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Sling Babies

Many children ago, my wife, Martha, and I noticed that the more we carried our babies, the less they cried. So when child number 6, Mathew, was born, Martha made a sling from an old bed sheet to carry him around. She loved "wearing" Mathew. The sling was like a piece of clothing  -- she put it on in the morning and took it off in the evening. And with that, the term "babywearing" was born in the Sears household.

I also wore Mathew a lot during the first year of his life. We were buddies from birth. He grew up associating the sling with a fun and exciting place to be. When he was 9 months old, I'd say "Go," and Mathew would crawl to where the sling was hanging, eager to set off on an adventure with Daddy. Mathew may not remember these babywearing moments, but I'll never forget them.

During my 30 years as a pediatrician, our experience has been borne out by parents in our practice who often say, "As long as I carry my baby, she's happy." And after years of watching a whole parade of babywearers, we dubbed these thriving infants "sling babies."

Babywearing is customary in many cultures. Balinese babies are worn in a sling all day for the first six months of life, put down only to sleep. And most women in African countries carry their babies as well. Once when I was at an international parenting conference wearing Stephen, our seventh child, in a sling, I stood next to two women from Zambia who were also carrying their babies in slings. When I asked why parents in their culture wear their babies most of the time, one of the women replied, "It makes life easier for the mother." The other volunteered, "It's good for the baby." I think the parental art of babywearing can be summed up in those two simple, yet profound, benefits: It does good things for babies, and it makes life easier for mothers.

Babywearing extends the period of special closeness between a mother and her child. Mother's rhythmic walk, which the baby has been feeling for nine months, is a calming reminder of the womb. And the baby can hear the soothing sound of her mother's heartbeat when she places her ear against her mother's chest.

You needn't worry that carrying your baby will make her "spoiled" or "dependent." The close proximity to a caregiver enhances trust which translates into independence. A study by doctors Bell and Ainsworth at Johns Hopkins University in the early seventies found that infants who are securely attached during the early months cling less and separate more easily from their mother later on.

I've always liked slings because they are so simple yet so versatile. I've even worked with NoJo, a company in California, to develop a sling. But the benefits of babywearing will result from any front carrier: The important goal is to keep your baby close to you and involved in your world.

From decades of observing parent-infant pairs, here is what I've learned.

Contributing editor Dr. William Sears, M.D., is the author with his wife, Martha Sears, R.N., of The Baby Book.