How Babywearing can help during perinatal mood disorders

This weeks tip is an exploration on what Babywearing can offer for families experiencing Perinatal Depression and Anxiety (PNDA). Before heading straight in, it is worthwhile looking at what exactly PNDA is. PNDA affects almost 100,000 expecting and new parents in Australia each year and is a recognised and diagnosable medical condition. It is the result of biological, psychological and social factors and its affect is far reaching through a family, their friends and extended community.  Anxiety is also likely more common than documented due to the number of sufferers not seeking support.

The term perinatal refers to the antenatal period and the postnatal period combined. Perinatal mental illness or Perinatal Mood Disorders refer to mental illnesses that occur during this period. Depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder and postpartum psychosis are all known to be risks associated with pregnancy and the postnatal period. New or expecting parents may also experience a recurrence of other mental illnesses such as bipolar, personality disorders and schizophrenia during this time.

Whilst adapting to the change associated with expecting or bringing a first, second, or even fifth child into a family is difficult for anyone, PNDA should be considered when a parent is experiencing strong emotions which are impacting negatively on their ability to function in their usual way or experiencing low moods that have lasted for two weeks or more. It is often accompanied by a lack of enjoyment or pleasure in life and an inability to plan for the future. A GP, Child Health Nurse, Midwife or Obstetrician are able to assess for perinatal mood disorders and provide referrals to other specialists for further support.

So, how can the use of a baby carrier be of benefit to a family experiencing post natal depression and anxiety? As a parent we utilize many tools in our day to day lives. We buy capsules, bassinets, rockers, bouncers and swaying hammock-like swings for our precious bundles, hoping they will help us to carry, hold, calm, or settle our bubs.  We might buy an item because it is on a list mothers are given at a hospital, or because it is on a kidspot list of top 10 things you MUST buy when you are expecting. Strangely enough, a baby carrier is often a much under-rated and lesser known piece of baby survival gear.  It often isn’t something that is seen by the majority as a priority purchase pre-birth, yet babywearing is timeless and universal.  In most cultures the use of devices to carry babies on the caregiver’s body is passed on as a practice through generations.  In Mexico people use a Rebozo, a square of woven cloth tied over the parent’s shoulder; in Alaska people use an Amauti, a very thick arctic jacket with a baby pocket; in Wales people used to wear their babies in shawls, called Siol Fagu; Native Americans used cradle boards and in Asia a variety of carriers (the traditional ancestors of Meh Dais) have been in use for centuries. Here in Australia, there is a strong community of parents and caregivers who are passionately promoting babywearing as a useful parenting practice or tool – focusing on the many benefits it gives to the child, primary caregivers and extended support persons. Babywearing is just one of many useful methods for carrying a baby but it also has additional benefits that it can offer a family going through a rough postnatal period due to PNDA.

Giving a mum options for how they care for their child is paramount.  A very young baby can be difficult to provide care for around the clock.  With the average newborn spending 2-3hrs crying per day at 6 weeks of age – that is a lot of time spent through the day holding, carrying, lying with, settling and providing reassurance to your infant.  Parents experiencing anxiety often list the baby crying as a significant stressor and trigger for them, so it only makes sense to maximize the tools at their disposal.  Research has supported this and found that there is a 51% reduction in overall crying when a baby carrier is used.  If a baby is crying less, then the mum is positively empowered to feel like she is meeting her child’s needs. Being able to be ‘hands free’ whilst utilising a safe and appropriate baby carrier means a mum can gain increased confidence in their ability to meet their baby’s needs. It allows them the freedom to attend to the needs of the household and older siblings, and to manage tasks outdoors in rural environments or in areas where stroller accessibility is limited.

Research has also shown that babywearing can promote bonding and attachment between caregivers and infants. For those experiencing significant PNDA, bonding and attachment can be interrupted and utilising babywearing during the day when baby could otherwise be placed on a floor rug, or in a swing increases the touch and skin to skin that the mother has with the child. Numerous scientific studies show the significance of touch and skin to skin to promoting bonding and healthy development for the baby as well as serving as an oxytocin release for the mum. A mother suffering PNDA may also not want to give the child to anyone else, due to having unrealistic fears that she will be judged as failing as a mother. Use of a baby carrier is one way a mother can continue providing care by physically being there to carry the child, while giving her space to mentally focus on other things.  An infant of minimal weight isn’t difficult to carry in arms, but it is difficult to accomplish other duties while holding a baby. When there is a perception that the baby ‘never wants to be put down’ a carrier can allow other tasks to be completed with baby held close.

The Australian Association for Infant Mental Health actively encourages the provision of responsive infant care to nurture critical brain development, and babywearing can enhance recognition of the non-verbal and subtle cues that young children are known to use when attempting to communicate their needs. Proximity to your babe through babywearing enhances recognition.  Babies crave interaction at periods through the day and as they grow they become vocally demanding of attention from their caregivers.  Babywearing allows them to be closely held and active participants in activities their care giver is involved in. Babywearing enables easily responsive parenting, and the burden of providing care for young babies and children is lightened when you have tools to help keep them close and safe. A toddler in a baby carrier in a crowded environment can be easily reassured by their caregiver if they are overwhelmed or distressed, plus they can’t run off and get lost in the crowd.

Babywearing can also be an important opportunity for the child’s father (or other caregiver) to bond with the baby, providing time for the primary caregiver to put themselves first and meet their own needs.  An infant or child who is familiar with being worn in a carrier is more likely to settle with a non-familiar caregiver as the regular scent is carried on the sling, and providing the extended support network with a transferrable method of comfort increases chances of the child accepting the change in care.

Babywearing enhances social contact and participation in community. It allows for parents to continue to contribute in the ways they may have done prior to the birth of bub, and also exposes them to new communities they weren’t previously aware of.  Attending local events benefit all involved, and parents experiencing social isolation due to anxiety or depression may feel more confident venturing out knowing they have babywearing to help them keep their child close and safe.  A bouncer or swing isn’t as portable for attending medical appointments, or accessing psychological support services and knowing that their baby will settle in a carrier may enable parents to accept offers of support rather than refusing for fear of baby being distressed and upset.  This in itself could make the difference between parents arranging time for themselves to nurture their relationship.

Where to from here…

If you need psychological or health support :

-GP
– MCHN

If you need babywearing support:
– local community group (facebook, mother’s group)
– Babywearing Consultant or Educator