In this second post of a two part series, Zoe Woodman, from The Sling Consultancy (pictured above with youngest child Jude on her back in a striped woven wrap) talks about Babywearing and how it can support maternal mental health.
My first post discusses my experiences and how carrying can impact mental health. This post covers attachment and safety.
My big passion as a carrying consultant is the science and psychology around carrying. My degree was in Psychology so I am naturally drawn to the science and research and this helps me to communicate the power of carrying. I am quite an analytical type of person and I found learning about this side of carrying so useful for explaining why carrying is amazing, not just from a – it feels nice or it is practical point of view (which it is!) but the why behind it and through what mechanisms and what I learned and what I continue to learn just blows my mind. This is such an emerging field of research. There isn’t much directly on carrying itself however there is a lot on attachment and in many other areas that link in with carrying.
Research shows us the importance of attachment to a caregiver who responds to a baby’s needs is key:
“Attachment processes are a fundamental part of human development, and have a profound influence on adult personality and behaviour, especially in response to stressors”.
Attachment is a connection through time and space, this builds by simply having someone who consistently meets your needs, provides security and in whom you can trust. It is a psychological process rather than physical attachment – although in the early months the latter helps to lead to the former.
What we do and how we respond to our baby in the early weeks and months has the potential to impact lifelong. The brain builds and grows sequentially from the bottom up a bit like the roots of a tree or the foundations of a house. For the brain to be robust to deal with life’s challenges it needs strong foundations. It helps to build a strong base to deal optimally with stress having a lower base can mean the body has a lower tipping point for when stress can become toxic to the body and this impacts many areas including immune function and can even impact life expectancy as the work on Adverse Childhood experiences (ACEs) is showing us. Often leading to cycles of stress from one generation to the next with patterns repeating.
Research has suggested that attachment may have the ability to act like a buffer lessening the impact of ACE’s. Often those who experience ACEs have not had secure attachments in their early childhood. (Smith et al (2016) “Is there a link between childhood adversity, attachment style and Scotland’s excess mortality? Evidence, challenges and potential research”). If you experienced ACE’s this impacts your brain and the way it responds to hormones and stress and and may mean you are more likely to experience mental health difficulties.
The neuroscience is beginning to show us just how this impacts.
Our brains as new parents are the most plastic after childhood, meaning the connections can change and be re-built, our brains literally change as parents. This is a way to ensure the survival of the human race. So we have the capacity to change and respond to our child and carrying can help us do that through the activation of hormones, neural networks and positive feedback cycles and synchronicity, to tap into the biology of humans and our evolution. There have been some studies showing the impact that supporting parents with high ACEs to be responsive parents can have to help raise a resilient generation. If your brain has a lower tolerance for stress levels, such as a crying baby, then carrying can help in two ways, firstly by reducing the crying, then through the touch to boost your oxytocin which buffers the stress. And it boosts your child’s oxytocin too which helps to build their brain.
There is much evidence showing how oxytocin is higher in both parents following birth although via different mechanisms. A study showed that when fathers were given oxytocin nasally it increased their responsiveness to their child, and also it boosted the infant’s oxytocin too, via the responsiveness. Oxytocin is involved in brain connectivity in very specific areas that help to support development of both child and also parent. We know that carrying and soft touch boosts oxytocin. Therefore carrying can be a useful tool for fathers to enable them to connect with their baby, to increase oxytocin to build responsiveness to child’s needs.
Most things we do have some element of risk; crossing the road, walking down steps etc. There are some useful guidelines to ensure we carry as safely as possible. One of the biggest risk is suffocation, so check;
- Can baby breathe? You should always be able to see baby’s mouth and nose i.e. fabric or clothing is not obstructing their face
- Can you lean forward and baby stays snug to your body? You may need to offer some head support but their body shouldn’t come away from you, if it does the sling/carrier needs tightening. If it is too loose it may lead to baby slumping which can impact their breathing
- Can you be hands-free? Meaning you don’t need to offer additional support using your hands, the carrier should be supporting your child, if you feel the need to use hands the sling/carrier likely needs adjusting in some way.
We often think carrying is only for newborns and then they get too big and heavy to carry in a sling/carrier. This is a misconception due to using typically narrow-based carriers which are often not comfortable once baby gains weight.
Carrying older babies and children can be hugely helpful and beneficial for a number of reasons. It can be helpful way to reconnect with your child after time apart. It can be a helpful tool using a sling/carrier to help settle a child in unfamiliar situations or places. It is useful when travelling as you have hands free for suitcases, easier on and off planes and around airports etc. It is great for language and social development as we tend to engage more with our child if they are close to us and interactions are the building blocks for language. It helps them learn about social situations and how to communicate as greater interaction from those around them as at eye level.
See https://www.theslingconsultancy.co.uk/carrying-your-child Article on Toddler carrying featured in Juno Magazine
If you are unsure if it is safe or if carrying your child is no longer comfortable, find a local carrying consultant or sling library see http://www.carryingmatters.co.uk for a map or list.
Why Babywearing Matters by Rosie Knowles published by Pinter & Martin
Zoe Woodman – The Sling Consultancy
I am a trained and insured carrying consultant. With a first class degree in Psychology and a career in retail management. In 2012 I helped to set up a local sling library and I formally trained in 2016 as a consultant. I specialise in the psychology and science of carrying, In particular how carrying impacts attachment and the neuroscience of this linking with brain development long term mental and physical health of both carer and infant as well as the impact of trauma and adverse childhood experiences and how carrying can help to support recovery and perhaps even reduce the likelihood of ACEs.
I work with parents, professionals and brands in a variety of ways including workshops, one to ones to empower and support parents on their parenting journey from bump to baby to toddler and beyond. I live in Surrey, with my partner and children aged 10, 6 and 3.
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