This week is International Babywearing Week , sponsored by Babywearing International. My husband and I love babywearing. While I heard all of the wonderful facts about babywearing ( baby cries less; baby is more attached to parents; healthier development for babies, especially premies,) I was initially drawn to it because, frankly, it was easier to carry Q-ball in a carrier than in my arms, especially when shopping or doing chores. But, I recently read about the science behind some of the benefits of babywearing and learned about benefits that typically aren’t mentioned. These have made me love babywearing even more!
It’s a common fact that babies love motion- rocking in their parents’ arms, swinging in swings, and bouncing in chairs. The reason behind this is that babies have a very sensitive vestibular system (ranking with touch in terms of most sensitive sense in a newborn), which controls the body’s ability to sense movement and balance. The vestibular system is located in the inner ear (which explains why balance is sometimes affected during ear infections). In adults, we know that our vestibular system is working when we don’t notice it; it is what keeps our field of vision constant when doing and activity like jogging- even though our eyes are bouncing up and down, our view remains steady. When our vestibular system is off, dizziness and motion sickness can result.
Now back to babies- in the womb, it’s one of the first brain structures to develop- at only 10 weeks old, a fetus can detect movement! An eight-month fetus’s vestibular system is so developed that it actually sets off a baby’s first reflexes! When a mama changes from sitting to standing, the change can activate the Moro reflex or startle reflex which is seen in newborns until about 3 months. Even the fetus’s ability to position itself downward when it is time for labor and delivery is a result of a well-developed vestibular system. After birth, nearly all newborn reflexes continue to be the result of activity in the vestibular system, including the doll’s eye reflex (in which baby will continue to look forward, although you may move his head) and asymmetrical neck reflex (identified by Gesell and discussed in this post.) In fact, a human’s vestibular system reaches its peak of sensitivity between six to eight months of age. So, any rocking or swinging of baby (like when baby is in a baby carrier) between these ages will especially activate the vestibular system.
So, how does this help baby? The vestibular system is the primary method that a newborn experiences their new surroundings, so it is likely that activating the vestibular system may improve their ability to take in all of the new sights and sounds. This increased sensitivity could improve the development of motor, cognitive, and even emotional abilities.
An experiment tested this hypothesis. Infants between 3 to 13 months were put through 16 sessions of chair spinning, during which they were held by a researcher and spun around in a swivel chair. Super fun for the infants!! But, a control group was just held by the researchers in the swivel chair- no spinning and certainly not as much fun. Well, the infants who got to spin around in the chairs also demonstrated more advanced development in reflexes and motor skills, especially walking, sitting, crawling, and standing. This was even true for a set of fraternal twins- one of which had the joy of spinning in the chair and the other that just had to sit in the researcher’s lap.
Another sign of the benefits of vestibular stimulation can be seen in neonatal units. Preterm babies that are rocked, carried in baby carriers, or able to rock themselves in specially made baby water beds (I need to look into purchasing one of these as it could lead to 3 hours of uninterrupted sleep…) gained weight faster, breathed more regularly, slept more, and had more quiet, alert time than babies who did not experience vestibular stimulation.
Parents also likely know one of the best aspects of continued vestibular stimulation. A sleepy baby! Babywearing provides as awesome opportunity to stimulate the vestibular system with the continuous, gentle rocking the babies (and toddlers!) feel. Babies will be better able to experience the world around them, while being close to and encouraged by their parents. So, strap on your baby carrier and start babywearing today!
We love our Erog and teething pads from RedCharlotte!
"Babywearing International Resources." Babywearing International. Babywearing International, n.d. Web. 10 Oct 2011. <http://babywearinginternational.org/articles.php?article=1>.
Eliot, L. (1999). What’s going on in there? How the brain and mind develop in the first five years of life. Bantam Books: USA.