Have you ever wondered why clinging is an important human behaviour? There is a big focus on the attachment side of carrying (and babywearing), which is obviously a very important thing, but there are also many other important reasons which promote normal, healthy human development. Here are four of them:

 

Clinging facilitates normal physical development

Humans are clinging young – it is undeniable. Almost all of us are born with the ability to cling to our caregivers, and – if clinging behaviours are encouraged – babies go through an on-body clinging developmental process, from much assistance as newborns, right through to independent clinging as toddlers/pre-schoolers. Working through this developmental process supports the normal development of the muscles and spine, enabling them to achieve their full clinging potential.

Clinging builds a strong core and powerful legs, which in turn are very useful for other physical activities, such as walking long distances. Active carrying is for when they are alert, energetic and seeking movement and interaction. It’s whole-body movement, exercise, and complements independent exploration of their environment.

 

Clinging encourages human interaction

As mentioned previously, active carrying promotes interaction – both with the caregiver and the environment. When a baby/child is participating in the carrying process they are involved in an activity. They’re present, alert and thirsting for interaction. The freedom of movement, the shift from calm- and sleep-inducing movement to invigorating movement, it all contributes towards a thriving learning environment, exploring at the caregiver’s level with the comfort of their closeness and touch to navigate it together.

It’s no surprise that caregivers tend to find that their baby/child is less likely to get agitated or bored during an active clinging phase. Clinging requires the caregiver to be fully present too – it’s an activity which requires mutual participation and the communication is incredibly hard to miss.

 

Clinging makes caregivers more aware of their posture and alignment

A clinging baby/child shows caregivers that their subconscious body adjustments are rarely needed. We have been programmed from a very young age to carry our young in specific ways – ways in which their clinging capacity is compromised and so are our bodies. A reliance on passive carrying is harming our bodies. Focusing on active carrying where possible helps us to be more aware of our own bodies and protect them better.

A clinger is also gentler to the body than a passive load. Many of us will still hold our bodies in ways that aren’t normal, as many of us have postural and alignment issues. By having less of a weight impacting on existing issues we’re being kinder to our body than when we’re holding or bearing a static load. Their perceived weight is much less when they are doing much of the work. This also means the caregiver is able to carry for longer when they are using active carrying.

 

Clinging is communication

Active carrying is a cacophony of communication – from clinger to caregiver and vice-versa. Clinging requires the caregiver to respond to the clinger’s cues. These can range from subtle movements or changes in pressure to outright climbing or vocalisation/speech. Clinging cannot happen without communication, and the ease of this depends on the physical and verbal barriers to communication.

Clinging opens up a whole new level of connection to your baby/child. Learning the clinging “language” helps you to understand each other in different ways. Much of this communication is subconscious, bodies responding automatically to physical communication, but there is plenty of conscious communication going on too. If you have practiced elimination communication or baby sign language, for example, you will have an idea of how various forms of communication open up a new world and another level to your connection to each other!

Communication also brings about a new-found awareness of the subtle behaviours and promotes easier carrying.

 

All of these reasons show us that carrying is normal. It’s an integral part of baby and child development and is one of the many processes which contributes towards their normal development in many areas. Clinging is a normal human behaviour which is not yet universally recognised, which means so many families aren’t even aware of these inborn capabilities of their babies and children. When they aren’t encouraged to cling, they are much more likely to lose the ability (although it can be re-taught) and happily opt for the “easy option” which is letting their caregiver do all the work as they remain passive.

If we carry passively most or all the time, we’re encouraging sedentary behaviour in our children. This is one of the first things we do as parents which makes them move less! As almost all caregivers carry their baby/child on a daily basis, no matter their parenting philosophy, doesn’t it make sense for us to be sharing the tools to encourage normal development whilst making this a much easier and more enjoyable part of raising children?

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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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On Friday 27th October, Niamh and I flew to Sweden for the very first Swedish Babywearing Conference! If you know me well, you will know I’m terrified of flying, so – although a piece of Swedish Babywearing history in the making was exciting enough – there was a specific reason for this trip.

Back when I was writing my book “In Arms Carrying”, Ulrika Casslebrant (Nära bebis) asked me to speak at the conference. Seeing a great opportunity to share my message with babywearing educators I agreed. It was only afterwards that it clicked that I would actually have to fly. And speak. So I decided to bring Niamh to hold my hand, and also take some photographs. Fast forward 5 months, and here we are, waiting for take-off…..

