Why I am so passionate about supporting parents and carers to carry?
Put simply carrying is what our infant’s expect; it is what our body and brain expect. It is biologically normal and also optimal for us to carry. We are part of the carrying group of mammals which also includes apes, marsupials including the kangaroo.
Carry - baby is born immaturely, have some grasp reflexes, milk is high in sugar and fat but is this is digested quickly as the brain needs this to grow, it is hugely complex to develop this as it is the most complex of all brains.
Nest - baby is usually born blind and without fur, often multiple babies stay together they keep each other warm, they are left for long periods, milk is very high is fat, very simple brains.
Cache - baby is born quite mature, walk quickly after birth, milk is high protein helping their bones develop fast.
Dr Timothy Taylor, in his book called “The Artificial Ape” suggests that the invention of the sling in the early stone ages is what enabled our brains to develop to being the most complex of its kind. Calling it the most important aspect of human evolution. "The invention of the baby sling, which allowed more babies to successfully mature outside the female body, instantly removed the barrier to increased head and brain size.". It also made mobility easier so they were less likely to be attacked.
Our brains evolved through this closeness and activation of hormones and neurobiological processes allowing the connections to flourish.
However in the past 150 years this type of care of infants has declined in many cultures. We are seeing more nest type care, babies are typically separate from caregivers. It is normal now in many cultures to use containers to transport babies around, car seats, bouncers, push chairs, prams, buggies, cots, rather than to use a sling or carrier to keep baby close.
The reason for this is primarily down to industrialisation and capitalism. Rooted in the UK in the Victorian era of medicalisation, the shift to Doctors and the need to make a child independent as soon as possible.
With recent leaps forward in technology and huge growth of research in neuroscience across the world in the last 30 years, we are starting to learn about the potentially negative impact on the brain of this rapid change. The research in the field of Adverse Childhood Experiences also highlights this and the detrimental impact life-long on both mental and physical health as well as the intergenerational impact of trauma and stressful events or experiences. Due to the high stress and release of cortisol and other hormones this impacts the developing brain.
Nils Bergman, who was involved in the kangaroo mother care model which is part of World Health Organisation guidelines for premature infants, has recently suggested that separation from our mother or caregivers after birth and in the following weeks can be traumatic at a biological level and that needs to be minimised at all costs. He coined the term “nurturescience” to make it distinct from neuroscience, to develop the concept that brain development is interactional.
The brain doesn’t just develop in a predetermined way. It needs interactions with the mother’s body and the world through shared experienced for connections to develop optimally.
Through complex interactions of smell and touch , via hormones, the maternal and paternal brains switch on to become responsive to baby’s needs, to facilitate growth and development to continue the human race. However, what the science shows us is that an individual’s early childhood experiences sets these systems up in a way that can for some make it harder to be responsive. If our body and brain experiences high levels of stress hormones these detrimentally impact the developing connections in the brain, our wiring.
The research also shows us that the brain is mouldable, or plastic as it is known. We can adapt and shape and rewire our brains, we can create new connections.
Carrying may impact through a variety of different mechanisms, which are interconnected, influencing each other in a manner of ways. First physical attachment leading to psychological attachment and alongside these processes, interdependently, the infant and maternal brains develop and influence each other.
There is very little direct research on carrying in slings and attachment. What we now know about the neuroscience and hormones and how they are released, it therefore makes sense that carrying supports attachment initially in a physical way and then through the biology gradually developing as a psychological process.
Anisfield et al (1990) study found a group given a soft carrier had more secure attachments than a group of those given seats, when all other variables were controlled 83% to 38%. They state “increased physical contact achieved through the use of a soft baby carrier makes mother more responsive to their infants and promotes the formation of more secure attachment between infant and mother at 13m. The physical contact inherent in carrying seems to have brought out latent nurturing behaviour”.
Bowlby and Ainsworth the main proponents of attachment theory themselves state close proximity typically leads to secure attachment.
Because it helps to support optimal brain development.
Carrying is so powerful because it literally shapes our brains and the brains of our children.
We are seeing the negative impact of going against our natural human instincts, and those of our infants.
We are experiencing high levels of maternal mental health conditions, and also poor mental health in adults and children in general, as well as a huge rise in chronic illnesses, addictions, cancer rates.
Carrying builds attachment and attachment builds brains.
This is why it is so important for me to share the science around carrying so that people can understand why a baby wants to be held all the time, to stop fighting against infant’s needs for constant touch, to know that by doing this you are growing their brain. To know that it is important to nurture. That you are not doing anything wrong, that your baby isn’t broken, to know this is normal and in fact optimal human development.
It is hard and it is overwhelming and a sling or carrier is simply a tool that can help you meet their needs and your own too. It doesn’t have to be one or the other, the two things are not exclusive. To carry is to be human.
Zoe Woodman, The Sling Consultancy
Zoe has written a number of articles and shares the science behind carrying and its benefits on her website and social media. Do you want to read more about the importance of holding your baby close? Why not pop over to her page and discover so much more.