The Many Layers of Babywearing
Guest Blog written by Dr. Stephanie Williams Libs, DC
Pregnancy and Pediatric Chiropractic Specialist
Most of us already know the benefits that babywearing can have for your baby — they cry less, they sleep better, they poop better, they adapt better, they grow better, the list goes on. But what if I told you that babywearing was just as beneficial for the caregivers as it is for baby? That’s right! We can identify their needs quickly, we can comfort them emotionally and increase our bond with baby, and it helps with postpartum recovery. As a pediatric and pregnancy chiropractor, I see the differences in families who babywear and families who don’t, not just in their spines, but in their connection to one another.
Babywearing: The First Postpartum Exercise
Babywearing helps with postpartum recovery by keeping the baby closer to mama’s core. We grow this human over the course of 40(ish) weeks and all of a sudden they are outside of our bodies and our deflated tummy changes the entire ergonomic structure of our nervous system, our skeletal system, our muscular system, our digestive system and our connective tissue system. Babywearing is the first exercise postpartum. It’s been done in cultures for thousands of years. According to my colleague and friend Dr. Lindsey Matthews, DC, founder of BIRTHFIT.com, “babywearing is the first ‘exercise’ we recommend, if they can do it for twenty minutes per day without [urinary] leakage or bleeding then we add on functional exercises from there.” The weight of babywearing is the closest thing to having our baby bump, so it’s a slow transition adapting to not having that weight in our belly, which leads to better spine and core stability. In addition, our postpartum recovery should mimic baby’s movements. For example, you never see a baby do a sit-up or a crunch. Many mamas and exercise “gurus” want to get rid of that “pesky belly flab” but they often go about it the wrong way. A thousand crunches a day isn’t going to create the results we want. Most women have a separation of the abdominal muscles called “diastasis recti” and almost all infants are born with the same condition. The difference is that infants don’t start doing crunches right away, they engage in a functional progression from learning how to move their body, rolling onto their side, planking, rocking back a forth and eventually sitting up on their own. This is a slow progression that mamas should follow and babywearing is the first step in this functional progression also helping to prepare our bodies for the rigors of parenthood.
Babywearing for Baby’s Brain
Wearing our munchkin is also a way for baby to start to integrate the stress of gravity. There isn’t much gravitational stress when they are in the womb, they are floating in amniotic fluid, after all. So when they enter the world there is a whole new set of pressure on their joints and muscles. The central nervous system which includes the brain and spinal cord are the very first system to develop in utero at just three weeks after conception. The peripheral nervous system which is responsible for our motor and sensory control doesn’t fully develop until several years after birth. Babywearing helps to slowly introduce the stress of gravity while keeping close to their caregiver.
They have so much new stimuli to integrate into their brain and nervous system, they are like sponges and they use mom and dad’s nervous systems to prime theirs. The movements while babywearing help them learn how to move and help prepare their joints and muscles for sitting, crawling, walking and all the developmental steps that they will endure along the way. This is so much more effective than the bouncers or bumbos that provide little to no neurological feedback and actually hinder the proper structural and sensory development of the baby. When baby is strapped into a sitting position, or a bouncer, they are unable to learn how to move and how to balance properly on their own. The unnatural support doesn’t allow for the baby to learn that tipping to the side means they are falling (because they aren’t able to tip over), so their brain never receives that neurological feedback to learn how to stabilize themselves on their own. This can hinder their ability to sit on their own and later in life can lead to balance issues, delayed crawling, etc. I speculate, could this be related to injuries down the line such as toddlers running into things, falling off the monkey bars as kids, clumsy uncoordinated teens, sporting injuries in school, and unbalanced as older adults? If the brain doesn’t receive input of how to move and support itself as an infant it’s much harder to wire the brain to do it later. Babies brains grow approximately 200% in the first two years of life. They start with approximately 100 billion neurons (that’s more stars than there are in the Milky Way) and they continue to build synapses or brain neuron connections rapidly throughout their early development. Babywearing provides that input to the brain slowly and efficiently over time so that the kiddos can better learn how to use their body and brain in the future.
