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Participation in carrying begins before babies are picked up

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!

Mel Cyrille
Mel is a babywearing and in-arms carrying trainer and educator. She's also the author of "In-arms Carrying", available in ebook and paperback formats on Amazon.
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