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We know that young babies tend to reflexively adopt a posture suited to being carried when they’re picked up (squat position), but have you considered the reflexive actions which come into play before that movement?

Today I want to share with you some fantastic research from Reddy, Markova and Wallot, which explored the anticipatory responses of young babies (2-4 months of age) in England, as they were about to be picked up. Their research showed what some of us already know – that many babies begin their participation in carrying before they’re even touched. You can read the study in full here. In it, they explore three phases of the 6-step process of initiating carrying.

The sensory input in the chat (auditory) and approach (optical) phases differs from the usual, more obvious ones in basic carrying (tactile/touch and vestibular). Carrying is a multi-sensory experience. The anticipatory response from this sensory stimulation before being picked up can trigger the baby to do things like go still, move their arms apart, tense their muscles in a certain way, raise knees etc. in preparation to aid in the next step: being picked up. As is seen both in real life and in this study, babies will have their own adjustments and not all babies may respond to this sensory stimulation. That’s something which raises its own questions and is going off-topic from what I want to talk about today, but it’s something that should be kept in mind.

So, once contact is made, giving them the sensory input from touch, the next part of the “going up” process is initiated, and again (not explored in the study), once movement is initiated, the additional vestibular stimulation which triggers yet more postural adjustments to aid in being in a good position ready for their own bodily contact with the caregiver’s body. Carrying in itself is such a complex process, yet look at how even something as “simple” on the outside as being picked up is a multi-layered thing!

Babies who are active participants in going up (and in carrying) feel less heavy than a baby (e.g. sleeping) using little to no muscle tone, as they are activating their muscles, ready to participate. This is great for the caregiver, obviously! Yet think about how this participation impacts on their body. If they are floppy, what is happening to their neck and spine as they are picked up?

As with many reflexes, these postural adjustments become voluntary over time (though still can be triggered subconsciously), and as this awareness takes over the baby is also able to refuse to engage in the behaviour. You know, like when they don’t want to be separated from what they’re doing and go dead-weight on you when you try to pick them up. That’s using their body voluntarily to say “no!”.

Another interesting part of this research (ok, all of it was interesting!) is the chat phase which was also monitored. Although very few babies made any sort of postural adjustments in anticipation of being picked up from 3 months of age, I think there’s likely a simple explanation for minimal response to the auditory stimulation. From my observations working with caregivers and their babies, and what I see in general around me when I’m out and about, I have some theories, and I’m going to go into one of those today.

Very young babies tend to be picked up and held a lot. They pretty much eat, sleep and eliminate for the first 2-3 months, so don’t spend a great deal of time awake. When they’re awake they tend to need feeding or changing/toileting, so from that angle that may explain why auditory stimulation was a trigger for 50% of the babies at 2 months of age. At 3 months or so, babies tend to be spending a lot more time awake and “chat” is happening in a different way.

Reflexive actions – and voluntary ones too – require a specific trigger to send a message to the brain to do something. For example, just generally touching a baby won’t tell them you’re about to pick them up – they need a specific type of touch. This tends to be the placing of the caregiver’s hands in a grasping hold on the baby/child’s body. This gets even more fine-tuned as they get older, if they ask to be placed onto something, for example, they can differentiate between the outcomes of being picked up so create a response suited to the specific situation.

Babies learn and progress through each stage of development. For visual stimulation of postural adjustments, it gets more straightforward as babies’ vision improves. They can develop their response further as they begin to associate the caregiver’s outstretched arms with being picked up as well as the proximity of them, so can distinguish, for example, between a game where their caregiver moves their face close to them and when they’re about to be picked up. We see this even more clearly when babies respond to our outstretched arms by offering theirs too. When it comes to talking to babies, not many people tell their baby that they are about to pick them up, so once talking to them becomes more of a general thing rather than associated with being picked up, it would make sense that the association is more likely to disappear.

It’s yet another thing to ponder about – how we interact with babies. It tends to be something inherent in the way many of us approach communicating when we become parents for the first time, and is probably because society is still putting across the message that we do things to and for them because they are “helpless”, which doesn’t exactly convey a positive message of their intellect.

