Thursday, October 1, 2009

Why Human Babies Should Be Carried

Babywearing is becoming increasingly popular, but it is usually chosen for convenience and is rarely thought of as a biological necessity. However there is strong scientific evidence that human babies are biologically adapted to be carried, just like gorillas, orangutans and chimpanzees, and that babywearing is the best way to meet our infants' needs.

Firstly, a human infant naturally assumes a bent-legged, curved-spine position that allows the baby to be carried astride its parent's hip. Baby apes adopt a startlingly similar position when laid down. Furthermore, a baby carried on a hip instinctively clings on by gripping its carrier's waist with its thighs. And humans may have lost their fur but babies retain the strong grip that allows their their ape cousins to hang onto their parents' coats. Even without our fur, have you ever noticed that human skin has a lovely non-slip quality that really helps support your baby's weight when you are naked and you are carrying a naked baby? The first time I took my baby into the shower I was amazed at how much easier it was to carry her without the bulkiness of clothes between us. Newborns even have reflexes that help them to maintain a strong grip on their parents' bodies. It has been shown that when a carried infant is startled, triggering a "Moro" reflex, its grip on its parent actually tightens.

Evidence for our carrying needs also comes from the composition of human breastmilk. Mammals that habitually leave their offspring alone (while out looking for food) have high-protein, high-fat milk and their babies feed very quickly. Their babies can be sustained by a quick feed every few hours. In contrast, species that produce low-protein, low-fat milk are also characterised by the extensive contact that takes place between a mother and her babies. Their young are carried or follow their mother if they can walk. These young also feed fairly continuously. Unsurprisingly, great apes and humans are examples of mammals that make low-fat, low-protein milk. Great apes do maintain constant contact between mother and babies, and do feed continuously. Biologically speaking, humans should.

A baby's distribution of body fat even contributes to the evidence in favour of carrying. Dark fat cells, that provide insulation, are more densely distributed on a baby's back than its front. A carried baby is therefore able to absorb heat from its parent on its front without losing too much warmth from its exposed back.

Finally, the facts that human babies defecate readily and cry when they are left alone support the theory that they expect to be carried by their parents. In species which are usually left alone, the young do not defecate without assistance to avoid creating smells which would be detectable by a predator. Similarly, they do not draw attention to themselves by crying when the parent is absent. Human babies can defecate and cry at will because they have evolved to be with a parent at all times.

So, babywearers, it seems you are not just making your life easier by carrying that heavy baby around with you. You are meeting your baby's biological needs for constant contact and company and you are providing the right conditions for your child to regulate its milk intake and maintain its body temperature. Next time you strap your baby on, you can do it with the confidence that you are meeting your baby's biological needs and expectations. And that can't be bad for a baby's first experience of life.

This information and more can be found in "Natural Parenting ― Back to Basics in Infant Care", a paper by Regine A. Schön and Evolutionary Psychology, published in the journal Evolutionary Psychology. Enjoy!


allgrownup said...

thanks for this! especially love the fat distribution, never knew! if only i could get my mother to read it, she might stop going on about double buggies/buggy boards :-)

carol b said...

Interesting post, as with all our decisions on how to raise our daughter we followed our instincts, but this post uses science to reinforce that decision.

Above all it just felt so right and calming (for her and me) to hold her as much as possible.

slingsilove said...

Excellent post! I agree with every single word of this article. Bravo!

slingsilove said...

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Jessica said...

My sister is currently trying to figure out the best kind of stroller for her baby and I keep telling her she'll most likely end up carrying him around all the time and not to sweat the details.

I believe that if you let it, the inclination to carry your baby comes as easily, and as strongly, to you as a mom as wanting to be carried around all the time comes to your infant. I couldn't put my son down for weeks it seemed!

Kimberly said...

All of that information was really fascinating, especially about the Moro reflex.

Laura said...

great post! :)