top of page

Babywearing and sense of self


This article was first published in the Natural Parent Magazine, Issue 50, Autumn 2023. This beautiful artwork is called "Morning Light" by Chloe Trayhurn - and here with permission.


The birth of a baby is one of the most joyful, and stressful, events a family can experience. The arrival of a newborn into a household can cause significant upheaval for everyone. Lifestyles, careers, figures, routines, rhythms, relationships, finances, the list seems endless. As a single person transforms into multiple, this evolution cannot avoid having a marked impact on the sense of self for mother, baby, and the extended family. In optimising the health and wellbeing of all family members, consider babywearing as a powerful tool to aid the transition into this new world.


For mother

Mothers experience many dramatic life changes following the birth of a child, especially their firstborn. As the child is welcomed, the changes associated with their arrival can cause confusion, angst, and even grief for the mother. This quote vividly describes the dichotomy of the journey into motherhood: “As it stands, motherhood is a sort of wilderness through which each woman hacks her way, part martyr, part pioneer; a turn of events from which some women derive feelings of heroism, while others experience a sense of exile from the world they knew.” (1)


These changes can affect all aspects of a mother’s life and sense of self. Some of the changes are physical, commencing with the changes to a birthing mother’s body during pregnancy. Stretch marks, larger breasts, altered body shape, increased fat deposits as the body creates and sustains new life. These changes morph following birth, to include perineal injury or surgical scarring or both, incontinence, hair loss, leaking breasts. All external markers of the changes to self.


Other changes involve everyday activities, including change of lifestyle, lack of sleep, change in priorities, impact on career and finances. Further changes still involve relationships, with altered desire, shifts in marital and sexual relationships, adjustments in relationships with extended family members, including other children. These altered connections with others coincide with an altered sense of self and this rapid period of growth and adjustment can be overwhelming at times for mothers. Indeed, as many as 1 in 5 mothers in Australia are reported to develop perinatal depression (2).


Holding a baby close can support this transition into motherhood, by tapping into the natural hormonal cascades that promote wellbeing (3). Oxytocin is a powerful anti-stress and feel-good hormone, which facilitates wellbeing, social interaction, growth, and healing. Release of oxytocin is activated by many things, including pressure receptors in our bodies. Oxytocin can be released in response to touch, warmth, smell, sound, positive thoughts, and interactions.


Holding a baby in a carrier also allows mothers to continue activities that connect them to their identity and help to release endorphins. Endorphins are hormones released in response to pleasurable activities such as exercise, massage, eating, and socialising which also help to relieve pain, reduce stress, and improve sense of wellbeing (4). Exercise such as walking in the bush, along the river or on the beach, hiking, classes such as Kangatraining, dancing and gardening, are all possible and safe with a baby in a carrier. Social pursuits such as café catch ups with friends, personal appointments, shopping trips, travel, are all made easier with a small child held close to your body in a carrier.


Keeping your baby close to you in a carrier therefore promotes release of feel-good hormones and assisting to develop a healthy sense of self as a new identity as a mother is formed.


For carer

For non-birthing family members, the life changes brought by a newborn are less visible than that experienced by the birthing mother, however often no less profound. Other parents, grandparents, aunties, uncles, siblings, godparents, the variety of possible carers surrounding the newborn can be plentiful. With the shift in relationships associated with a newborn, it is possible that some of these extended family members struggle to know how to contribute and adapt their sense of self in this new world. Babywearing can help facilitate this transition, by fostering an environment of inclusion and responsiveness, whilst developing secure attachments throughout childhood (9).


Whether supporting the new mother with babywearing, or learning how to use a carrier themselves, other carers can be intimately involved in nurturing the baby and their relationships. The hormone cascades previously outlined that support health and well-being are accessible, available, and beneficial for all the family and can help smooth the journey into a new sense of self with snuggles, physical touch and pleasurable activities.


For baby

The transition from the womb to the world can be considered rather abrupt for the newborn. The baby is suddenly squeezed from a warm, soft, muted, gently rocking environment to one more cold, harsh, bright, and static. This transition can be tempered by considering the concept of the fourth trimester. This concept suggests that human babies are born less mature than other animals and need nurturing for the first 12 weeks of life, as if they were in utero (5). The fourth trimester is a period of rapid adjustment not only for the mother but also for the baby and indeed there are suggestions that the 12-week period currently assigned is not enough (6).


It is here, in this fourth trimester, that babywearing becomes a power tool. Being held in a carrier helps to emulate the comfort and conditions of the womb by wrapping up the baby snug and warm on a carer’s chest, where the carer’s heartbeat and smell soothes the infant. The oxytocin release is also stimulated in the child. In this way, the infant is supported in beginning the journey to becoming an individual, with the safety and reassurance offered by babywearing. There is no wonder that the carried infant is shown to cry less (7).


As babies grow, a carrier can support the ongoing growth of child’s sense of self, by continuing to provide a safe place from which to explore the world. As described by the Circle of Security model, young children flourish when they have a secure base to leave and safe haven to return to. A carrier can be an extension of the safe place and connection offered by a cherished carer (8). Alternatively, a carrier can be a safe place from which to explore new environments and experience new adventures, where the child can participate from their vantage point up on their carer’s chest.


Summary

Birth is one of life’s most transformative experiences, for mother, child, and extended family. Babywearing can help facilitate this transition for all family members, by keeping babies close and allowing the family to grow together as they develop a new sense of self and venture into the new world they have created.


Kato x


References

1. Cusk, R 2001, A Life’s Work: On Becoming a Mother, Picador, USA

2. Australian Institute of Health and Welfare 2012, ‘Perinatal depression’ https://www.aihw.gov.au/reports/primary-health-care/perinatal-depression-data-from-the-2010-australia/summary

3. Uvnas-Moberg, K., & Petersson, M. (2005). Oxytocin, a mediator of anti-stress, well-being, social interaction, growth, and healing. Zeitschrift fur Psychosomatische Medizin und Psychotherapie, 51(1), 57-80. https://doi.org/10.13109/zptm.2005.51.1.57

4. Mannem, M, Mehta, T.R., Murala, S., Bollu, P.C. (2022). Endorphins. In: Bollu, P.C. (eds) Neurochemistry in Clinical Practice. Springer, Cham. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-031-07897-2_12

5. Isaacs, D 2018, ‘The fourth trimester’, Journal of Paediatrics and Child Health, vol. 54, pp. 1174-1175. https://doi.org/10.1111/jpc.14257

6. Mehta, A & Srinivas, S 2021, ‘The Fourth Trimester’, Obstetrics & Gynecology, vol. 137, no. 5, pp. 779-781. https://doi.org/10.1097/AOG.0000000000004373

7. Hunziker, U. A., & Barr, R. G. (1986). Increased carrying reduces infant crying: A randomised controlled trial. Paediatrics, 77(5), 641-648. https://doi.org/10.1542/peds.77.5.641

9. Reynolds-Miller, R, L. (2016). Potential therapeutic benefits of babywearing. Creative Nursing, 22(1), 17-23. http://dx.doi.org/10.1891/1078-4535.22.1.17


2 views

Recent Posts

See All
bottom of page