One last thing to highlight is something I’ve noted before in my book which is also mentioned in this article from the University of Portsmouth – that recognising normal human behaviours may aid with diagnosing (or at the very least, raising suspicions of) certain disorders much earlier than conventional methods. When caregivers (the people who spend the most time with the baby) know what normal behaviour looks like they’re more likely to notice when something seems off, and can then get advice from a medical professional about if there is an actual issue or not.

So, how fantastic is all that? Not only are babies so awesomely clever, and biologically programmed for carrying, but we’re actively aiding their physical development every single time we pick them up too! It’s yet another part of the carrying process which completely fascinates me and why I’m on a mission to discover and teach more on this fascinating area of our human development. If you share my interest, make sure you’re following me on Facebook/Instagram/Twitter to get notifications of more posts like this!

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Before babies have a greater awareness of how to use each part of their body, and how to interact with the world around them, they have a wonderful range of primitive reflexes. Primitive reflexes are an immediate, involuntary response to certain stimuli. Some are used to ensure they find and consume food, some are designed to help with their position, others for their safety and so forth.

Newborn carrying is reflexive. There are many reflexes involved in newborn and older baby carrying – far too many to talk about in one blog post – so I’m just going to talk about one of them; Babinski’s sign. This reflex is one of the longest lasting reflexes as it also comes into play when babies begin standing. It fully integrates (disappears and is replaced by voluntary action and postural reflex) once a toddler gains a good sense of balance, but – as with all reflexes – the integration process begins many weeks earlier. Out of all of the reflexes to shine a light on, I’ve chosen Babinski’s as it’s one of the ones which is often overlooked as unimportant.

We know that spinal curves develop from the top down, as babies gain head and neck control first, then upper torso control, and lower torso control as they hit the milestone of sitting unaided, then finish with walking independently as the lumbar spine develops further. This is why Babinski’s hangs around so long – it’s used in earlier development but also needed later on, when physical development is more focused lower down the body.

Babinski’s sign

[Image description: Part of the torso, arm and legs of a white baby in a disposable nappy, and part of blue jeans are in the background. At the front of the picture is a white left hand curled round with the forefinger placed behind the baby’s left foot, and the thumb at the ball of the foot. The baby’s toes are fanned out.]

Babinski’s sign presents as a fanning of the toes plus dorsiflexion (lifting upwards) of the big toe in it’s strongest response. It’s lesser response is fanning of the toes. Its purpose is to help stabilise/balance and it creates a wider surface of the uppermost portion of the foot. It’s elicited by stimulation on the underside of the foot. In standing and walking it’s easy to understand how this may help with the developmental process of standing assisted to walking unaided, but how does this work in carrying?

Well, as the baby’s leg slips down the caregiver’s body (which tends to happen often when they and we are wearing clothing) the sensory input to the baby is telling them to stop this happening and to stabilise, for fear of falling. The immediate physical reaction of the toes spreading creates a wider range for the toes to reach on the body. In the instance of dorsiflexion of the big toe, it provides an opportunity for the baby to “hook” their toe onto the clothing/skin. The reflex can effectively work as a “brake” as well as providing a stabilising point. It’s one of the many reflexes and abilities a baby has to safeguard them against harm, and is something worth celebrating! If you accidentally lose some of your grip on your baby, they have in-born reflexes which attempt to keep them safe in the milliseconds it takes you to realise what’s going on. How magical is that?

Babinski’s sign falls within the “plantar reflex”, and is only really separated as an individual reflex in terms of testing for this specific response. In working action it’s most commonly seen as one part of a multi-response from the foot, and this is seen clearly in carrying. As mentioned above, it helps with slippage on the caregiver, and there are other reflexes which are also stimulated by this message that they’re not holding on well. This group of reactions also sets off other responses further up the body. This is why it’s important to acknowledge that, although reflexes can be elicited independently, they tend to work alongside others when seen in “real life”.

It’s very interesting to note that many reflexes are not well understood, with some of them being thought to be insignificant or “left over ape reflexes”, and Babinski’s is one such example. If we look at different reflexes from an in-arms carrying angle, many begin to make much more sense, and it will be interesting when the day comes that research is conducted from this viewpoint.