 

[Image description: Mel, a white woman with straight dark brown hair looks scared. Niamh, a white teenager with light brown hair tied back looks excited]

 

Well, the flight was not fun, but we made it, and that was the first scary experience over with. We made our way to Stockholm, and went straight for “fika”, which is “coffee break” in Swedish. Ulrika had recommended a lovely traditional place called Vete-Katten, and it really was wonderful!

 

[Image description: In the top left of the picture is Niamh but only her coat and elbow are visible. In front of her is a latte in a white cup with a silver spoon on the saucer. At the front of the image is a brown tray with a white plate with a silver cake fork on it, with a white chocolate and strawberry mousse cake with strawberry puree and a small piece of strawberry on top. Next to it is another white plate with silver fork, and a slice of chocolate mudcake.]

 

After fika we headed for our hotel to check in and drop our bags off before doing some more exploring, and later on we finally got to meet Ulrika! We met up for a meal with her, two other babywearing educators (Zarah and Camilla), and Henrik Norholt (Chief Science Officer for Ergobaby, and one of the speakers at the conference). We were able to get to know each other a little better, and enjoy some time socialising before the conference the next day. It was interesting to learn about the babywearing educating community in Sweden and hear about some of the work each person is doing.

 

[Image description: L-R Niamh, Mel, Camilla, Ulrika, Zarah and Henrik sat at a table with water, a collection of glasses, some tealights and a plate with remnants of a curry]

 

Getting to meet Ulrika after months of talking online was just the best – she’s an amazing person. She’s also into many of the same things as me, so there’s nothing to not love about her! We were so busy this weekend that we forgot to fit in a fika date, so that was disappointing, but means I have to go back so we can catch up properly in person, haha!

We soon headed back to the hotel for an early night, as the 3am start had taken it out of us both, and we had an early start the next day too.

 

In the morning we headed to the conference venue early to set up for my talk. Soon, everyone began arriving and before I knew it, it was time for the conference to begin. I was up first and discussed in-arms carrying. My talked approached the subject from a beginner’s angle as most were new to my ideas. Some of my aims for the talk were to introduce the concept of babies being active participants in carrying, break down the stages babies and children go through when learning clinging behaviour, discuss the effect carrying can have on our bodies and look at ways in which we can apply in-arms principles to babywearing.

Unfortunately I had to cut the talk short as I over-ran, but the response was wonderful. The willingness to be open-minded, and the appreciation and excitement about my ideas was a bit overwhelming! I was told that in Sweden it’s similar to the UK, where in-arms tends to be seen as either inferior or people don’t realise the enormous wealth of knowledge in-arms can give us for how we carry, and babywearing too, so it’s encouraging to get this sort of response.

 

[Image descriptions: Image 1 – Mel speaks at a podium with a laptop on it. To her right is part of the projector screen, showing ‘ng” reflex’ and a grid of suggested videos at the end of a YouTube video. The back of three people are at the front of the image. Image 2 – Again, Mel speaks at the podium with a laptop on it. This time the whole projector screen is visible, with the back of one person slightly obstructing it. The slide reads ‘Knees in line with hips?’ and the BabyDoo image of 4 diagrams with different aged babies and their position in slings is below the heading. The backs of 4 other people are at the front of the image.]

 

We had a break and people were able to purchase a copy of my book – In-arms Carrying: A practical guide for comfortable carrying – if they wanted. Unfortunately I didn’t have enough with me for all who were interested, but it’s lovely to know that there are now a bunch of copies owned in Sweden! Ulrika and I are working on a plan to make them more accessible over there, as currently it takes 4 weeks for delivery from Amazon.

 

Next up was Henrik from Ergobaby. This was the third time I’ve had the pleasure of listening to him speak, and his talk on attachment theory was as thought provoking as always. I like how he incorporates videos which tap into our feelings, as it helps get his points across strongly as well as making us think more about how we may affect our children’s attachment through both our own parenting practices and how we were raised by our own parents. His talk was well-received and got everyone thinking about how babywearing can facilitate the attachment process.

 

After Henrik’s talk it was time for lunch. I was too focused on the day to remember to take any of my own pictures, other than this one of our lunch, so I’m missing pictures of Henrik and Kerstin speaking. Our vegan lunch was amazing – it was filling and nourishing – definite “brain food” to go with the intellectual food for thought!

