The benefits of carrying

Carrying brings many benefits for both child and wearer whether parenting through birth or adoption. The benefits of carrying discussed in this section are created largely through the promotion of nurturing touch, proximity to a caregiver and movement; these are often the very things that adopted children have missed out on. A sling or carrier is one tool that could support adoptive parents to fill in the developmental gaps created by a child's early adverse experiences. Carrying is also a fun and practical way of getting around!


Therapeutic parenting - the role of carrying

Therapeutic parenting allows children who have experienced trauma and loss to experience what they missed out on in their early childhood most importantly, developing trust and healthy dependence on caregivers.

It is often necessary for parents to engage with their child at their developmental age, which is often significantly lower than their chronological age. This involves relating to children in play, discipline and caregiving tasks as if they were a younger child. 

Children placed for adoption often regress to early babyhood, seeking to be carried, rocked and nurtured as if a small baby. This can be exhausting for new parents. 'It is important for parents to allow the older child the clinging and the closeness usually provided to a younger infant to foster attachment and facilitate the new relationship' (Brabender and Fallon, 2013). 

In terms of the type of nurturing activities that may be helpful, Adoptive mother and researcher Karleen Gribble (2007) suggests 'close physical contact via use of a sling and cosleeping; breastfeeding or nurturing through food; and responsive caregiving'. 

Adoptive mother and Adoption UK author Caroline Archer comments that 'it can be enormously helpful to get hold of a good, comfortable front-to-front contact sling. A small baby cannot push you away in a sling the way he may in your arms; you are also left with both hands free to caress, stroke and tickle your baby or hold your older child's hand, turn pages of a book, hold a cup of tea or the phone, stir the gravy or even (!) manage a few light, essential chore.

They are also another very good way to accustom your baby to gentle movement. You can use the closeness they provide to help your child tune into your internal body rhythms and movements, thus encouraging self-regulation through your own example'

A sling or carrier is a practical tool which could greatly enhance a parents ability to provide the physical holding and contact that should be encouraged and is often craved by children placed for adoption.

This is one of the main benefits of carrying for adopted children and isn't just restricted to use with smaller children. There are many options for toddlers and pre-schoolers who require this type of therapeutic approach. 
The 'love' hormone - oxytocin

Nurturing touch is incredibly important in bonding and attachment and the biological basis of this is now more understood, with research focusing on the role of the hormone oxytocin. Oxytocin is produced during pleasant touch and creates feelings of contentment and calmness, lower blood pressure, a higher tolerance for pain, lower levels of stress hormones and increased nutritional uptake.

Unvas Moberg (2003) describes these effects as the 'calm and connection system' which is associated with trust, sociability and curiosity during social interactions. Unvas Moberg (2003) describes how 'touch and physical contact initiate a reinforcing cycle'. When we engage in social contact, particularly involving touch we produce oxytocin. When oxytocin is released we then seek out further social connection. A cycle is created that leads to the establishment of an emotional bond between individuals. 

Maternal behaviour in caregivers facilitates the development of the oxytocin system in their offspring (Strathearn, 2011). It's thought that due to their poor experience of care, traumatised children may have decreased levels of oxytocin receptors. Babywearing is a really practical way of providing the nurturing touch that adopted children may have missed out on and could be one way to kick start the release of oxytocin and the cycle described above!
Sensory stimulation

Children who have been neglected and touch deprived often self-sooth through body rocking, head banging and squirming. Unfortunately it is not uncommon for children to have spent much of their time strapped into buggies and sitting in cots. These children lack important sensory stimulation crucial for healthy development. As well as touch being important, two lesser known types of sensory input are also crucial for child development, vestibular and proprioceptive stimulation.
 
Activation of the vestibular system occurs during movement, particularly multi-directional movement. The vestibular apparatus allows our brains to detect where we are in the space around us and keep our balance. Vestibular stimulation is also deeply soothing, hence the reason babies love to be rocked and swayed. Vestibular stimulation not only soothes but is associated with improved neurological development and increased gross and fine motor skills development. For children with autism, vestibular movement is also associated with improvements in relationships, language, parallel play, motor skills and a decrease in self-stimulatory behaviour (Reynolds-Miller, 2016). When carried, a child experiences the natural 6 way movement of their carer.
 
Proprioception is the sense that allows us to detect our body in the space around us and enables us to zip up our jacket or do our shoe laces without looking (Heller, 1997). The unborn infant experiences constant proprioceptive input whilst contained by the wall of the uterus. When born, swaddling and being held and cuddled continues this sensory experience. Again this form or sensory input is deeply reassuring and calming but is also crucial for sensory integration. Without proprioceptive input children will struggle to coordinate their movements and control their bodies, a problem commonly reported by adoptive parents.

