Babies who want to be held
By Teresa Pitman
Before I had my own children, I’d seen plenty of babies on TV shows. It looked pretty easy: you fed the baby, tucked her into a crib, closed the door, and had plenty of time to do what you wanted. Eventually the baby would give a few polite cries, you’d feed her again, and plop her back in the crib.
Then along came my real babies and some revelations: they wanted to be with me (or their dad), not left alone in a crib. When I put them down alone for more than a few minutes, they protested. Loudly. When I figured out how to use a baby carrier, it solved multiple problems – my babies were happy, and I could get other things done.
But it added a new challenge: the strangers who criticized me for “spoiling” my baby when they saw me in the grocery store or playground with the baby snuggled against me.
There are still many people who believe babies shouldn’t be held “too much” or carried around and soothed by their parents. Some babies do seem relatively content to be left alone in a seat or crib. But others let everyone know how unhappy they are about not being close to the adults they love, by crying and protesting.
In 1986, Dr. Ronald Barr and Dr. Urs Hunziker hypothesized that differences in babies’ crying might be related to the differences in how often they were held and carried. To test the theory, they conducted a study with mothers and newborns in Montreal, Canada. Half of the mothers were given soft baby carriers and encouraged to carry their babies during the day; the other half were given baby seats and no advice about carrying. Their results: the babies who were carried more cried half as much as the babies in the control group at six weeks, the time of peak crying. The carried babies spent more time in a “quiet alert” state and fed more frequently as well.
Dr. Barr and Dr. Hunziker only followed the people in their study for three months. Four years later, Dr. Elizabeth Anisfield and three colleagues did a similar study. Again, they gave half of the mothers soft baby carriers and the other half infant seats. They found that mothers who carried their babies were more responsive to their babies’ vocalizations at 3 ½ months. Then, at 13 months, they conducted a test with each mother-baby pair to assess the attachment. They found that significantly more of the carried babies were securely attached to their mothers than those who were not carried.
I was able to interview Dr. Barr, a Canadian physician, for a couple of magazine articles I wrote at a later date. He pointed out how much easier it is to care for a baby who is not crying for long periods of time, and how that can help foster a positive relationship between the parents and the baby.
Dr. Barr continued to study crying babies around the world. One thing he learned was that carrying babies when they are happy and content – even sleeping – is important. Once babies are crying, especially if they are crying hard, it can be difficult to calm and settle them. This is especially true in the evening.
He also found that, all over the world, in all societies with very different parenting approaches, babies varied in how much they cried. All babies did better if they got more holding and carrying, but in every community he studied, there were some babies who cried less and some who cried more. Some babies were more sensitive and became more distressed.
He felt it was valuable for parents to know that, so that they would understand their “hold me all the time” baby wasn’t spoiled or being difficult or upset because they were doing something wrong. Some babies are just born with a more sensitive temperament. You can help those babies the most by keeping them close.
Easy to say. But what if you have other children and work to do?
- Try a sling, baby carrier, wrap – anything that will keep the baby close to you but leave your hands free to do other things.
- If your baby seems unhappy in the baby carrier, try moving. Walk with big steps, dance a little, go outside if the weather is good. You may also be able to nurse the baby in the carrier.
- Remember that carrying the baby during the day when he or she is (relatively) happy and content helps to prevent hard-to-console crying.
- If you are working away from your baby, talk to your daycare provider about how they can give your baby the needed carrying and contact. You might want to drop off the wrap you are using (after showing how to use it). If that’s not an option, try to plan extra carrying time before and after work.
- Often the parent who is breastfeeding or chestfeeding the baby becomes the one doing most of the carrying. But it doesn’t have to be that way – partners, grandparents and older siblings of the baby can all help out.
- If you are doing lots of carrying and snuggling, but your baby still cries quite often, especially when set down in a crib or car seat, don’t be discouraged. You have one of those sensitive babies. I had one too. And I have to agree with what Dr. Barr told me – they grow up to be lovely human beings.
I can also promise you that the day will come when that baby you couldn’t put down becomes an independent little toddler who says “NO!” when you try to pick him up. While it can seem endless when you are walking around and around your living room with the baby in your arms, it is really only a small part of your baby’s life – but an important foundation to your relationship.
Teresa Pitman has been a La Leche League Leader for 40 years. She is one of the co-authors of the LLLI books The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding and Sweet Sleep and is the author of 17 other books. Her most recent book, Baby-Led Weaning: The (Not-So) Revolutionary Way to Start Solids and Make a Happy Eater, was published in December 2018, She is the mother of four grown children and the grandmother of ten.
Anisfeld, Elizabeth & Casper, Virginia & Nozyce, Molly & Cunningham, Nicholas. (1990). Does infant carrying promote attachment? An experimental study of the effects of increased physical contact on the development of attachment. Child development. 61. 1617-27. 10.2307/1130769.
Hunziker Urs , Barr Ronald G. Increased carrying reduces infant crying: a randomized controlled trial. Pediatrics. 1986 May;77(5):641-8. PMID: 3517799.
Parents, especially first-time mothers, may find it very challenging to meet the needs of babies who want to be held all of the time. It is important for you to know you are not alone. LLL is here to help with phone, internet and group meeting support when possible.
Online Support Resources.
Sleep-training… or not
Responding to Criticism
Handling Criticism. Becoming Your Own Advocate
The Unhappy Breastfed Baby
Looking Back: When Baby Cries
Crying for Comfort: Distressed Babies Need to be Held
Attachment Parenting International