Bodies, Not Buckets

My first child taught me what babies need. She was content only when I carried her. She nursed frequently, sometimes every twenty minutes – a great way to ensure she would be held.

While some infants are content to lie quietly, cooing at a dangling mobile, she would have none of it. As a new mother, I worried – was this normal? Would she be too dependent? Would this go on forever?

Yes, no and no. Today, she is an independent young woman in her twenties, living in a big city and working at a great job. Many friends who parented the same way tell similar stories.

Biologically, human infants are born expecting and needing to be held. A parent’s body regulates the newborn’s temperature and hormones, provides tactile and vestibular stimulation, and keeps baby safe.

Of course, this can sometimes be physically demanding for the baby holder. In times past, and in some societies today, there were always arms ready to receive an infant if the primary parent needed a break.

But in modern Western culture, with single family homes, short maternity leaves, disapproving relatives and pop up ads plugging the latest innovation in carseats, bouncy seats and other baby buckets, how can we give our babies what they need? Here are some ideas:

Prepare a nest

Instead of focusing on cute linens and decorations for a nursery, think about how to make a comfortable place to hold your baby. Maybe a bolster or other firm cushion to lean back on in your bed and a pillow for under your knees? Do you have a good water bottle, a stash of healthy snacks, a place for your books, computer, tablet or phone?

If you have older children, assemble books and puzzles so you can cuddle and play while holding the baby. Be sure your nest is safe if you fall asleep – KellyMom has a good checklist. Often a mattress or firm pad on the floor is the safest and makes it easy for siblings to join you (and if you childproof the room, it will be a great place to relax when your baby begins to crawl and explore).

Adopt the lying-in tradition

Many cultures observe a “lying-in” period of about 40 days where the birthing parent relaxes and holds the baby. One Latin American tradition is called la cuarentena, (the quarantine). In Asia, it’s called “doing the month.”

Traditionally, relatives care for the new mother, feeding her certain foods such as chicken soup with ginger or hot chocolate. Often, warmth is emphasized by bundling up both baby and mom, and avoiding cold foods.

While you might not want to keep your head covered or drink gallons of soup, try to rest with baby as much as you can and accept all offers of help. If anyone asks what they can do, have a list handy: drop off a meal, refill your water bottle, put in a load of laundry. Even if you haven’t given birth, this time to cuddle and bond is priceless.

In the early days, stay in your pajamas or keep a robe handy to signal to guests that you are resting, not entertaining. Leave a cooler on your front porch with a note encouraging visitors to drop off food if you don’t answer the door.

Some parents hire a postpartum doula for part of this period if relatives or friends aren’t readily available. If you go this route, be sure to avoid baby nurses, who care for the baby, not the parent.

If your partner fills this role, but has to return to work after a week or so, ask them to help you prep for the day. Simple things like preparing nutritious snacks and assembling a stack of diapering supplies can keep you comfortable with baby in your nest.

Wear your baby

When you need to get things done or get out of the house, do what parents have been doing for thousands of years – wear your baby. There are many wonderful babywearing options available today, from wraps to slings to structured carriers.

Babywearing International (BWI) has great information on choosing a carrier and there may be a chapter near you where you can meet other parents and try out carriers. Here is their excellent graphic on safe babywearing.

To save money, you can check online for ways to make one yourself or look for used carriers at consignment sales or swap meets (be sure to check for any manufacturer recalls). A simple piece of fabric tied different ways was the first baby carrier and continues to be used around the world.

If you are separated from your baby for long periods due to outside employment or school, try to reconnect by cuddling and wearing your infant when you reunite. As your child gets older, back carriers can be great for making dinner while keeping baby close.

Make baby holding a job

If you have a partner, discuss the importance of baby holding with them. Agree to take turns holding the baby (after a feed, of course) when the other needs a break or to make a quick dinner. Infants normally bond to one parent, particularly if that parent is breastfeeding, so the partner can either take over the task or try putting baby in a carrier and going for a walk.

If you are a single parent, think about friends who might be willing to come over and hold your baby for an hour or so every day or two. If needed, try to find a daycare situation with a caregiver who believes in baby holding and carrying.

Use baby buckets judiciously

In our culture, we all need to use baby buckets occasionally. Driving to the store or work or support group, baby has to be in a car seat. A bouncy seat comes in handy when a parent needs to scoop the cat box or grab a quick shower. Strollers can be wonderful for fresh air and exercise when baby is older and heavier.

Buckets have a purpose, but leaving an infant in one for extended periods of time deprives baby of biologically normal stimulation. If used for naps, any baby holder (a blanket on the floor works too) should be kept in the same room as an adult, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. Infants tolerate everyday light and noise quite well while sleeping. This sensory input, combined with an adult’s presence, can even reduce the risk of SIDS.

 

After my first child taught me what babies need, I kept on holding and carrying my other babies. It was overwhelming at times, but I was lucky to have a supportive partner and a mother who lived nearby.

I also found a tribe of like-minded parents who reassured me that this intense time of meeting my babies’ needs wouldn’t spoil them or last forever. And they were right. Babies need human bodies, not buckets.

