Emily di Febo, a mother of two kids, a teacher of almost 100 high schoolers, and a self-described imperfect parent, once thought she would be the “perfect mother” — until she actually had her first baby, and discovered that parenting in real life is actually all about messing up. Emily has learned a lot since then, including about babywearing and bedsharing.
Here, she’s sharing some of what she has learned. As a disclaimer since this post is about attachment parenting, babywearing, and bedsharing: Regardless of what style of parenting you believe in, I hope if you read this post, you’ll do so with an open mind; the hope is that this post on babywearing and bedsharing is interesting, inspiring, and informative for anyone reading. Here’s Emily…
In the beginning, G-d created Mother and Child. And Child was without defenses, and dependent. And in the darkness there were saber-toothed tigers. And the babe could not swim on the face of the waters.
And Mother said, let there be a woven wrap; and there was a wrap. And Child saw the wrap, that it was good. And Mother protected her little one in the darkness.
Babywearing and bedsharing: What was old is now new
Fast forward to the Industrial Revolution, when women began to venture out of the home for work (here’s a source). The family bed was rededicated as a marital bed and children were expected to sleep through the night, entertain themselves in play pens, and take milk from caregivers. Although times have changed, the human need for touch and security have not waned. Many parents noticed that free play and battery powered babysitters (toys with moving parts and rocking bouncy seats) were not raising independent little people but clingy children who feared the dark and wailed when mama left the room to check on the casserole.
Referring to history as a guide, parents began to realize that there was a reason human babies did not walk or talk for the first year. They were still developing and needed adult support. Some scholars have even gone so far as to refer to the first twelve weeks postpartum as the fourth trimester. (Sarah Ockwell-Smith’s website is all about attachment parenting, fourth trimester, and soothing baby.) In the 1960s, anthropologists posited that humans carried for an entire year when we walked on all fours (here’s a link to that study). At that time, the babies’ heads were small enough to fit through the birth canal even at that advanced size. Modern science debunks this theory and states that our relatively short gestation has to do with mother’s metabolism, not obstetrical dilemma (pelvis to head ratio). (See here for more on that, and on why pregnancy lasts nine months). Regardless of which theory you embrace, the bottom line is this:
Modern mothers literally walk away from their child while it is still, in essence, a fetus.
What was to be done? Parents still had chores to do and responsibilities outside the home. How could they foster their children through this critical stage without sacrificing much needed hands-free time to get the house in order, balance checkbooks, and commute to the office? The solution was not to be found in new toys with actual bells and whistles but in the ways of the old world. These parenting methods still thrive in communal cultures such as those found in Africa, the mountains of Central America, and islands like Bali.
Babywearing is a fairly modern – and arguably silly – term for a practice as old as motherhood itself. It is still practiced today the world over. A quick image search brings up paintings from biblical times until modern day of mothers and fathers with their child attached securely to their chest or back with anything from a tablecloth to a $200 carrier.
Even today, mothers in Kenya prefer cloth wraps over strollers, and Balinese baby feet don’t touch the ground until they are three to seven months old. Most mothers with whom I have spoken claim that babywearing is much more than just a convenience. They cite earlier talkers with larger vocabularies, less separation anxiety, and steadier weight gain in their little ones. Children can be carried as long as the parent is able to safely support the weight. I recently carried my forty pound five-year-old because he was sick and did not want to walk.
Babywearing supports breastfeeding in the industrialized world
Aware now that not only does baby need to double her bodyweight in the first year, but also that mother’s milk contains a custom blend of antibodies and proteins, working mothers sometimes choose to “wear” their babies in slings, wraps, or soft-structured carriers. In this way, the child can feed on demand – whether that is while Mommy files papers, socializes with friends, or meanders through the aisles of the supermarket.
A mother who prefers strollers and bouncy seats often find herself distracted from tasks to unbutton their shirts and unbuckle their hungry tike. Little Ones are wise to their power and if they feel insecure or lonely, they can prolong the touch time with their parents by batting their eyes or even crying. In the end, the need to be hands-free to take care of responsibilities can be the very thing that sets parents behind schedule.
Babywearing promotes a sense of security and speech development
Imagine being suddenly relocated to another planet. Everything is new, different, bright, loud, curious, and a bit scary. Would you rather be strapped into a stroller to interpret it yourself or tucked against someone familiar whose calming words and steady heartbeat reinforce your sense of security while you explore? Remember that before he was born, Little One was curled into a tight, body-temperature hug twenty-four hours per day. Even if parents snuggle him as often as possible, they still cut his warm hug time at least in half (see here).
