As I shared in my last post, I had the pleasure of hiking with mama, psychologist, and Board member of Nurturely, Jessie Thivierge. We spoke about many things, including research just published on babywearing and maternal responsiveness. Jessie asked me, “How can I help you?” I confessed that I hadn’t had the chance to read the full study beyond a quick skim. She got excited, sharing that she is mostly home with her little ones these days, and would love the chance to “geek out.” Lucky for us, she’s digested and written up the cliff notes version of the research by Emily Little, Ph.D., founder of Nurturely. –Abby Burd
As a new mother and recently graduated doctoral psychologist, I met Emily Little by chance, as I volunteered myself and my infant son for her babywearing study – after all, I knew the value in garnering participants in my own doctoral research as well. (Incidentally, my own doctoral dissertation research on mothers with mental health concerns found that life stressors were the greatest predictor of treatment success, across all other demographic variables.)
Emily, AKA Dr. Little, sought me out to join the Board of Directors of her non-profit Nurturely a then San Diego-based interdisciplinary team of birth workers, pre- and postpartum mental health specialists, and related family health-focused volunteers advancing Nurturely’s cause: The Science and Nature of Nurturing. Dr. Little’s babywearing research is at the heart of our mission, as her findings add empirical support to many traditional infant and postpartum care practices that ancient cultures have practiced for centuries. The research also yields important implications for parenting style and may show that babywearing, long thought to be primarily associated with non-Western cultures, is an important parenting subculture within the U.S. Abby Burd, a therapist who specializes in pre- and postpartum maternal mental health is a collaborator with Nurturely’s efforts to support and educate mothers about research-informed best practices for health.
Dr. Little’s research examined babywearing mothers and compared them with mothers who used other primary methods of transporting their baby (stroller, arm-carrying, bucket seat, etc). This study had multiple levels comparing babywearing mothers across a variety of settings, and the findings yielded novel results about the way babywearing influences the mother’s response to her baby.
1st Study: Babywearing and Maternal Responsiveness
In the first study, mothers who primarily choose babywearing for transporting their baby were shown to be more responsive to their babies, even when not wearing their babies. These mothers were overall more responsive to baby as well as more engaged with infants’ positive emotion, suggesting these mothers were not simply attuned to comforting or minimizing baby’s distress.
The researchers asked, could this increased maternal responsiveness be due to an intermediate variable: mothers who wear their babies simply have a different set of beliefs about parenting, AKA a different parenting style?
Second Study: Babywearing, Demographics, and Parenting Beliefs
In the second part of the babywearing study, hundred of mothers with newborns were surveyed regarding simple demographic data (education level, age, family size, etc) and asked questions assessing parenting beliefs and style. Cutting across all demographic variables, the findings were clear: mothers who wear their babies also tended to espouse parenting beliefs emphasizing maternal responsiveness to infant cues.
The researchers noted that babywearing could constitute a subculture of American parents:
“Given that U.S. parenting generally aligns with distal care beliefs and practices, these data suggest that babywearing may be more than simply a parenting practice, but rather a central component of a subculture of U.S. parents.” (p. 19) In other words, babywearing goes beyond the simple act of using a baby carrier and reflects underlying beliefs and parenting styles consistent with responding to baby’s cues and consistent with secure attachment.
Third Study: Babywearing and Nature of Play
In the third part of Dr. Little’s study, babywearing was even shown to predict differences in the focus and nature of play. Mothers who were in physical contact with their babies during playtime tended to focus the play less on objects, such as toys in the lab, but on language and tactile interactions. These findings suggest that babywearing promotes parent-child interactions that may promote early language development, such as development of more complex language sounds, as well as proprioceptive benefits to infants.
Dr. Little’s research shows subtle yet important ways in which baby-carrying is bi-directional in its effects; mothers who carry their babies tend to be more responsive to their babies, they tend to have parenting styles and beliefs that place value on high engagement and attunement with baby’s needs, and mothers who babywear engage in play in a different manner than mothers who use a seat to play with baby.
The research team notes that these studies would be useful to replicate across other populations, such as fathers, other regions of the U.S.
Read the full study here.