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Babywearing in traumatic family circumstances

Updated: Apr 7


a woman in a jacket and scarf holding a baby close in a carrier

This article was first published in the Natural Parent Magazine, Issue 47, Winter 2022 alongside this beautiful artwork by Bianca Pozzi honouring mothers fleeing the conflict in Ukraine - and here with permission.


We often think of babywearing in ideal circumstances when everything is going just right. Marketing adds to this visual, via portrayal of happy, smiling, content families going about their days. Busy parents getting things done. Snuggling a happy healthy baby close to their chest. Working, playing, hiking, holidaying, together in the golden sunshine.


But what if life as a parent isn’t all rainbows and butterflies? For so many families around the world, life sadly doesn’t look like that and babywearing serves a purpose beyond those gentle snuggles to which we all aspire. It serves to keep children safe and secure, close to a carer, during some incredibly traumatic experiences.


Adverse Childhood Experiences


Adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) are traumatic things that happen in childhood. Children who experience ACEs have an increased likelihood of ongoing health and wellbeing impacts into adulthood (1). Exposure to ACEs can also have intergenerational impacts, whereby children who experience ACEs are more likely to have parents who experienced ACEs themselves (2).


Many ACEs are preventable; however, many are not. ACEs are not caused by one single thing, rather a combination of things from the individual, family, and community, which contribute to both risk and protective factors for children. Family disconnect, where children don’t feel close to their carers, is an identified risk factor for ACEs. Family connection, where relationships are safe, stable, and nurturing, is a known protective factor (1). Being held close on the chest of a carer can contribute to the establishment and development of this lifelong shielding bond.


By no means exhaustive, following are some examples of ACEs where babywearing can have a profound impact on the connection and wellbeing of child and carer.


Birth trauma and premature infants


The benefits of kangaroo care and holding babies skin-to-skin are well known. Being held close helps the child to regulate breathing, heart rate and temperature, with pain-relieving and calming effects from parasympathetic nervous system activation (4). Recent research indicates that babywearing in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) has benefits for both the infants and the nurses caring for the children (5). There is also increasing promotion of nurses babywearing in the NICU across social media, indicating babywearing becoming more integrated into the care of unwell infants.


I recently saw a heartbreaking note written by a NICU nurse from the perspective of a newborn recovering from significant birth trauma, which described the baby’s excitement about a wonderful thing called cuddles that they couldn’t wait to experience. I cried for the family and hoped with all my heart that they were able to embrace babywearing to help support them heal this trauma and connect as a new family.


Fleeing from danger


Danger can take many forms, from family and domestic violence; to floods and fires; to war. Fleeing danger with a family and deciding what to take with limited time, space and resources is incredibly challenging. Escaping to safety with only what you can carry or pack into a vehicle, makes decisions about the value of things much more significant. Families may choose a baby carrier as a small, useful item to include in their escape, as a carrier’s value moves beyond practicality of hands-free to essential to keep a child safely connected with a carer.

We have seen many images in the media recently, of families fleeing danger with their precious little humans in arms and carriers. There are also images on social media of fences laden with baby carriers for families escaping war, indicating the value of babywearing in supporting families to be safe and secure.


Family disruption


Many families experience disruption and breakdown. Illness of carer or child, death of a carer or child, separation and divorce, foster care and adoption, homelessness and poverty are some of the difficult situations families may endure. The uncertainty and instability of these scenarios can have significant impact on individuals and family dynamics. Through grief, despair, loneliness, and fear, holding a child close on a carer’s chest can help both to connect and build trust, safety, and security.


How babywearing helps


Research shows that the more ACEs experienced by a child, the increased risk of developmental delays in childhood, as well as chronic conditions and illnesses into adulthood (2). This dose-response association indicates a causal relationship, with evidence suggesting that exposure to ACEs triggers a chronic stress response, with a persistent increase in levels of the hormone cortisol in the child’s body. This increased cortisol affects the child’s development and can trigger inflammatory responses that cause chronic conditions (2).


It is known that oxytocin is a powerful anti-stress and feel-good hormone, which can mediate the impact, and reduce levels, of cortisol (3). Oxytocin release is activated by many things, including pressure receptors in our bodies. Oxytocin can be released in response to touch, warmth, food, smell, sound, light, positive thoughts, and interactions. Keeping your baby close to you in a carrier therefore promotes release of feel-good hormones, health, and wellbeing – in both child and carer.


The proximity of the child and carer provides a sense of safety and reassurance for both. The sound of the carer’s voice, smell and touch allows the child to feel secure despite what they might be going through. The child’s presence on the carer’s chest removes any worry of the child’s whereabouts and allows the carer to monitor the child and attend to their needs.


Hold your baby close


“One of the most influential protective factors in a child’s life is having a safe, caring and supportive relationship with someone they trust” (2). Although by no means a panacea, the connection, calm, reassurance, and security offered by babywearing may in some small way help to ease the impact of trauma and the health and wellbeing of the child, carer and future generations.


Kato x


References

1. Adverse Childhood Experiences, National Centre for Injury Prevention and Control, Division of Violence Prevention, https://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/aces/index.html

2. Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs): Summary of evidence and impacts. https://emergingminds.com.au/resources/adverse-childhood-experiences-aces-summary-of-evidence-and-impacts/

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. 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

5. Williams, L. R., et al. (2021). Nurse perceptions of babywearing for neonates with neonatal abstinence syndrome in the neonatal intensive care unit. Advances in Neonatal Care, 21(1), 23-31. https://journals.lww.com/advancesinneonatalcare/Citation/2021/02000/Nurse_Perceptions_of_Babywearing_for_Neonates_With.6.aspx




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