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.
Carrying Matters has great information on choosing a carrier and safe babywearing. To find a babywearing consultant who can help you get started or answer any questions you have, check out this directory from the Center for Babywearing Studies.
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.