Babywearing: the 4th trimester and beyond

By Peta Wilson, Moondani

The concept of a “4th trimester” has been a much discussed topic recently. The first 3 months of a baby’s life are like an extension of life in the womb.

We can mimic the conditions of the womb by holding our babies close in the first three months and beyond. Many babies are soothed and rarely cry when their needs are met swiftly. And for the most part, their needs are simple: to be held, fed, lulled by the sounds and movements of their care giver and sleep when they are tired.

It sounds so simple…

But what about when the dishes are piling up, the washing is mounting, the toddler needs your attention and you would so love to clean your teeth and brush your hair…and one mustn’t forget to prepare your baby for every milestone – read to them, sing to them, tummy time, baby classes, mothers groups, swimming lessons…a little overwhelming perhaps?

Babywearing can help! But how does baby wearing work? Here’s a scenario:

The family wakes up, baby goes into his favourite carrier or sling, mother is able to go to the bathroom, wash her face and clean her teeth. Ah bliss! Time for breakfast. For everyone. While wearing her baby, mum can also enjoy some breakfast. Baby can be fed while in the carrier too – in fact it is recommended by many mothers that feeding in an upright position can prevent reflux. Bonus! 

While hands-free, lots of those little household tasks can be done with baby. Put on a load of washing, do the dishes or even vacuuming (which lots of babies find soothing enough that they go to sleep).

Time to get the toddler out of the house. A walk to the park perhaps? Wearing your baby means you have your hands free to hold your toddler’s hand, push them on the swing or give them a cuddle. Give them the reassurance and attention they need when you have a new baby in the household.

Being out and about in the world is great for mum too!

You may wonder how babywearing might affect the development of baby. If baby is carried for so much of the time won’t that hold up their motor development? If baby sleeps in the carrier often will they become reliant on it for all sleep? Doesn’t it get hot and tiring for mum carrying the baby all the time?

These are all perfectly reasonable questions, but are in fact, myths!

Babywearing and baby development

  • Vestibular stimulation - one of the primary ways that babies are able to learn about and experience their new world is through movements interpreted by the vestibular system. The gentle swaying and rocking movements they experience in the womb start to encourage the development of several motion detecting reflexes. It is through these reflexes that their balance and vestibular systems continue to develop. A baby in a carrier is gently rocked, swayed, dipped and bounced - I emphasise gently – which encourages them to make postural adjustments and strengthen these developing pathways between brain and body in relation to movement
  • Strength – being in an upright position in a carrier encourages head and neck control. The spine is supported in the midline, enabling upper body and head movements like pushing back on mother’s chest and holding their head up to look around
  • Hip joint development - optimal positioning in a carrier promotes healthy joint development. When baby wearing is practiced in a well fitted carrier, the ball of the hip joint is pressed evenly into the centre of the hip socket. Muscle action of the infant further presses the ball into the socket as the infant moves and clings to the mother. This type of muscle activity is beneficial for healthy joint development
  • Learning – research has found that babies who are carried or worn, cry less and spend more time in a quiet alert state. It is this state in which babies interact the most with their caregivers and the world around them. This stimulus, combined with the unique vantage point that wearing provides, helps baby’s developing brain and nervous system. 

Babywearing and baby sleep

It is no secret that babies and toddlers alike sleep very well in a comfortable carrier. A tummy to tummy position with their carer gives baby the option to look around or nuzzle in close for a nap when they have had enough stimulation. Many parents worry that this will become a “bad habit” or create sleep issues later on down the track. The opposite is true! Babies go through so many stages of development when it comes to sleep. A flexible approach can be best. A baby who is used to sleeping in a carrier while on the go is rarely put out of their natural sleep routine. They sleep when they are tired, aided by the soothing movements of their parent. Some parents will choose to stay home and have baby sleep in their own bed for their longer sleep, and then use the carrier to run their errands at other times where their baby will sleep in the carrier. Best of both worlds!

Babywearing and you

Sounds great right? But what about the comfort of the person carrying the baby? You may also wonder how soon after birth can you start wearing your baby.

There are so many options for baby carriers now. Buckle carriers, stretchy wraps, woven wraps, ring slings, traditional Asian style carriers such as the Meh Dai. The trick is to find what you are comfortable with using. Some people like the ease of clicking in a few buckles and tightening the straps. Some like the soft feel of a wrap and don’t mind the learning curve involved in mastering a few carries. Look for natural fibres such as 100% cotton which is breathable in hot weather.

With so many options, there is bound to be a comfortable option for most people. So don’t be discouraged if you try something and it is not for you!

In general it is possible to start wearing your baby soon after birth as your baby is small and carried high on the chest, away from your tummy and any painful areas! In some cases, particularly after caesarean birth, you may be advised not to lift anything heavier than your baby in the first weeks. This can be made much easier on your body by using a carrier, particularly something soft like a wrap, as they are designed to hug your baby’s weight close to your own centre of gravity. This reduces the relative weight of the baby compared to when carried in arms. As you continuously carry your baby as they grow, so too do your babywearing muscles grow! Before you know it, wearing your baby just becomes another indispensable tool in your ever growing parenting bag of tricks.

Fettweis E. Muscle-mechanical and biomechanical conditions of the squat-seat position in the treatment of infantile dislocation of the hip.[German] Orthop. Praxis. 1991;8 19/91:474-481
Heegaard J, Beaupre GS, Carter DR Mechanically modulated cartilage growth may regulate joint surface morphogenesis. J Orthop Res. 1999;17:509-517
Zuscik M, Hilton JM, Zhang X, Chen D, O’Keef RJ. Regulation of chondrogenesis and chondrocyte differentiation by stress. J Clin Invest. 2008;118(2):429-438

Note: The views and advice expressed on this blog post are those of the author and are not representative of the Pregnancy Babies & Children's Expo.

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