To Have and to Hold

"One Sunday, at an outdoor festival in Florida, I did a casual count of how infants under one year of age were transported. Babes-in-arms totaled five, one carried by mother, and four carried by father. Babies in buggies numbered thirty, divided equally between mother propelling and father propelling. This indicates that even on Sunday, when both mother and father can share carrying, babies are primarily wheeled. In other words, not carrying our babies goes beyond our lack of helping hands. If Florida is at all representative, it has become a national habit."

--Sharon Heller, Ph.D. in The Vital Touch: How Intimate Contact with Your Baby Leads to Happier, Healthier Development


"Once I became accustomed to actually carrying my child on my body in the frontpack and later, the backpack, it began to look really strange to me to see tiny babies in carriages. It seems very artificial and bizarre to wheel around at arm's length a fifteen pound bundle of baby human who longs to snuggle in close to your body warmth."

--Cindy, mother of an eighteen-month-old

In the minds of many modern parents, the stroller and carriage are truly essential items of baby equipment. New models are released every season, and each one is more colorful, feature-laden, and costly than the year before. Nowadays, parents can buy strollers made of space-age titanium, "sport-utility" strollers, or even baby carriages that will coordinate with the color and theme of their diaper bag and nursery bedding. In recent years, a veritable smorgasbord of other expensive baby-holding gadgets such as vibrating bouncy seats, "exersaucers," rolling bassinets, automatic swings, portable playpens, reclining high chairs, and feeding seats have also come to be seen as necessary items to have on hand when a new baby arrives. In fact, navigating through a new parent's house these days can often be tricky, as one attempts to avoid stumbling over the vast array of brightly colored baby containers littering every room. Entire households appear to be organized around figuring out how the new parent can escape from actually holding and carrying her baby.

And it's a common sight to see a parent lugging her baby around town by the handle of an unwieldy, heavy, plastic "baby bucket" (carrier/car seat)--often weighing as much as or more than the baby himself--rather than simply transporting the baby in her arms. Of course, the companies who manufacture, market, and sell these products, as well as the glossy parenting magazines that advertise them on virtually every page, have a strong interest in promoting the idea that parents really shouldn't carry or hold their babies excessively. But the fact is that human infants, like most mammal babies, are happiest and most comfortable, and develop best, when they are kept physically close to a warm body much of the time. And parents who hold, carry, or "wear" their babies on their bodies find themselves better able to read and respond to their babies' cues, as well as to more easily go about their own regular daily routine while staying physically close to their little one. For these reasons and more, "babywearing"--a term coined by Dr. William Sears--is one of the basic (and most enjoyable!) attachment-parenting tools.


Baby-Carrying Around the Globe

"From a baby's point of view, the hunter-and-gatherer life is better because it supplies all the necessary ingredients and opportunities for a symbiotic parent-infant dyad. The point is not that we need to re-create the dynamics of hunter/gatherer societies, but rather that we recognize those parts of other lifestyles that are beneficial to infants and figure out those ways to incorporate those lessons into the parent-infant tradition in our own culture, if we choose to do so."

--Meredith F. Small, anthropologist

As with so many of our parenting practices, our excessive reliance on baby containers differs markedly from the way families all over the globe handle the issue of where the baby will "be" as a parent goes about her day. Many other cultures assume that a parent-infant pair simply belongs together, comprising two parts of the same whole, for at least the first year or so. Additionally, these busy parents have things they need to accomplish and they need a way to keep their child close-by and safe without being unreasonably tied down themselves. They also need to be able to breastfeed easily and on the go. For these reasons, in a wide variety of cultures, babies and young children spend the greatest part of each day riding comfortably in a cloth sling of some type that is worn on an adult caregiver's front, back, or side. In some instances, women even create slings out of the same fabric as a favorite item of clothing so that her carried baby literally becomes a part of her "outfit."  


Why Don't We Hold Our Babies?

In the United States, our views on baby-holding and -carrying are at the other end of the spectrum. Prior to the advent of the male-dominated "scientific" child-care guidance that began to flood the American marketplace at the end of the nineteenth century, our babies were probably carried and held much more often. But once the pediatric advice industry began strongly influencing new parents, many mothers and fathers became convinced that too much holding or carrying of a baby was actually a Bad Thing. Today, lingering fallout from this outdated and unsupported point of view can still be found in many child-care guides and pediatric offices, which advise that carrying, holding, or wearing a baby can hinder a child's progress toward independence, tie a parent down, and even (according to one well-known child-care advisor) cause "developmental damage" in children. Of course, none of this is true, and a rapidly growing number of modern, Western parents are discovering the ease and advantages of holding, carrying, and wearing their own babies and young children.


Our Untouched Babies

"Essentially, first touch--not only the first moment of physical touch, but the touch that the infant receives at the beginning of his or her life--is the single most influential factor that will determine a future life of love, or one of unlove. ...First touch is that important."

--Mariana Caplan, author of Untouched: The Need for Genuine Affection in an Impersonal World

Not coincidentally, but as a direct result of popular mainstream parenting styles, American babies are among the least touched on the planet, according to researchers. In fact, the average American baby is in physical contact with a caregiver only twenty-five percent or less of the time, with touch-time down to below twenty percent by a baby's ninth month. These statistics represent a significant deficit when compared with the rest of the world. Korean babies, for example, spend more than ninety percent of their time "in touch" with another human.

