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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.

Benefits for Your Baby

Carried babies cry less. Parents of fussy babies who try babywearing relate that their babies seem to forget to fuss. In 1986, a team of pediatricians in Montreal reported on a study of 99 mother-infant pairs, half of whom were given carriers and asked to carry their infants for at least three extra hours a day. These parents were encouraged to carry their babies as much as possible, not just in response to crying or fussing, as is common in Western society. In the control, or noncarried, group, parents were not given any specific instructions. After six weeks, the infants who were carried more cried and fussed 43 percent less than the noncarried group.

This has been my experience as well. I believe that being close encourages being calm. Wearing a baby lets a mom keep a close eye on her child. She'll also be more likely to spot her infant's first signs of fussing and have a better chance of preempting an all-out fit. This also helps Baby understand noncrying modes of communication: She learns that these initial signals receive an immediate nurturing response.

Carried babies may learn more. If infants spend less time crying and fussing, what do they do with the free time? I think they spend it learning! I've found that carried babies do not sleep a lot more but actually show an increased awake time called "quiet alertness"  -- the behavioral state in which an infant is most content and best able to interact with the environment. The child is stimulated by participating so intimately in what her mother or father is doing, but she's not overwhelmed by what she sees and hears because she's comfortable in her parent's arms.

Concerns that carrying babies too much will delay crawling are unfounded. In fact, some infant developmental specialists believe that it actually helps infants develop because they divert the energy they would otherwise spend fussing into learning and growing.

Carried babies get "humanized" earlier. These babies get to know their parents, and people in general, quickly and well. Baby is exposed to the facial expressions, body language, voice inflections, breathing patterns, and emotions of her babywearer. Also, because Baby is up at voice and eye level, she is more involved in conversations and learns a valuable speech lesson  -- the ability to listen. Carried infants sometimes seem to click in to adult conversations, as if they were part of them.

Normal ambient sounds, such as the noise of a vacuum cleaner or a radio, can sometimes surprise or scare a child. When a baby is worn, a sound that might otherwise be frightening has a learning value because the mother can comfort the infant when she is exposed to unfamiliar sounds and experiences.

Babywearing Benefits for You

Babywearing is convenient. Anyone who has put on a carrier will tell you that this is true. For a baby, home is where the mother is. If you're a few weeks postpartum and you're starting to go stir crazy or feeling homebound, there's nothing in the mother-infant contract that says you have to stay home and become a recluse after you have a baby. Babywearing allows you to have your baby and your life too.

Babywearing helps in sibling care. Having a baby in the sling provides extra mobility for the mother  -- especially valuable when there is an older child in the picture. As one mother said, "Carrying our new baby in the sling gives me an extra pair of hands to play with and enjoy our toddler. It's done wonders to lessen sibling rivalry."

Babywearing makes breastfeeding easier. Probably one of the most wonderful aspects of a sling or carrier is that it allows breastfeeding on the move. Busy mothers can nurture their babies with the best nutrition, yet still continue their active lifestyles. If you need to feed in public, discreet breastfeeding is very easy while wearing a baby. It also makes it easier to breastfeed at a restaurant or other places where babies aren't always considered socially acceptable. Martha used to breastfeed while waiting in the checkout line at the grocery store.

Our most memorable public breastfeeding experience was the morning that Martha wore Stephen on The Donahue Show. Stephen nestled contently and breastfed in the sling for 45 minutes as we discussed the benefits of attachment parenting on national television. We are sure that what the audience saw made more of an impression than what we actually said.

Babywearing can help you connect with your partner. Shortly after Stephen's birth, I was going through the usual "when will I get my wife back?" feelings that most postpartum dads have  -- and I realized that I really needed some alone time with Martha. Having our weekly "dates" has always helped us thrive with a large family. So we put the younger children to bed, and the two of us sat down to a quiet dinner. Well, three of us, actually. Stephen slept so quietly in the sling you'd never have known that he was there.

Babywearing can help in childcare. One way for a working mother to be sure her baby receives a lot of interaction in her absence is to encourage her caregiver to wear her. One of my patients had a high-need baby who was content as long as she was in the sling, but the mother had to return to work when her baby was 6 weeks old. I wrote the following prescription to give to her daycare provider: "To help this baby thrive and to keep her from fussing, wear her in a sling at least two hours a day."

Martha and I also found that the sling helped with the transition to substitute care. If we were in a hurry, we would greet the babysitter at the door, transfer Mathew to her while in the sling  -- like the transfer of a baton in a relay race  -- and she took over the wearing. Mathew forgot to fuss, and we felt better knowing his routine was not disrupted. Carriers can work at work. Babywearing can fit in beautifully with the complex lifestyles of a working mother. Some occupations, such as selling real estate or being a clerk, lend themselves well to babywearing on the job. In our pediatric office we encourage our front office staff to wear their babies at work for the first six months  -- and it's been a huge success.

Your employer may be reluctant to allow you to wear your baby to work, but try asking for a two-week trial with the agreement that if it's a problem then you will find an alternative arrangement. I've found that babywearing mothers are more productive: Since they so appreciate the opportunity to keep their babies with them all day, they make an extra effort to do their job well.

Carriers aren't only for infants. Even after our babies had outgrown their slings, we still kept one handy for those times when some misbehaviors would signal that, instead of "time out," our toddler needed "time in." When one of our toddlers seemed to disintegrate from a toy squabble, for example, we would put him in the sling and walk around with him for a few minutes. Somehow this bit of reconnecting, knowing that the sling was still available, seemed to be all the destressing the child needed to calm down. The sling was like a great big hug for our children  -- and that was just as nice for Martha and me too.

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