It’s also interesting to acknowledge how foot covering is the norm in my culture. Reflexes require sensory stimulation and for Babinski’s that is physical. In the early months foot covering usually comes in the form of socks and/or babygros, which means the stimulation is only partially blocked. Socks are by their very nature snug, though they tend to be baggy at first, as a baby grows into a new size. This means the reflex in action can also be partially inhibited.

As babies get older, we are encouraged to cover their feet further. “Pre-walker” shoes are a thing here in England, and tend to start at UK size 2, which is generally accepted as a standard 3-6 months size. We’re told that they will protect their feet as they begin to explore, which is sad to hear, as the sensory stimulation is blocked even further!

We do have to adapt to the reality of our culture if we won’t or can’t make big changes, and find ways to work with our choices and/or needs, but I don’t believe it should mean we should completely overlook the times where we can go “back to basics” to encourage full sensory stimulation where possible. If you’re looking to encourage active clinging behaviour when you hold your baby, then, where possible, let them have access to the sensory stimulation needed to fully activate the “carrying reflexes”. This builds a great foundation for them to adapt to being carried when there are barriers to stimulation.

Recognizing that Babinski’s sign plays a role in it’s own right in carrying means we can appreciate how it works and when it’s most effective. Knowing that even when it cannot be used in it’s full capacity it still has an important role to play in a “chain reaction” of other responses helps us realise that it is still not a “pointless” reflex!

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This has been on my mind for quite a while now, and I have to admit – even with my extensive knowledge of in-arms carrying – I’m guilty of calling babywearing “carrying”. It’s a bit of a funny one, as yes, we’re technically carrying our children when we use slings and carriers, but the two are very different things, even if they look very similar on the surface. So, in a bid to address this bugbear of mine and to make a move to stop myself keep falling into that comfortable way of lumping the two together, I decided to blog about it.

 

OK, so babywearing is something we do for our babies and children. Essentially, it is the act of strapping them to our bodies to enable us to carry them hands-free.

Carrying – in the truest sense of the action – is a developmental process which is carried out in-arms and/or sling/carrier-free.

Yes, you heard me right (read me right?) – carrying is a developmental process. It’s not something we do for them; it’s something we aid them in as they develop their clinging behaviour. It may have been labelled from the wrong perspective (surely it should be “clinging” or a word to describe the participation of both parties), but for the sake of what it has been labelled as, we’ll stick with the term.

Of course, how they develop this movement depends on how we carry them, which is a whole other kettle of fish, but for this post I’m just going to address this difference, and get to why it needs highlighting. I feel strongly that we all need to be aware of the distinction between the two. Both are very important with each having their clear place, and in-arms carrying is the foundation for ergonomical babywearing, but they most certainly are not the same thing.

Babywearing is on the static end of the spectrum, and tends to be passive in nature. Carrying is dynamic, much more active, and is to babywearing as natural terrain is to a treadmill. I’m sure there is a much better analogy, but this is all I’ve got right now!

Babywearing is a very useful sort-of-copy, but more of an adaptation of carrying. As it stands at this point in time, in-arms carrying is seen by many as unimportant and inferior to babywearing. That it is just a means of transportation, and hey, babywearing frees up both arms so why not just do that?

My mission is to clearly define the two, and get more people aware of the absolute importance of in-arms carrying for normal human development. It’s the “missed” developmental stage and its rediscovery needs sharing far and wide. That’s why I wrote my book – a ton of valuable, easily accessible information.

So, although it can feel like a useful word to highlight the importance of holding our babies, to leave this as an umbrella term for two different things devalues the importance of in-arms carrying and keeps the (incorrect) belief that they’re essentially the same thing. To move forwards in our understanding and learning about both babywearing and carrying, I feel it’s very important to distinguish between the two. When we do this, we can take a step back to see the bigger picture, and learn and educate in a better and more accessible way.

I hope you’ll agree that this is an important distinction and one of those times where careful consideration of language and how we use it is needed. So, next time you find yourself using the word “carrying”, have a think and ask yourself “do I actually mean babywearing, in-arms carrying or holding?”?

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