Many babies experience anxiety when they are not tightly held. Sudden noises and bright lights can be startling without the constant swish of blood and bowels to drown them out. Repeatedly switching from the baking sun to arctic air-conditioning wreaks havoc on his internal thermostat. Thus, the practice of swaddling and shushing to calm them is so effective (also, here’s why your “fourth trimester” baby only seems happy in your arms).
If you watch a she-wolf with her young, you will notice that she is never far while they play. She communicates through growls, whimpers, and tugs on their hide. When startled, the little fur balls look to Mama to see if she is scared, too. If so, she will encourage them to run with her. If not, they carry on with their play, confident that the loud noise or curious squirrel was no danger. When she is close enough to her caregiver to connect cause and effect, Baby can make determinations about safety by copying the caregiver’s reactions.
Little One learns that barking dogs are okay but car engines are dangerous; Grandma’s funny face is laughable, but a stranger’s intense stare may be cause for alarm. A baby in a stroller cannot read her parents’ reactions (see here), and may not necessarily connect the sudden stop of the pram to the blaring of the horn as a car zooms by. In addition to learning how to maneuver in her new world, baby learns how to communicate (see here) in a carrier when she is “up” (a term commonly used by parents and their littles to mean being held in a carrier). Humans acquire languages by repeated exposure to words that are tied to experiences (see the book “Look Who’s Talking“).
A baby in a stroller is not likely to hear:
“Let’s go in here to buy apples. Ooh, look at the pretty green and red apples. Can you smell the apples? This apple is red!”
…and therefore has to do some extra linguistic programming to acquire vocabulary. But when baby’s ear is beside Daddy’s mouth, she can ask questions by cooing, staring, and pointing. Daddy answers by repeating words clearly for her. Once baby has heard the syllables in “apple” at market, then at home, again with Big Brother, and once more while reading a bedtime story, she learns that the sounds have meaning and that meaning is tied to a specific item.
And babies who do not experience rich language regularly can struggle with linguistic delays up to six months by the age of two. (Here’s more information.)
And the practice of carrying babes against one’s torso is not a uniquely human trait. Gorillas cart their young this way, too. In fact, scientists believe that the Moro (or “startle”) reflex wherein a newborn reaches out and forms fists if he feels like he is in danger of falling or being whisked away stems from the times when humans were covered in fur (here’s more on that). The little hands instinctively grasp for mama’s coat to hang on for dear life.
Babywearing in Nairobi
In Nairobi, Kenya, a baby store claims to have strollers that have gathered dust because Kenyan mothers are skeptical of them (here’s a link).
In a culture where some women can be seen carrying loads of firewood on their heads or the carcass of a goat draped over their shoulders, the industrialized nations could surmise that such conveniences as play pens and prams would be welcomed with open – or rather heavily laden – arms.
Quite the opposite has proven true.
In Kenya, while the sweat rolls down his mother’s back, a small and sleepy bundle is often seen snuggling against his mama’s sun-baked skin.
Babywearing In Bali
Babywearing is embraced in many cultures worldwide from industrialized cities to isolated tribes. Many parents are part-time babywearers, choosing to wrap their little ones only when they truly need to be hands-free. In fact, many parents who carry their babies in a sling, wrap, or carrier do not even know the term “babywearing” exists; they are simply using the resources available to parent the best way they can.
Other parents – mostly mothers – are full-time babywearers. The act of carrying their little one from the moment they awaken until the moment mama goes to bed is more than an act of childcare; it is a culture. In the United States, many of these parents follow the guidelines of Dr. William Sears who did not invent the concept of attachment parenting, but certainly popularized it.
On the Indonesian island of Bali, however, mothers have never heard of Dr. Sears or attachment parenting. They know what they learned from their mothers and that is to hold their little one as often as possible for the first few months of life.
There, some followers of Hinduism believe that newborns are sacred. Some of these followers also believe newborns are reincarnated relatives, and that retain a holy status during that fourth trimester. The child’s old soul has not yet taken root in its new body so parents are tasked with keeping their little toes off the dirty ground for anywhere from 105 to 210 days.
At three to seven months old, the family hosts Nyabutan, a ceremony that welcomes the baby into the human world.
After a purification ritual for the parents and a sacred hair cutting for Little One, a Balinese shaman oversees the first moment when the babe’s feet touch the soil. Until then, the tiny person spends her days strapped to Mama with a simple cloth that she previously used to bind her hair or cover her waist and will later employ as a blanket, tablecloth, mantel, and finally her burial shroud. (Here’s an article about this).
(If you are interested in bedsharing, here’s a link to a website about bedsharing history and safety.)
