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The Wearable Baby

By Andrew Dodge, DC

When comparing baby-wearing to carrying babies in a car seat, the car seat doesn’t stack up.

As a chiropractor that cares for mostly expectant mothers and children, I see both baby-wearing and car-seat-carrying parents on a daily basis. I work with several other doctors in a clinic outside of Fort Worth, Texas, and collectively we see much more car-seat-carrying than baby-wearing, although we try to discourage our patients from using their car seats outside of the car. Baby seat companies have made it incredibly easy for parents to transport their child in a car seat from house to car to final destination without ever having to move the baby. It is such an easy thing to do, and with many families with multiple kids and crazy schedules rushing from here to there, I completely understand and sympathize with parents who choose to carry their kids this way. There are, however, many reasons why both my wife and I, as parents, and my colleagues and I, as doctors, do not recommend this type of baby carrying. We will take a look at why baby-wearing is one of the best things you can do for a baby’s optimal structural, neurological, physiological and emotional development.

Structurally, your newborn baby’s spine is a big c-shape. Her posture is completely flexed, just like it was inside the womb. As her postural muscles get stronger, they are able to hold her head up and your baby will develop the proper curve in her neck. Likewise, as she begins to move around and crawl, she will develop the proper curve in her low back. These curves develop over the first year of the baby’s life and are important for your baby’s developing spinal cord and nervous system, as well as her spinal joints and hip joints. When babies are worn properly by their parents and other caregivers, they are in a better biomechanical position for spinal and muscular development. In the properly worn position, gravity will aid in the development of postural muscle tone.

In contrast, when babies lie flat on their back in a car seat for a prolonged amount of time, the gravitational effects on their spines begin to straighten the developing curves. With prolonged time on their backs, babies can also begin to develop plagiocephaly (flattening of the bones of the skull), causing deformation. Both of these changes can affect a child’s proper spinal joint alignment and weight-bearing biomechanics, ligament development and strength around the spine and hip joints, muscle tone and biomechanical development, and neurological development. Shorter amounts of time will not ultimately lead to drastic changes, but limiting the time your baby is in the car seat is structurally best. So put her in the car seat when she is in the car, but when you get to where you are going, have a wrap, sling or soft-structured carrier ready to go! This way you can keep your hands free and give awesome support to your little one’s developing body.

Neurologically, infants who are worn have been shown to experience accelerated brain maturation. When your baby is being worn there is constant movement in all directions. Baby-wearing gives a huge amount of input into the baby’s vestibular system (the balance centers in the brain). This movement not only helps to build those neurological pathways, but it also helps to build the part of the brain that tones the core musculature and intrinsic spinal muscles that give the body the ability to balance, coordinate and stabilize itself with simple or complex movements. These are the first centers in the brain to develop and grow, laying down the foundation for the rest of brain and body development. If this foundation is not strong, other parts that are built on top may be less developed than they could have been. Furthermore, wearing your baby gives him the best way to see, hear and interact with the world around him. Your baby can look at all of the colors and movements, watch social interactions between his parents and others, and see facial expressions during conversation while feeling safe and secure, close to Mom or Dad. These things that seem so insignificant can have a huge effect on your baby’s developing brain. Plain and simple: The more babies experience, the more their brains develop.

On the contrary, when baby is spending prolonged amounts of time in the car seat (even with the ability to hold his head up), it is very difficult for him to see much of the world around him. Babies in car seats see only what they are set in front of. The only movement that they get is when the car seat is picked up and moved from one spot to the next. They do not experience constant, variable motion like they do when they are being worn. From the standpoint of brain development, baby-wearing is definitely the better option.

Babies, especially newborns, also can rely on their parents’ physiology and emotions to help regulate their own. When baby is worn with consistency, parents can more easily pick up on their child’s little cues (e.g., hungry, tired, over-stimulated, too hot, too cold, etc.). When changes in physiology happen in baby, they in turn cause physiological changes in Mom or Dad to help regulate themselves. When your baby is close to you, she can regulate her breathing rate, heart rate, body temperature, emotions, stress levels and immunity levels. This is one reason why kids become “clingy” when they get sick. While close to you, your child can increase antibody production and her body temperature to fight off illnesses. In a chapter of Behavioral Management of Health from Preconception to Adolescence, Maria Blois, M.D., examined the research relating to physiological changes that occurred when babies were worn. Her conclusion, which cited 14 separate studies, was that:

There is strong evidence to support the use of kangaroo care [baby-wearing with skin-to-skin contact] for preterm babies with benefits that include shortened hospital stay, decreased morbidity, higher exclusive breastfeeding duration, increased weight gain, improved state regulation, and improved maternal sense of competence. Evidence-based benefits of KC for term babies included improved state organization and motor system modulation; improved extrauterine temperature adaptation; and an analgesic effect…. Simple holding, without the skin-to-skin contact, was found to reduce crying, and the provisions of soft carriers led to mothers who were more responsive to their babies and to babies who were more securely attached.

Being able to connect on such an intimate physiological and emotional level allows moms and dads both to nurture a deep and lasting bond with their children. Without holding your babies close and wearing your children, these physiological and emotional connections do not take place. Car seats cannot help regulate your child’s temperature, improve their immune function, help them to gain weight, or calm them and reduce their stress levels.

When it comes to child development, there’s really no comparison between baby-wearing and carrying a baby in the car seat. Baby-wearing is far superior, from every developmental aspect. For short-term uses, the car seat won’t be terribly detrimental to baby’s development. But once I put the car in park, I leave the seat in my car, put on a carrier and wear my child.