Why does this low-touch approach to baby care matter? Because a wide and well-respected variety of research from a number of different fields of study--including child development, psychiatry, neonatology, and anthropology--has revealed that human infants require sufficient physical touch in order to develop to their optimal potential. Premature babies have been shown to gain weight and strength better the more they are touched by their parents. But even full-term babies who do not receive sufficient physical contact grow more slowly and can experience developmental delays. New imaging technology has allowed scientists to see that that the brains of untouched babies are demonstrably different from those who are cuddled and stroked regularly.

How much touch is enough? No one knows for sure. And different babies likely have different needs. But the fact that that cross-cultural analysis reveals that our babies are getting significantly less physical contact each day than other babies around the world should serve as a wake-up call. Sure, babies can survive with the mainstream, low-touch approach; but as caring parents, we want more than that for our infants, we want them to thrive. Carrying or holding our babies instead of abandoning them to plastic baby containers provides them this touch that they crave and deserve. Plus, nothing feels better to an attached parent than cradling an adorable baby in her arms and breathing in his delicious baby smell. We should indulge ourselves in this--one of life's great pleasures--as often as possible, because in the blink of an eye, our babies and toddlers will be seventy-five-pound, tree-climbing ten-year-olds!

"As your children grow, you aren't aware until much later of the very last time you carried, rocked, or held them. It's such a gradual process as they grow out of your arms and venture out into the wider world. I like to think of it in terms of a gentle weaning from the safety of my arms. But my children are secure and independent because they had their needs met fully and unquestioningly as babies and toddlers. Plus, they knew that I would never push them away before they were ready to stand on their own."

--Bill, father of three teenagers


Artificial Baby Containers

"Infant nothing to promote attachment between mother and baby. The mother's body draws the baby into a pulsing circle of warmth, softness and roundness that contains and cushions his shape in supple, receptive contours; that adjusts and adapts in sync with his turns, squirms and stretches; that massages him in slow fluid motions that vary his day and give rhythm to his existence. This cements the connection between mother and child; plastic containers do none of this. As such, they dramatically change the baby's sense of life and human relationships."  

--Sharon Heller, Ph.D.

Used in moderation, strollers can obviously be a wonderful help to a parent, as can swings, bouncy seats, high chairs, and other similar products. Once a baby is old enough to sit up and look around, she may really enjoy a brisk stroll around the neighborhood. Parents who run or walk for exercise can include their older babies and toddlers in their daily routine with the use of "baby joggers"--which are sturdy strollers made just for this purpose. And many parents of intense or high-needs infants are grateful for the relief that an automatic swing or vibrating seat can sometimes provide their fussing babies. The newer stationary walkers (the older, rolling walkers are no longer recommended by most child-safety experts), such as "exersaucers," can entertain an older baby for short periods and give her a sense of accomplishment as she stands and bounces.

Still, parents are often overreliant on all this baby gadgetry, to the exclusion of actually holding and touching their babies. Increasing numbers of infants are moved from baby container to baby container all day long with a bare minimum of real physical human contact. With the advent of the car seat/carrier combos, buckets full of baby--encased in heavy plastic and colorful canvas--are simply toted around by their handle from car to shopping cart to tables at restaurants, rarely being removed from their carrier for more than a diaper change. When one of these babies-in-a-bucket needs to eat, many parents or caregivers place a plastic bottle full of artificial baby milk in his mouth without even taking him out of his seat. Fussy, bucketed babies are too often plugged into lethargy with the use of a pacifier.

"Plastic infant seats are stiff. Babies' soft, flexible bodies are suited to fold into the crook of an arm, nuzzle into a neck, enfold into a breast, not to press against rigid, solid, unyielding surfaces."

--Sharon Heller, Ph.D.

The best advice is to use the modern baby containers in moderation. Watch your child's cues to determine how much time he is comfortable sitting in one position in a rigid plastic seat or strapped into a carriage. If he seems fussy or malcontent, respect what he is trying to tell you. If your baby is very placid and accepting by nature, don't take advantage of his calm disposition by overusing the baby containers. Remember that newborns and young infants have a special need for almost constant physical closeness with another human. And consider the alternatives: baby carriers that will allow you to conveniently transport your baby wherever you need to go while still keeping him "in touch" with you. Additionally, you can employ siblings, partners, friends, and grandparents as substitutes when you feel that your own arms need a break from baby-holding. The smiling face of a sister or cousin or neighbor will offer your baby much more in the way of emotional sustenance and brain food than any colorful plastic mobile fastened to the side of a playpen.


Can a Baby Be Held Too Much?

"On the most basic, instinctual level, physical contact is essential to sustain all human life....On a deeper level, the intimacy that is created through touch is what creates a feeling of "aliveness" in the individual--for touch brings us to life."

--Mariana Caplan

You may worry that carrying or holding your baby or toddler a great deal will inhibit her emerging independence or even prevent her from learning to walk. If this were the case, babies all over the world--many of whom are carried for most of their waking hours for their entire first year or so--would never learn to crawl, walk, run, or play with other children! But these babies do learn to do these things--and your own (securely attached, touch-nourished) baby will, too. Try to let go of your preconceived notions of how a baby should spend her day--perhaps contentedly stacking blocks behind the mesh fence of her playpen or lying in her crib gazing up at a mobile or strapped into a bouncy seat while the rest of the family watches TV. Instead, think of those times as temporary interruptions in a different sort of daily routine--one in which your baby is in contact with your body or that of another caregiver much of the time.

"To Have and to Hold" is excerpted from Katie Allison Granju's forthcoming book, Attachment Parenting: Instinctive Care for Your Baby and Young Child (Pocket Books), due in bookstores July 1999. Katie is a contributing editor to Minnesota Parent.

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