Babywearing for perinatal mental health

Australian statistics show that anxiety and depression can affect 1 in 5 women during pregnancy and the 12 months after birth, and up to 1 in 10 non-birthing partners/fathers. While we’re seeing improvements in general knowledge and professional help seeking for mental health for the perinatal period, practical strategies for managing caregiving can also be hugely beneficial. Babywearing is one tool that parents may find useful during this period.

What is Babywearing?

Babywearing is becoming more popular as a parenting tool, and baby carriers are easily purchased online or in stores. Despite modern innovations in safety standards and accessibility of baby carriers, wearing babies using a structured device or a length of fabric is a historical practice dating back centuries and has been demonstrated across many human cultures. In fact, some authors suggest that slings were a necessary technological invention for the evolution of homo erectus into modern-day humans. During evolution the newborn brain size increased but mobility decreased, meaning that newborns required more care from mothers to survive their first year. The use of slings by early humans allowed parents (predominantly mothers) to continue to care for their babies until they reached physical maturity. 

What to look for in a baby carrier, wrap or sling? 

Caregivers have a variety of options when babywearing, including commercially-made structured carriers, woven wraps, and ring slings. For the purpose of this article, I’ll use the term carriers to include all options. 

It’s never too early to start babywearing. Learning how to use a wrap or sling during pregnancy can provide pregnant mothers with the confidence to begin wearing immediately after birth. Woven wraps can also be used for belly wrapping during pregnancy or postpartum to provide additional support for loose ligaments and muscle pain. 

There are many baby carriers on the market, but not all of them are ergonomic, and not all of them are consistent with best practice safety guidelines. 

Caregivers find ergonomic carriers most comfortable when they have adjustable straps to allow for tightening to fit the individual shape of the wearer. New babies should be worn high on the chest, not down near the hips, and this provides better support for the wearer so they don’t strain their back muscles. Older babies can be worn on the back, and again they should be worn high, near the shoulder blades. Padding in key areas such as shoulder straps and waistbands provide extra comfort for these pressure points. 

Babies should be able to sit comfortably in a carrier with their legs in a froggy M position, and their spines in a curved J-shape, especially when newborn until they have strengthened their neck muscles and can move and sit independently. Wide-based carriers, and soft woven wraps and slings can provide the adequate support for optimal hip development and support for their delicate spines and necks. 

How can babywearing help during the perinatal period? 

Babywearing is useful in a variety of ways. Many parents feel overwhelmed by household tasks in the early days of caring for a newborn, particularly if there is limited family support or when partners return to work. A secure wrap, carrier or sling can provide caregivers with the ability to complete household tasks with their hands free, to move around while baby sleeps, or to engage with older children while carrying the baby. 

Additionally, the flexibility provided by babywearing can assist caregivers with getting out of the house – seeking social contact and reducing isolation are great for improving mood. 

Most importantly, the closeness offered by babywearing can assist with bonding between infant and caregiver. The neurochemical oxytocin is released through gentle touch, meaning that both the infant and caregiver feel more relaxed. This can reduce stress and anxiety for the caregiver, and assist with co-regulating distress for the infant.

Is there any evidence to support babywearing? 

Although there is limited scientific evidence to support babywearing as a mental health intervention, some recent research has shown promising results. 

A brief intervention by Williams & Turner (2020) compared low-income adolescent mothers who engaged with babywearing and those who didn’t. These mothers were most at risk for disrupted attachment as a consequence of their young age, social disadvantage, limited parenting skills, and the increased risk of postpartum depression, anxiety and stress. This study found that when the babies were 7 months of age the participants in the babywearing group reported higher mother-infant bonding, which is an important predictor of later secure attachment. Qualitative data revealed that these mothers in the babywearing group reported that the carriers settled their babies more easily, thereby reducing parental stress, and they found wearing their baby comforting and calming for themselves. They reported a shift in motivation from initially wearing for convenience when baby was less than 4 weeks old, to continuing with babywearing to facilitate bonding with baby by 7 to 8 months of age. These positive effects were not seen in the control group. A further study of the same participants examined the effect of babywearing on a measure of attachment using the Still-Face paradigm, and found that at 7 months of age babies who had been carried daily were significantly more likely to have securely attachment with their mother and less likely to have a disorganized attachment. Children with secure attachments to their primary caregiver grow up to develop more healthy relationships and greater self-esteem, they experience more positive emotions and are better able to regulate negative emotions. 

Trained babywearing consultants can assist with fitting and safety, as well as recommend types of carriers for the comfort of both caregiver and infant. 

The perinatal period is one of transitions, joys, and challenges. As always, at Spencer Health we are here to support you and your family. So please reach out to our friendly team.