Babies Need to Be Held

Car seats. Cribs. Bassinets. Strollers/prams. Bouncy seats. In Western culture, “baby buckets” are often considered places where infants should spend their time between feeds and diaper changes. Yet is this normal, biologically speaking?

In modern society, car seats are, of course, essential to newborn safety while driving. Strollers can come in handy when children grow heavier and are happy being pushed on walks. A “bucket” can also be useful when a baby needs to be put down from time to time, although a blanket on the floor can do the trick too.

But too much time in a baby bucket can lead to plagiocephaly (flattening of a newborn’s soft head). Tummy time can help alleviate this problem – but so can holding and carrying, which are what babies need.

When it comes to newborn care, there are four different types of mammals: cache, follow, nest and carry. Cache species like bats and rabbits hide their young and leave them for long periods of time. Milk high in fat and protein allows these animals to return to feed their babies infrequently, sometimes only every 12 hours or so.

As you might expect, follow animals like horses and cows are born mature enough to stand up and walk shortly after birth, following their mothers and nursing about every two hours on milk that is lower in fat and protein. Nest species like dogs and cats have milk that’s in between.

Carry species, of course, carry their babies constantly. The young of these animals, such as apes and marsupials (kangaroos and the like), are frequently quite immature – they need complete protection and almost constant feeding with low fat/protein milk.

Humans are a carry species. Even though we have the largest brains of any primate, our babies are the least neurologically mature and rely on a caregiver for the longest period of time. While most primates are born with a brain between 40-70% the size of an adult’s brain, human babies’ brains are only 25%.

Many anthropologists believe that human newborns began arriving “early” when we began walking upright on two legs. We have huge brains relative to our bodies, and babies need to be born when their heads are small in order to fit through our narrow pelvises. Other scientists theorize that the calories required to grow a human brain in utero are only sustainable for nine months or that complex human brain development needs the stimulation of the outside world.

In any case, it is generally accepted that full-term human babies are born at least three months too early. Many people have heard of the “fourth trimester” – those months following the birth of a full term human infant when they are more like fetuses than babies.

Parents who have experienced this know the blossoming that happens between two and four months of age – the child emerges from a flexed, bean-like position and starts to move more purposefully. A personality, with smiles and sounds, begins to appear.

Particularly during the first few months of life, babies need to be held and fed. A lot. Almost constantly. Marsupials have a pouch for this purpose, but primates instead make a nest with their arms and chest or the infant clings to the parent.

Holding a newborn ensures easy access to food at the breast and also regulates their heart rate, temperature and hormone levels, particularly when skin to skin. The ability of the parent’s chest to stabilize premature infants was first discovered in South America (“kangaroo care”), but physician Nils Bergman writes how a parent is meant to be a full-term newborn’s “habitat” as well.

When carried, infants experience just the right type of vestibular stimulation and other sensory input for optimal brain development, something that just can’t be matched by even the most sophisticated book or toy.

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Another reason babies need to be held is that newborns don’t experience themselves as being separate from the parent. As child development expert Donald Winnicott once said, “There is no such thing as a baby…(there is only) a baby and someone.” The process of separating and becoming an individual involves exploring the world gradually and coming back to the parent to “touch base” many, many times over several years.

Anthropologist Ashley Montagu first coined the word “exerogestation” to refer to the maturation of animals after birth. He believed that for humans, this takes approximately nine months – essentially, babies need to finish gestating in their parent’s arms until they begin to crawl away.

Cultures closest to our hunter-gatherer origins tend to carry their infants almost constantly. Jean Liedoff spent several years living with the Yequana people in South America. Her book, The Continuum Concept, discusses how human babies evolved over millions of years to expect a certain experience for optimal development, which includes near constant carrying by parents, siblings and other relatives.

Dr. Meredith Small’s book, Our Babies, Ourselves, explores the influence of culture on parenting through the lens of several different societies, including the Kung San of South Africa, another hunter-gatherer culture where babies are held continuously.

Photo via Good Free Photos

While our culture still often cautions that we will “spoil” our babies by picking them up and holding them too much, many parents have found that the opposite to be true. Babies nurtured in a biologically normal way put their energy into growing and developing rather than protecting themselves from stress.

They also feel secure enough to grow into independence when ready. Many of us who carried our babies now enjoy secure, loving, independent adult children.

So if holding and carrying are what babies need biologically, how is that possible in our fast paced, materialistic modern world where parents are often forced to separate from their babies for long periods? We will explore this in the next What Babies Need.

 

Bergman, Nils. “Kangaroo Mother Care.” Accessed October 10, 2017. http://www.kangaroomothercare.com/what-kmc-is.aspx

Liedoff, Jean. The Continuum Concept. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Perseus, 1985.

Montagu, Ashley. Growing Young. Granby, Massachusetts: Bergin & Garvey, 1989.

Small, Meredith. Our Babies, Ourselves. New York: Random House, 1999.

Trevathan, Wanda. Human Birth: An Evolutionary Perspective. New York: Routledge, 2017.