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Concerned About Unconventional Mental Health Interventions?

Concerned About Unconventional Mental Health Interventions?
Alternative Psychotherapies: Evaluating Unconventional Mental Health Treatments

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

On Babywearing

Everywhere I turn these days, I see something about William Sears, “attachment parenting”, and babywearing (carrying babies a lot of the time in various kinds of slings and carriers). It all seems to have to do with the fear that attachment just won’t happen properly, and that if it doesn’t a whole cascade of bad outcomes will occur.

Obviously this isn’t something we can do randomized controlled trials on. Even if there weren’t ethical issues about any possible harm to babies (either of being “baby-worn” or of not having this experience), there’s no way to be sure that parents would follow the routine they were assigned--  and why on earth should they, after all?

What we can do, though, is taking an anthropological approach and look at ways different groups of people have cared for their babies. Much of the decision has been based on the physical and social environment--  did they need to keep babies warm? Did they need to keep them from falling into the fire? Were there lots of other people around, or was the family pretty isolated?  Was it customary to space babies by prohibiting sexual relations until the child was weaned at age 2 or 3? Was there a high infant mortality rate so that most families would not have living children close together in age?

Thousands of ways have been used to care for babies under different sets of conditions. Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson did a wonderful book of photographs of Balinese life, including babies being carried at all waking times until they could walk , because as creatures who had come recently from the divine they should not go on all fours like animals (by the way--  so much for having to crawl, right?). In the Middle Ages in Europe, and in Russia perhaps even until the present day, babies were swaddled by wrapping in cloths from foot to head until they could be picked up by the ankles and not bend. In cold countries where people stayed indoors much of the time in the winter, babies were kept in cradles where they could be wrapped warmly and rocked to sleep while their mothers did other tasks. In Polynesia, babies could be wrapped into a container and hung from a hut roof, away from animals and adult activity. Some Native Americans bound the child to a cradleboard, so the baby got a handsome flattened head and could be carried easily on the mother’s back. (On the whole, fathers didn’t do these things, although they might be very fond of their children.) In parts of Africa today, although mothers may carry babies in slings as they work in the fields, if they have any 5- or 6-year-old girls around, those girls become “child nurses” and are in big trouble if they let the babies cry.

Let’s not forget an interesting one: in traditional Israeli kibbutz life, babies lived in the babies’ room, where the group was cared for by one or two caregivers who might or might not have much interest in the task. The mothers came in periodically to breastfeed but were encouraged to wean soon and put their energy into the communal organization. The whole point was that there should not be intense emotional connections between family members, but that instead that emotion should go into loyalty to the group.  

And, you know what? All those babies formed emotional attachments to familiar people in pretty much the same way, no matter what their experience had been. Most were securely attached, some were insecurely attached, but the great majority in every group grew up to have ordinary cognitive abilities, social skills, and relationships with others.

The moral of this story is that just as human beings can thrive on a lot of different kinds of food, emotional attachment can grow robustly on many different social diets. If everybody in the family wants to go with babywearing, it isn’t going to do any harm, but it isn’t going to do any special good either. Babies need caregivers who are sensitive and responsive to the babies’ communications. Exactly how they go about being sensitive and responsive can vary enormously depending on the family situation and individual personalities, and they don’t have to be sensitive and responsive every minute. There are limits to tolerance for unresponsiveness, of course, and caregivers who change frequently or are otherwise unable to figure out a given baby’s cues do not provide the ideal situation for secure attachment or other important parts of development.

Having read some of Sears’ work, I have to say that I’m not clear on what he thinks attachment is, or bonding either (and he does seem to use the terms interchangeably). I remember one statement he made some years ago, to the effect that a baby separated from its mother in the hospital was “bonding to the bassinet”. I have no idea what this could possibly mean, unless Sears thinks that human beings, like ducklings, become imprinted on whatever they see in the first hours of life.

So-- Do what works for you and your family. If you have time and energy and want to wear your baby, that’s fine. If you work full time and hand off the baby with your spouse or another caregiver, and nobody wears that baby, that’s fine too. Neither family is going to guarantee a child with no problems, or a child with a lot of problems, by taking one route or another. And don’t snub people who don’t do what you do. It really isn’t a competition.

One thing, though--  babywearers and non-babywearers both, watch it with the cellphones! Don’t imagine that you’re being sensitive and responsive to your baby if you stare toward the baby and talk at length in an adult voice. What do you think this conveys to the baby? It certainly must be confusing to see what appears to be “eye contact” but no response to facial expressions, and the wrong kind of talk for someone looking at a baby. Get a look at a baby’s face some time when Mom is yakking away on the phone and looking vaguely toward the baby. Talk to your friends some other time! For the baby’s sake, Be Here Now.

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