Carrying babies facing away from the parents body – is this truly positive for a baby?

Article Published in “mothering magazine” July/August 2006 No 136

Dr. Evelin Kirkilionis, Forschungsgruppe Verhaltensbiologie des Menschen (FVM), Freiburg/Germany,
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When parents carry their baby in a sling or carrying bag, they give it nearness and security, thanks to the body contact to the care-giving person.

It can realize/be aware them with practically all its senses. It can hear their heartbeat, feel their warmth, observe their facial expressions, take in their smell – just the sensation of being moved pacifies especially well.

And if the child is carried sitting upright with its legs spread and strongly drown up, the parents are also “practicing” – quite coincidentally – prevention of so-called innate hip dysplasia. This requires, however, that the baby’s thighs are drawn up at least to a right angle – better even more.

Then if it is sitting on the parent’s hip or is carried orientated face-to-face, the baby has a leg position which is ideal for the healthy maturation of the hip joint. If the legs are bent more than 90° (about 100 – 110°) and spread approximately 90° (in the medical literature one gives the half angle between the femurs i.e. 45°), the femur head fits ideally in the hip socket. Thus favors its healthy development.

Moreover, the body posture of the baby is not stationary. Though the movements of the parent as well as those of the baby a constant motion stimulus is transferred to the child’s hip joint, which promotes the blood supply to the still cartilaginous structures and supports their maturation.

All in all, this way of carrying is an appropriate way for a baby of preventing hip dysplasia.

The anatomically positive aspects of carrying are lost

When carrying the baby facing away from the mother’s body, these advantages of carrying are lost. The child has an unfavorable leg posture, since its legs dangle down.

Often through the construction of the carrying bag, a stretching in the hip joint is even forced, which – especially in the first 4 months – must be regarded extremely critically for the development of the hip joint.

Such a stretched position is unphysiological at this age and means that the femur head is not centrally guided into the hip socket, and that a malformation is promoted.

Moreover, with this mode of carrying, the overall posture of the torso of the child is not appropriate for this age. In babies age a slight humpback is physiological (the S-form of the spine seen in adults develop much lager on).

If the baby sits facing away in the carrier, the straps pull from the front over the child’s shoulders and thus often causes a very upright posture since the shoulders are pressed back. In the worst case, in combination with a stretched position in the hip joint a hollow back is forced – very unphysiological for this age.

In addition, a child will not sit on its nappy-padded bottom, the weight will be rather distributed onto the cartilage structures of the symphisis of the pelvis. This means that it is sitting on the crotch, and for boys, on the testicles.

When the information flood becomes too much

A baby carried facing away is confronted with all stimuli from the environment without being able to turn away when they become excessive. And the child also cannot read from the facial expression of its parents how this information is to be interpreted. For disturbing stimuli it cannot be reassured by a look into their faces that everything is still OK.

Admittedly, babies carried in this way are very excited, exceptionally awake and active. They seem to like having so much to see. But our little ones still have to learn to distinguish between important and unimportant information, also how to “blind out” unneeded ones.

The exposure to this flood of information is often not ended at the right time, as the babies cannot withdraw from it by themselves. For one thing an independent turning away, even if the baby wanted this, would not be possible. For another, strong stimuli can hold the baby’s attention even if it is too much for it.

With face-to-face carrying it is possible for the baby to turn away from strong stimulations when it gets tired. The flood of visual stimuli that holds the baby captive is already interrupted just by the change body posture as the body-tension lessens. All this is not possible with the carrying method where the baby faces away from its mother’s body, because it is frontally exposed to the stimuli.

At some point the information flood has to be “digested” by the baby, mostly during the late evening hours. This is most often a critical time anyway because the transition from resting state to sleep has to be mastered – not an easy task for a baby.

There are several possibilities for carrying your baby

What to do when the little one wants to see more of the world than is possible with the usual frontal carrying mode?

One possibility is to carry the baby in the sideways cross-carry, sitting on the parent’s hip. However, this may be too strenuous for the carrying person’s back.

Alternatively, one should shift to the back-carrying mode. Here the child should be carried in such a way that it can observe its surroundings over the shoulders of the carrying person. This is rarely possible with conventional carriers – it is easier to achieve with a sling or a similar carrying device.

In both cases a healthy development of the hip joint is supported because the leg position is equivalent to the frontal carrying mode. Moreover, the orientation of the baby to the parent’s body more strongly favors the attachment with the parents.