Riding the subways and buses of New York City, I have often encountered people with children in large baby carriages. These carriages are at times quite elaborate, with beautiful padding, a sun roof, lots of toys — obviously the parents are doing all they can to express their love for their child. The child, on the other hand, may not notice or appreciate the effort: it’s back is to the pretty padding, and it can only look out, without seeing the one pushing the carriage. In essence, the baby is alone in that carriage, wheeled about with no sense of connection to the adults. Sometimes I see children that look like they’re three, four, and maybe more years old, wheeled about still, not walking. What are these kids learning? When faced with stress, will they become crippled before their time, so as to recreate their infancy and be wheeled about by someone else? Will they too grow into couch potatoes, overweight people who do not exercise, people who are reluctant to do something for themselves because they’re so used to having someone else do it for them?
Jean Liedloff, in her ground breaking book The Continuum Concept, discusses the importance of what she calls “the in-arms stage.” That is the time from birth until the baby is able to walk well. In all traditional societies, as well as in the society Liedloff studied, the Yequana of Brazil, infants and young toddlers are carried on someone’s body, usually the mother’s, but possibly that of another female; the baby may be in arms, on the hip, in a sling on the side or the back, even in a backpack. In that position, the baby can see, hear, and feel the normal daily movement, conversation, and activities of the adults; it is held usually in an upright or slightly reclining position, and can also feel and hear the adult’s own body sounds and rhythms. Liedloff points out that this stage is essential for proper acculturation, as the child absorbs “how things are done” in that society. In addition, the constant movement helps both energize the baby and to drain away its energy so that tension and stress have no chance to accumulate. Babies carried about in that manner are generally calm and relaxed.
Another benefit of continuously being carried is that these babies do not exhibit colic, according to Dr Ronald Barr, of the Department of Pediatrics at Montreal Children’s Hospital. Many of the unhappy behaviors we see in our modern babies, such as fussiness, frequent crying, colic, and the more serious ones such as rocking and head-banging when children are alone in their cribs may be entirely normal if they are in fact reactions to an entirely abnormal type of upbringing. Therefore, babies who complain when they are put down — often called “high-needs babies” — simply may be remembering that they are supposed to be carried about, not put down.
Since I’ve read Liedloff’s book, I have become acutely aware of the myriad ways in which our civilization separates infants and toddlers from their mothers and other loving adults — and always with the best of intentions. These include the baby seat, the carrier basket, the carriage, the crib, the “convenience” of bottle feeding which allows a distracted attitude or propping the bottle or for the baby to feed him/herself alone; and let’s not forget the mealtimes on their own instead of with the family. Even breast-feeding is no longer a guarantee that mom will be around: with the popularity of the pump, the glass bottle, the refrigerator and the freezer, anyone can feed the baby, and mother has become obsolete. All these practices may create independence, but don’t they also disconnect the child from the parent?
Modern parents do everything possible to ensure that the child “has” everything. Unfortunately, what is often lacking is this body contact. This lack of contact is perceived by the child as lack of love, with the result that, in return, many children resent their parents and the parents have no idea why. Whenever parents follow the cultural customs of bottle-feeding, crib sleeping and baby carriages, they may succeed in alienating their children with frightful efficiency, and the breakdown of the family continues its inexorable progress
Fortunately, not all children are brought up like that. Breast-feeding is no longer the rarity it was even twenty years ago, and many parents follow variations of “the family bed” and family meals. I also see numerous parents carrying their babies in slings on their back or front; when they have carriages, sometimes the packages go in the carriage and the baby is in the arms, a highly sensible arrangement. I have a bit of trouble with the face-forward slings, because the baby looks too vulnerable that way, shielding the parent, instead of the other way around; still, it’s better than a carriage. My heart sings when I see well-parented kids, for it is clear to me then that there is, still, hope for humanity. Perhaps the best present we can give to expectant parents is a baby sling carrier; knowingly or not, the baby will appreciate that more than pretty toys.