Using a sling (or slings; for at one point I owned 13) to carry my babies close have been some of the most treasured moments of my parenting. There is this part of me - the vulnerable mother, the aching whole brained and sensitive me, that is constantly alert and present when carrying. My absolute awareness of my baby filling my whole conscious and unconscious self. I might be buying a parking ticket or asking the greengrocer why he doesn’t stock radicchio but every moment I’m aware of my baby tucked up by my chin, breathing soundly, his head resting on my chest. I am reminded of the story of The Tomten, who spoke a ‘silent little language, one that children could understand’ . This is exactly it. Every moment of carrying any of my children was one where I was acutely aware of my baby nuzzling against me. I knew every nuance of their physical or emotional being at any time. When they tensed to urinate I knew. When they began snuffling ready to feed, I could sit down, change positions and feed my baby before they had ever had the need to reach peak hunger and start yelling. I knew a dirty nappy instantly and could change them and reduce any possibility of soreness. A sling can be shifted, slackened, tightened and adjusted in a myriad of ways once the adult using it becomes both experienced and relaxed with use. Adjusting to the baby’s mood, age and need; side, hip, forward facing, back carrying… snuggled close. I always knew exactly how hot or cold my baby was at any given time and could adjust clothing and layers accordingly to address comfort.
When they were bigger, aware and observant of surroundings I could give tiny sign hand gestures ‘duck’ etc when they were looking at one. I could narrate what their siblings were doing to amuse us. It was a silent little language, one we both shared all day long, the physicalness of our bodies together created an emotionally heightened sensitivity, a connection that surpassed and astonished and comforted us both in ways I’d never imagined. I could sway gently when their eye lids drooped and their bodies sunk, (heavier somehow in tiredness) to lull them to sleep just by walking and singing. I have never ever felt so in tune with another human being as when I carried my own small children close. In her book ‘Why Love Matters’, Gerhardt recognised this describing secure attachment; when parental confidence increases and is perpetuated in accordance with feeling and seeing their babies content and happy. In effect they were motivated to continue parenting well. She states that babies biological systems are immature and that their ability to manage stress develops gradually, that strong emotional immunity comes from being helped to recover from stress; soothed and held and made to feel safe in their first few years.
Feeding made easy
Carrying a new-born close facilitates more frequent breastfeeds. As I moved, talked and jiggled or laughed my baby would rouse and feed and then sleep again. There were no great lengths of time between any feeds and weight was gained effortlessly. Midwives, lactation consultants and breastfeeding support workers explain that when a mother is close enough to smell her infant she produces more of the hormone prolactin; the milk making hormone. Does carrying a baby cause them to cling and hold on to their mothers more? The opposite. They have had their fill. And they know they are always welcomed back. They can move away confidently knowing the world so far has been a good and caring place, one where their physical and emotional needs have always been met.
“Their silent little language of the body will tell us all we need to know about how to care for them if we hold them and listen, body and mind”
There is the contrary argument that babies are born self-sufficient and don’t need such ‘molly coddling’ as constant close contact, that they can lie alone quite contentedly for long periods, that touching and holding them some how holds them back, stops them managing their own emotions. That we can simply hold them in our minds rather than arms. That we are doing them a disservice to carry them. I find myself wondering at the research in favour of loving touch as every babies innate right, for comfort and for reassurance and even for weight gain (research by Unicef has shown that babies held more were heavier than those who spent more time lying alone - after accounting for time/amount of feeding). Of course tiny babies can learn to self-regulate. But should they perhaps be forced to, so early?
The true expert of course is the baby. The infant not yet taught to self soothe, the infant whose responses and reflexes are truly innate and who’s language, their silent little language of the body will tell us all we need to know about how to care for them if we hold them and listen, body and mind. Our children will have years and years to sleep alone, time to sit and walk and be physically independent enough to move away from any other person and be alone. There is time enough for all of these things. But when they are unable, when they are physically too immature? Their bodies cry out for our comfort, yearning for our arms. This is not just my mental interpretation, this is my body’s own response to any infant I see. I trust my own body too. Just as I did in labour and during birth. To trust our children, educator John Holt tells us is inordinately hard to do because most of us were taught as children not to be trusted. To parent in line with both our body and heart and mind wisdom requires that we trust; both ourselves and our babies to know what is right for both of us.
This article is published in the April/May 2019 edition of The Green Parent magazine, buy your copy here
Claire is an Early Years Post grad student and mother to four children. Find her @borderstories