Babywearing: Not Just a Fad, but a Means of Connection

The second set of findings is to do with attachment security (Williams & Turner, 2020a). For this analysis, they included the examination of attachment security based on the Infant Global Ratings Scale. This is used to assess attachment behaviours using the still-face paradigm in infants too young to use the Strange Situation test accurately. Importantly, there were no relationships between baseline or demographic variables between the two groups to predict attachment status.

What was found? In short, significantly more babies in the intervention group were securely attached than in the control group (50% versus 20%) and significantly more babies in the control group had disorganised attachment than in the intervention group (approximately 57% versus approximately 25%). There were no differences in avoidant or resistant attachment. Furthermore, the number of hours babywearing was positively correlated with secure attachment. This seems to replicate the earlier findings on attachment and babywearing by Ainsfeld and colleagues (1990). 

Why These Effects? 

The question many might have is how does babywearing result in these effects? What are the plausible pathways between babywearing and attachment and a stronger relationship? There are a few options, all of which make theoretical sense and likely it’s a combination thereof.

Furthermore, the number of hours babywearing was positively correlated with secure attachment.

First, physical touch helps regulate infants’ emotions, thus more time spent babywearing actually helps an infant develop their emotion regulation. This allows them to utilise these skills to bounce back in situations like the still-face paradigm. Second, many infants are less distressed when in the arms of a caregiver. This is the safest place for an infant to perceive themselves to be and these mothers also reported their infants were less distressed while babywearing. Of course, when baby is happier, mom is often happier and this helps build the relationship. Third, babywearing can build awareness of the infant. When we are closer to our infants, we are better able to notice their behaviours, likes, dislikes, and so on and this enables parents to become better responders to their infants. Fourth, it is much easier to respond quickly to an infant who is right there and as we know, responsiveness to distress is a huge component to the development of a secure attachment. Finally, babywearing allows the infant to direct positive engagement with their mother. That is, while babywearing, infants can touch their mother in a playful or positive way, which then elicits more positive engagement back from the other, creating a positive cycle. This can also be started with maternal touch as well.   

As you can see, there are several mechanisms by which babywearing facilitates attachment and a greater relationship, but what should also be clear is that it is not necessary for any of these positive interactions. You can imagine doing all of these without babywearing provided you have the motivation, time, and awareness to do them on a regular basis.   

Enjoyment Matters 

Adding to the puzzle, this same team used qualitative research methods to examine the themes that arose in the use of infant carriers and how these impacted maternal-infant bonding (Williams & Turner, 2020b). Again, the research was part of the Mother Baby Bonding Study and mothers were in either the intervention (i.e., babywearing) (n=30) or the control (n=26) group (yes, there are more people because the study is larger and not all dyads take part in all facets of the study). As before, some mothers in the control group also used babywearing independently of the study and this was assessed and included in these analyses.

This suggests that the benefits of babywearing take time to build up and that the idea of convenience may be enough to get people started and then see the benefits continue to grow as time passes.

Mothers were interviewed about their perceptions of babywearing at different time points in using the carriers and qualitative methods were used to identify and code the prominent themes that emerged. There were five different themes that emerged in the study in terms of how the mothers perceived babywearing: building bonds with their baby, finding it calming (both for infant and mother), convenience, increases infant wellbeing, and a dislike of the carrier. Notably, the dislike of the carrier included both the infant disliking it (which was predominantly found in the control group) and discomfort for the mother.  

Those mothers who reported endorsing the themes of building bonds, finding it calming, and increasing infant wellbeing were also found to report greater hours babywearing. Those who endorsed disliking the carrier and were in the intervention group reported greater bonding difficulties, but not those who endorsed disliking it and were in the control group. This is likely due to the type of dislike (infant dislike versus maternal discomfort); intervention group mothers who endorsed this were more likely to report discomfort and so having your baby on you while you’re uncomfortable is not going to result in positive interactions. This should highlight for everyone that finding the right carrier is essential as not all are equal for each person. 

Finally, it is interesting to note that the themes endorsed changed over time in the intervention group. At the beginning, convenience was the theme most endorsed, but at the 4-month assessment, the themes of bonding, infant calming, and infant wellbeing were more endorsed, and finally at the 7-month assessment, maternal calming was endorsed. This suggests that the benefits of babywearing take time to build up and that the idea of convenience may be enough to get people started and then see the benefits continue to grow as time passes.

Conclusion 

Far from being something that disrespects or constrains infants, babywearing is a valuable tool that can help create positive interactions and more secure attachment between mother and child, especially if that attachment is at risk. The finding that bonding difficulties can be linked to dislike of the carrier highlights a future need to focus on different types of carriers that suit both mother and infant.

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References 

Anisfeld, E., Casper, V., Nozyce, M., & Cunningham, N. (1990). Does infant carrying promote attachment? An experimental study of the effects of increased physical contact on the development of attachment. Child Development, 61(5), 1617-1627. 

Hunziker, U., & Barr, B. (1986). Increased carrying reduces infant crying. Pediatrics, 77, 641-648. 

Mireault, G. C., Rainville, B. S., & Laughlin, B. (2018). Push or carry? Pragmatic opportunities for language development in strollers versus backpacks. Infancy, 23(4), 616-624. 

Williams, L. R. (2020). The impact of infant carrying on adolescent mother-infant interactions during the still‐face task. Infant and Child Development, e2169

Williams, L. R., & Turner, P. R. (2020). Experiences with “Babywearing”: Trendy parenting gear or a developmentally attuned parenting tool?. Children and Youth Services Review, 104918

Williams, L. R., & Turner, P. R. (2020). Infant carrying as a tool to promote secure attachments in young mothers: Comparing intervention and control infants during the still-face paradigm. Infant Behavior and Development, 58, 101413. 


Originally published here.

Tracy Cassels, PhD is the Director of Evolutionary Parenting, a science-based, attachment-oriented resource for families on a variety of parenting issues. In addition to her online resources, she offers one-on-one support to families around the world and is regularly asked to speak on a variety of issues from sleep to tantrums at conferences and in the media. She lives in Prince Edward County, Ontario, Canada with her husband and two children.

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