Prior to the invention of electrical lights and a universal adherence to a sleep schedule, mother, father, baby, and often older siblings shared a bed (here’s a source on this). While the AAP warns against bed-sharing due to potential suffocation hazards (see here), when it is done safely (see here, and here), breastfeeding mothers report better sleep.
Benefits of bedsharing and the family bed
In my personal experience, bed-sharing reduced separation anxiety and eliminated night terrors. If a child has a nightmare in his nursery, the anxiety must get bad enough that he wakes his parents and waits, afraid, until they come. Getting him back to sleep can take minutes or hours and after several nights of this, parents’ patience wears as thin as the skin under their eyes. When a bed-sharing baby stirs, parents respond while still half awake by inching closer, providing baby with the feeling of security before he completely awakens, saving precious shut-eye for the whole family. (By the way – many babies really do sleep with their mamas. Here’s an NPR story on it.) When a nursling is curled against its mother, he gets some amazing biofeedback (see here). Mother literally teaches her young how to breathe evenly. Her own body temperature rises and falls to regulate the baby’s.
Bedsharing supports breastfeeding
Mothers sleep lightly while they are lactating, allowing them to respond to the baby without fully coming awake. Therefore, if the child reaches for the breast, a mother may free her nipple, adjust her position, respond to distress, and even shush a babe back to sleep without remembering it in the morning.
Bedsharing is natural
Before alarm clocks invaded bedrooms and television tempted night owls, families often spent evenings by the fire. When the sun set, they all climbed into bed together and awoke in each other’s’ arms. Many parents savor any alone time they can get to catch up on sleep or delight in a quiet coffee on the patio before tiny feet stomp down the stairs in search of oatmeal and attention.
The potential dangers of babywearing and bedsharing
(Here’s a link about safe bed-sharing and co-sleeping). Some parents fear babywearing and bedsharing. A hot drink spilled on a tiny head or a heavily sleeping parent that rolls over baby’s face can be catastrophic. However, like anything else, there are safe methods for both practices and plenty of education for parents2,3. In the age of information, mom and dad can research methods and weigh the pros and cons according to their family’s dynamic.
Parents who drink or take sedating medications should avoid bed-sharing outright. While cleaning with harsh chemicals or frying chicken, baby-wearing is not an option. However, if Mama needs to finish her dissertation or Daddy wants to water the garden, why not cart along the little one and chatter along with her, describing your task and sharing giggles? If you can go without blankets and pillows and you sleep lightly, curl up between Daddy and baby and enjoy both kinds of snuggles while drifting off to sleep.
A quick check to see if your body and baby’s body are compatible to safely bedshare can be performed at any time. Simply allow your breast to cover little one’s face. If he tilts his head back on his own, you know that he is physiologically capable of safe nursing while you sleep.
Baby’s nose is shaped (so adorably) differently than an adult nose specifically to allow air to pass even when they seem to be completely buried in mother’s soft breast tissue. Watch sometime and you will be amazed. If you have heard the scary term hip dysplasia and that has kept you out of the baby carrier section at the crunchy mama stores, check out the links below about how to wear baby safely. Keeping baby in the Froggy or M position is safe and developmentally appropriate (see here or here).
Some hardcore babywearers would never have baby facing outward. Early on, this is due to the weight of baby’s head. Her neck is not ready to hold it up yet and she should be propped on your chest. Later, mamas are concerned about little ones being overstimulated. Once your little one is big enough, she will tell you whether she wants to face in or out, be on your chest or you back, or – frankly – whether she wants to be up or running free. If you are in tune with your baby, she will answer most of your questions for you.
Babywearing, bedsharing, and you and your baby
While it does take a village to raise a child, remember that this is your baby. She is not your mother-in-law’s or your neighbor’s or even mine. If you search enough, you will find opinions for or against every single parenting decision you make.
Bear in mind that humans have been around for millennia.
Babies who are worn and babies who ride in strollers both grow up to be happy and successful. Families who share a bed will tell you about great nights and awful nights just like parents who do the zombie walk down the hall to the nursery. What matters is that you, the parent, are well-rested, healthy and happy.
The rest will come in time. You will make mistakes. You will second guess yourself. Your great aunt who raised thirteen healthy kids will tell you that your teething cure is bogus. But, your baby will grow up to be a wonderful person just like you.
For readers — if you use Pinterest, below is a nice, Pinterest-friendly image for you to bookmark this page with. All photos in this post courtesy of Emily di Febo.
P.S. – KellyMom is an amazing resource for breastfeeding, baby-led-weaning, natural parenting, attachment parenting. And, La Leche League is an amazing resource for help with breastfeeding, plus support for having trouble with latching, nutrition, and medications (and they likely have a chapter near you, if you’re interested in going IRL). The Baby Wearer is a great resource for finding the best carrier, support.