 

[Image description: Lunch in a recycled container, containing green leaves to the left, beetroot houmous and quinoa “bread” next to it, and chickpea salad with pickled radish on the right.]

 

I was able to get hold of some other pictures from Ulrika though, so many thanks to her for the following ones.

 

After lunch it was time to hear Kerstin Uvnäs Moberg, author of “The Oxytocin Factor”, talk about the importance of oxytocin, its benefits, and how it’s activated. She gave us things to think about, including how the birthing system of today tends to be set up to deny both birthgiver and baby the environment and time to make the most of how both are primed to get an “oxytocin explosion” in the period shortly after birth, and how that can impact on them and their relationship going forwards if it’s missed. It was great to both meet her and hear her speak for the first time, as I loved her book!

 

After Kerstin’s talk we gathered for a group photograph to commemorate the day…..

 

[Image description: Everyone is gathered in front of the projector screen in a group. There are chairs visible at the front of the image.]

 

The day wasn’t over yet though – after a short break we came back for the last part of the day – a panel discussion. This consisted of questions such as should there be a new attachment category based on babies who are carried, what can we do to promote the release of oxytocin, and should there be a “hybrid” carrier which merges the benefits of in-arms carrying and babywearing.

 

[Image description: Ulrika, Kerstin, Henrik and Mel sit in front of the projector screen. Ulrika is holding a microphone. The back of some people’s heads are at the front of the image.]

 

All in all, it was an incredible day. I really enjoyed the fact that the talks weren’t completely babywearing-specific (e.g. focused on carriers etc.), that they encouraged exploration of other areas which can then shape your babywearing experience and/or help you develop your babywearing educating. Everyone clearly enjoyed themselves, it was a great opportunity to meet new people and connect other people who hadn’t seen each other in a while, and had such a warm and welcoming atmosphere. It was wonderful making new connections and friendships, and meeting some of the Swedish Slingababy family too!

The day was very well organised, ran smoothly, and was held in a great place. Having no shopping area meant that the full focus was on the talks and networking, which is unusual compared to UK conferences, but it worked so well. Also, the fact that it was well attended but not massive meant that it had a busy but cosy and no overwhelming feel to it. It was the best conference I’ve attended so far!

 

So, the conference was over, but my work in Sweden wasn’t! The next day I facilitated an in-arms carrying workshop. We decided the day before to just do one, and I’m so glad for that as we were able to slow it down and ended up running for just under 3 hours instead of the 90 minutes it was meant to last for!

Among other things, we explored primitive reflexes, how the birth process may affect carrying for both baby and caregiver, how we affect the carrying process, and ways to encourage the development of clinging behaviour while carrying. It was great having baby Ivar participate, as it makes things so much clearer when you can see them in action.

If you’ve worked with me before, you’ll know how much I get into everything and I always wish there’s more time. Well, this was no different! We got to go deeper than the workshop was intended, but we still could have easily stayed another 3 hours, just discussing the points we had been exploring further.

 

[Image description: Åsa, Mel, Zarah and Anna sit in a semi circle on a wooden floor. Baby Ivar is laying on his belly in front of Åsa, on a white quilt with square patterns on it. Around them are worksheets, pens, a toy bag and cups on a tray.]

 

Unfortunately, I had a plane to catch, so we had to leave it there, but plans are afoot to bring the in-arms carrying course to Sweden, so hopefully it won’t be too long before I’m back, exploring in-arms carrying in greater detail with some awesome people! Babywearing consultancy may be a relatively new thing in Sweden, but I can see that it’s going to develop in a very special way, from what I’ve seen this past weekend.

So, a huge “well done” to Ulrika and her team of volunteers who organised and ran the event. I’m still on a high from the day, and I can’t wait to hear when the next conference will be – I’d love to go back again as an attendee, and catch up with the new friends I’ve made this weekend! I hope more people from other countries will attend too – it’s always interesting seeing how the babywearing community works in different parts of the world, as well as getting to discuss ideas with new people.

 

If you’d like to work with me, please get in touch to find out more about my Consultancy, Peer Supporter or In-arms Carrying courses. I’m also happy to talk about speaking about in-arms carrying at other events. You can reach me at hello@melcyrille.com

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