Touch your baby, shape her future

A retrospective on the Australian Babywearing Conference 2015 by Steph de Silva, PhD.

It was described as “A Festival of Babywearing”, but the Australian Babywearing Conference was more than that. It was a discussion on shaping our children’s futures through the power of touch. The conference was hosted by Adelaide Baby Wearers Incorporated and the organizing team did an amazing job bringing babywearing pfashion showrofessionals, health professionals, community members and the interested public. Attendance was from all states and territories in Australia and the keynote speaker was Arie Brentnall-Compton Vice Chair of the Baby Carrier Industry Alliance and founder of the Canadian Babywearing School.

Babywearing is a useful way of integrating the powerful medium of touch into our everyday lives, but it is only the medium: not the purpose itself. The carrier, wrap or sling used is a method of delivering touch, even when the caregiver has other needs. In that sense as long as it is a safe carrier, the carrier type itself is largely immaterial: this was the main message delivered by the conference. Touch your baby and shape her future.

Certainly, the conference reviewed and explored all the different methods of babywearing available in Australia today. From high end artisanal handwoven wraps and one of a kind works of art crafted into baby carriers; to one session which illustrated how you could carry your baby with a pair of stockings and the contents of a local attendee’s op shop donation bag. The exploration of babywearing with anything from unique handmade art to duct tape underscored one thing: there is no one “right” way of babywearing.∗ The value of babywearing is in holding and touching babies, not in the means by which this is done.

The power of touch in infant development is well known. Touch promotes bonding and can even act as an analgesic in very small babies.º Babywearing can improve breastfeeding outcomes in addition to facilitating infant/carer touch.¤ The importance of touch as a public health issue should not be underestimated.

Arie Brentnall-Compton’s focus while in Australia was on the power of touch: not just for an infant/mother dyad but extending well beyond the family unit and into the community as a whole. She argued society doesn’t change with one carrier at a time: it changes thousands of carriers at a time. Doing so extends the benefits of babywearing beyond a fringe movement and into a wider world. Babywearing can improve health incomes for whole communities and should be considered a part of everyday life: one more means of attending to an infant’s need for touch as well as the caregiver’s need for everything from basic self care to being able to leave the house. The main argument Brentnall-Compton made was that babywearing/high touch advocacy needs to be inclusive. It is the act of carrying the baby that provides benefits, not the product itself. As long as a baby’s airway is always maintained and you don’t drop baby: you have a carrier providing all the important benefits of infant touch.

Many of the other speakers focused on the capacity of parents and caregivers to use touch in order to focus on their child’s needs and attend to their own at the same time. In a society that focuses on infant need, the ability of the parent or caregiver to manage their own is often neglected. In order for a high touch culture to be adopted in Australia we must be aware of a caregiver’s needs as well.

Carla Koay – occupational therapist and infant mental health expert – discussed regulation and attachment of the infant. Touch and baby carrying has long been known to positively impact sensory regulation and attachment, but the details can be difficult to access without extensive research. Carla took the audience through these concepts explaining why touch and baby carrying are pivotal components to infant mental health.

The hormonal and mental health consequences of touch through babywearing were discussed in the context of reducing and managing symptoms of Post Natal Depression. Rose Pride, midwife and babywearing educator, discussed the vital role wearing a baby can play in a healthy mother-child relationship. Promotion of bonding, ability to consistently perform self care, gentle exercise and exposure to the outdoors are all key factors in management and recovery from post natal depression. Babywearing allows a caregiver to engage in all of these practices while fulfilling the infant’s need for touch and positive sensory input.

Agnes Bolton – a babywearing educator who has trained in France, Hungary and Germany – discussed the natural motor development of infants and the implications babywearing can have for normal gross motor development. As a society, we have a tendency to “rush” children to the next milestone instead of allowing a natural space for growth, exploration and development. The fundamental principle of natural gross motor development is never to put baby in a position they cannot get into themselves. Agnes made the point that by using babywearing to mimic in-arms carrying, alternating sides and the places on our bodies where we wear children we can assist this process without creating a sense of frustration for parent or child.

One important point Bolton made was that babywearing is for the baby, not the baby for babywearing. A child who is expressing a desire to be outside the sling, wrap or carrier may be ready to engage in an exploration of the world beyond the sling. This is also a key part of natural motor development and should be encouraged where possible.

Emma Archer – a midwife, educator and writer – discussed supporting and developing a high-touch culture in Australia by encouraging health professionals working with new families to bring babywearing into their everyday practice. The benefits of touch and babywearing as a means of improving health outcomes is gaining traction in Australia’s health industry and Emma discussed how, when and why babywearing can start or be the positive conversation between caregivers and receivers.

The implications of a high-touch culture for healing communities extends well beyond the middle class enclaves in which it has already been widely embraced. Brie Shroot, president of Babywearing Victoria Incorporated and CEO of Babywearing Education Australia facilitated two sessions focusing on these areas in particular: one on supporting and promoting babywearing in rural and regional Australia and the other on supporting babywearing in an all abilities society.

The two topics were fundamentally different in their concerns, needs and discussions, but there was a common theme in both: the surface had barely been scratched but the conversation had been opened nationally. The importance of touch and babywearing to communities and parents who may be geographically isolated or isolated by disability was a case made passionately by advocates in both sessions, many of whom spoke from personal experience. As a community, babywearers have a long way to go in order to make certain that the benefits of a high-touch culture are available to all: but an understanding of the needs of those isolated from urban or ableist support is beginning.

The main outcome of the conference was that the concept of touch has implications for a child’s health and development from birth and into our children’s future. Babywearing is one way to facilitate a high-touch culture. Arie Brentnall-Compton made the point that anyone who comes into contact with new parents can be an advocate for babywearing and create positive health impacts through promoting touch. She argued that it is the practice of babywearing, not the product, that impacts on families and communities.

Brentnall-Compton had come half way across the world to deliver her message, but it was one delivered to an audience already enthused and engaged on the same theme. Elizabeth Close, artist and Pitjantjatjara woman from the Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara lands in Central Australia summed up the concept during her Acknowledgement of Country on day one. She described the traditional connection of elder women to teaching culture and mothering to young women on country. It was a concept that resonated with attendees who have a belief in the importance of the transmission of practical babywearing knowledge from parent to parent.

This ancient tradition is our modern challenge as parents and advocates for the positive power of touch in young children. We can all be advocates for the health of our children by wearing them and shaping their future through touch.

∗ Rule one of duct tape baby carrying: don’t get duct tape on the baby.

° Esposito, G., S. Yoshida, et al. (2013) Infant calming responses during maternal carrying in humans and mice. Curr. Biol.  May 6;23(9):739-45; Anisfeld, E. V. Casper, M. Nozcye, N. Cunningham (1990). Does Infant carrying promote attachment? An experimental study of the effects of increased physical contact on the development of attachment. Child Development. 61(5):1617-27. ; Gray, L. L. Watt, E.M. Blass (2000). “Skin-to-Skin Contact Is Analgesic in Healthy Newborns” Pediatrics Vol. 105(1)  p. e14

¤ Hake-Brooks & Anderson (2008) Kangaroo care and breastfeeding of mother-preterm infant dyads 0-18 months. A randomized, controlled trial. Neonatal Network, 27(3): 151-9.; Pisacane, A., Continisio, P., Filosa, C., Tagliamonte, V., & Continisio, G. I. (2012). Use of baby carriers to increase breastfeeding duration among term infants: the effects of an educational intervention in Italy. Acta Paediatrica 101(10), p434–438.



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