission. Prying eyes and poking fingers can be kept away by the close protection of the baby carrier!
#6: Babywearing Is Exercise
Wearing a newborn is a gentle way to exercise as you move around your home or neighbourhood. As she grows, walking or hiking wearing an increasingly heavy baby or toddler provides weight-bearing, aerobic exercise. You can enjoy getting physical while out and about in the bush, on the beach, a busy shopping centre or other non-pram-friendly locations!
You might also like to read BellyBelly’s article, Sleep or Exercise – What Should New Parents Choose?
#7: Babywearing Is Educational
From watching as you prepare dinner, to checking out her surroundings when out and about, babywearing brings your baby up to adult level to interact with the world at – where most of the action is!
Compared to lying inside a pram or sitting in a stroller surrounded by legs, the view from a baby carrier introduces your baby or toddler to a stimulating world of interesting things. Adults interact more with a baby in the carried position, describing what they see, pointing out things of interest and reassuring about strange and unexpected sights.
Toddlers especially benefit from the opportunity to talk about what they see with the adult whose ears are in close range, and whose eyes can spot a pointing finger and enquiring eye.
#8: Babywearing Is Hands-Free
Wearing your baby in a carrier means you can keep your baby out of communal baby seats in shopping trolleys and have both hands free to push.
While wearing your baby, you can fold the washing, tidy the kitchen benches and change a toddler’s nappy. With a clingy baby on your chest or back, you can still get dinner cooked (and eaten!), the groceries put away or the floor vacuumed.
#9: Babywearing Is Healthy For Mother And Baby
There is an ideal leg position which places the femur head right in the middle of the hip socket, and aids the optimal development of baby's hips. It's known as the M-position, frog-position or spread-squat-position. This means that baby's knees are higher up than his bottom, and that his legs are spread apart. Babies automatically assume this position when lifted up, ready to be held against the mother’s chest or carried on the hip.
When you choose an optimal carrier to wear your baby, you support his hips and spine in this natural position. A wide-based, soft-structured carrier like the Manduca or Ergo provide this in what is known as ‘knee-to-knee’ support, which places the legs in the desired position. Avoid narrow-based carriers which are not designed in this way. Woven wraps and stretchy carriers like the Hug-A-Bub, ring slings and mei tais also offer this support, and place babies legs in the desired ‘M’ position.
A well-designed carrier like those described will also support the wearer’s body, distributing the baby’s weight evenly. The Manduca baby carrier is endorsed by the Australian Physiotherapy Association.
#10: Babywearing Is A Boost For Breastfeeding
Wearing your baby, especially if you maximise the skin to skin contact, increases the levels of the two key hormones for lactation – oxytocin and prolactin. Both are important in establishing and maintaining your breast milk supply. By keeping your baby so close, you can respond to her early feeding cues, avoid delaying feeds and minimise energy wasted by crying.
Mothers who wear their babies tend to breastfeed more frequently, leading to better growth and development. Both the Manduca and Hug-A-Bub carriers are endorsed by the Australian Breastfeeding Association.
Whatever reason you choose to wear your baby, follow the T.I.C.K.S. guidelines to do so in a safe and comfortable way for adult and baby.