Being worn in a sling provides gentle sensory input for the child; 'almost all of the senses are stimulated during carrying' (Kirkilionis, 2014). Not only could being carried in a sling be a calming experience for adopted children due to bodily contact, movement and gentle pressure but it could also provide important sensory stimulation that they may have missed out on.
Language development

Carrying has been shown to facilitate interaction and communication between child and caregiver. Suzanne Zeedyk's (2008) study predominantly looked at the impact of parent facing vs world facing buggies on the amount of interactions and verbalisation between parent and child but also highlighted some interesting observations about interaction during carrying.

They found that parents spoke least to their children when they were using away-facing buggies with only 11% of parents using this type of buggy interacting with their children. Parents using parent facing buggies spoke to their children more than twice as much at 25%.  

Interestingly buggies yielded less interaction from parents than did the other two forms of transport of walking or carrying. When walking (children were mostly 2 years plus) parents were talking 46% of the time. Zeedyk comments that 'this is likely to be because children are using representational language by this age, and are able to engage their parents in linguistic conversation.'

The figures in relation to interactions whilst children were carried are striking, nearly matching the figures for when children were walking at 45%. The children being carried however were mostly under 1 and therefore this high figure is not easily explained by language capacity.

There must be something about holding a child close which facilitates and encourages communication and interaction between a parent and child. This warrants further interest and research.

The impact of carrying on parent/child communication and interaction indicates a further potential benefit of carrying for adopted children many of whom experience delays in their speech and language, often due to lack of stimulation.

The increased interaction could also be significant in terms of supporting attunement in the early stages of attachment formation. Non-verbal cues and communication could be more easily picked up than when a child is in a buggy. When carrying the wearer is also able to physically feel if the child is tense, relaxed or getting sleepy.

Zeedyk blogs on the matter, 'giving slings away to families living in 'vulnerable circumstances' would probably make a great health intervention'.
Benefits of carrying for adoptive parents

The sections above highlight the potential benefits of carrying for adopted children including supporting attachment development, sensory integration and language development. There are however also potential benefits for adopters. Carrying is a really practical way of ensuring that the household tasks and daily chores still get done, something which is difficult with a new child to care for.

Carrying also enables parents to get out in the fresh air and get some exercise in places where buggies can't go, down to the beach and in the forest, releasing those feel good endorphines! Travelling on public transport and in busy places is much easier without a buggy. These are also situations which may be overhwleming for a child with sensory or regulation difficulties, and being close to their parent in a carrier may feel safer.  

Children with disrupted attachments are often indiscriminate in who they seek to have their needs met by. Children should always be guided back to their parents by family and friends if they are approached by the child particularly for food and nurture. This process is called funnelling and is extremely important in giving a clear message to the child about who their primary caregivers are. A sling or carrier could be helpful in this process, reducing indiscriminate attachment seeking behaviour and discouraging over-enthusiastic family and friends from picking up and nurturing the child. 
 
Adopters can also experience post adoption depression,  with one study reporting that there is no significant difference in the incidence of depression between adoptive and birth mothers (Seneky et al, 2009). Although there are some specific and complex factors contributing to the onset of post adoption depression, many of the symptoms reflect those experienced by mothers who have given birth. Post adoption depression creates 'feelings of anxiety, panic, inadequacy, being overwhelmed by responsibility, being slowed down, inability to get any enjoyment out of life, worthlessness, guilt, low self-esteem, loss of identity, loneliness', as well as physical symptoms similar to post natal depression (Adoption UK, 2013).
 
Carrying has been shown to help support those suffering from post natal depression. 'One of the most positive outcomes for a parent and the society we live in, is the effect it can have on mental health' (Knowles, 2016). The Anisfield (1990) study reported that mothers who carried their children close were less likely to suffer from PND.

A further study has evidenced the positive effect of prolonged skin-to-skin on reducing cortisol levels in new mothers and reducing depressive symptoms (Bigelow, 2012). Knowles (2016) comments that 'there is now a growing body of anecdotal evidence that carrying can be a useful tool for helping parents who are dealing with depression' with the positive effects of oxytocin thought to be a major factor. It may be that with the impact on bonding and reduction in stress hormones that carrying creates, similar benefits could be felt by adopters struggling with mental health following placement of a child. 

Carrying has many benefits for children and parents whether parenting by adoption or birth. Being carried is also not just for little babies and bigger children continue to benefit from the close physical contact that carrying facilitates as you'll see in the photo gallery here . I hope that some of the benefits outlined here will encourage adopters to have a go with a sling so that they can experience the joy that comes from carrying, both for children and parents. On the following pages you'll hear some adopter's experiences with carrying and find where to get advice and support in starting your carrying journey!