Babywearing Supports Spinal Development
We’ve already discussed the importance of the developing nervous system of the baby, and the spine is intricately involved. The bony spinal structures are what support and protect the spinal cord and nerves. As a pediatric chiropractor this is extremely important to me because the shape and function of a newborn’s spine is completely different than that of an adult. Babies start with a curled up spine in the shape of a “C” with the inside of the C being their tummy side and the outside of the C being their back side. They don’t develop the neck or lower back curves until they begin to crawl and stand, respectively. So the ideal position for a newborn is that curled up shape in a carrier or sling. The spinal joints of a newborn are slightly flatter and less angled than adult joints so they are not as stable. This allows for flexibility, but with flexibility also comes vulnerability. Again if we were to put babies in a bouncer or bumbo seat before they are ready it hinders the proper development of their spine and can lead to spinal instability issues later in life including scoliosis, hip dysplasia, joint pain, disc herniations or bulges, etc. For this reason I also recommend that babies be worn facing into the caregiver for as long as possible. I cringe inside when I see babies worn outward facing before they are ready and I cringe even more when I see them in a carrier that does not offer hip support. The legs should never dangle as that puts immense pressure on the genitals and does not support proper development of the hips which can lead to hip dysplasia.
“But if you never put them down they won’t be self sufficient”
This cannot be further from the truth. It’s been studied that babies who have their needs met will grow up to be more independent later in life. Similar to the cry-it-out sleep method, people thought that strollers promoted independence and that holding your baby caused germs and infections to transmit easily so, therefore, babies should be touched as little as possible. We now know that touch is an essential part of life and necessary for survival. That’s why there are people hired just to hold babies who are in the neonatal intensive care unit in hospitals. Babies require touch for survival. It’s an innate awareness of an innate need. Marsupials such as kangaroos and koalas have built-in babywearing devices (aren’t they lucky), and their offspring remain in there until they are stronger and ready to become more self-sufficient. Until then they stay in the pouch and feed on demand until they are ready. When they do leave the pouch they typically start to explore further and further while staying with the pack, and the mother signals them back if they start to stray too far. Babywearing builds trust and self confidence between the child and parents.
Another important benefit of babywearing is being able to breastfeed as needed. Babies don’t come with set schedules. Just as you and I don’t always eat at exactly the same time everyday, babies don’t do that either. When our little ones are growing their biological needs can change day-to-day, even minute-to-minute. So allowing them to feed as needed is so important for their development and it’s really easy to do while wearing them. Indigenous tribes know this to be true. In the book The Continuum Concept by Jean Liedloff, she observed tribes wearing their babies for most of the day where they would nurse as needed, sometime for only 2-3 minutes at a time. These babies did not have colic and never needed to be burped. They filled their tiny stomach often and just a little bit at a time and never had signs of re-flux or indigestion. I see this in my practice also. The families who babywear and are able to nurse smaller amounts more frequently have babies with little or no digestive issues. Feeding frequently is easy while babywearing and it helps to keep up milk supply. Did you know that the saliva in baby’s mouth is picked up by the mother’s nipple and a feedback mechanism is created to release specific nutrients that the baby needs at that moment? How cool is that! So with their biological needs changing every minute, babywearing is a great way to make sure they are getting the most optimal nourishment.
Again there is an innate awareness of every innate need. By allowing our innate intelligence to guide the way, we see that keeping our kiddos close sets much deeper roots than we ever imagined.
This Guest Blog was written by Dr. Stephanie Williams Libs, DC
Pregnancy and Pediatric Chiropractic Specialist
Stephanie started as a chiropractic patient at age 12. She suffered low back pain and headaches almost weekly. It wasn’t until early adulthood, working as an assistant in a chiropractic office, that she observed miracles on a daily basis. After receiving regular chiropractic care her symptoms subsided. This inspired Stephanie to pursue her passion by helping people through chiropractic care. She moved from her native San Diego to the San Francisco Bay Area to begin a post-graduate program at Life Chiropractic College West.
She quickly became involved, serving on several mission trips internationally and locally to provide free chiropractic care to thousands of families in need. Stephanie’s academic accolades include Student of the Year 2012, Intern of the Quarter, Intern of the Month and Clinical Honors. A love for Southern California prompted her to return to San Diego where she joined Libs Chiropractic Center in Pacific Beach. After two years her practice expanded due to the high number of referrals from other patients and she moved into a larger office to open the Cafe of Life San Diego in the heart of Pacific Beach. Her focus is pediatric, pregnancy and family care, and her philosophy is to honor the intelligence within each of us and to create a greater connection within the body, the community and the world.
Stephanie maintains active membership with the International Chiropractic Pediatric Association and is certified in the Webster Prenatal Technique. She is heavily involved with the chiropractic community and serves as the treasurer of the California Chiropractic Association San Diego chapter as well as the California Chiropractic Association Journal editorial committee. The CCA recently awarded her Outstanding New DC of the Year 2014 for California.