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How to Hold Your Baby

I was recently asked how to hold a baby. This is an interesting question, because it's a reminder of how far we've come from intuitive parenting. If we could travel back in time to the Stone Age, and were to ask mothers and fathers this question, I'm sure they would be quite perplexed. Judging from historical trends and from modern-day observation of newly-discovered Stone Age tribes, these parents would be spending so much skin-to-skin time with their babies, they would have a first-hand knowledge of their baby's needs moment-to-moment. They would have even known (as many parents in so-called primitive societies still know) when their baby needed to pee! When asked how they know this, they are baffled, and ask in return, how do we know when we have to pee? Some modern-day parents are rediscovering this kind of beautiful awareness of their baby's needs, through elimination communication training.1

Parents who have this kind of connection will also know instinctively how to hold their baby, by staying alert to their baby's movements, breathing, and facial expressions, and by listening closely and respectfully, with a focus on determining their baby's unmet needs. Such parents would never waste time and energy wondering if they should respond to their baby's protests and tears; they would naturally and consistently give them the same loving respect they would want themselves when they had an urgent need.

Sadly, many parents have lost this kind of awareness and connection. They are too overwhelmed by their busy life to stop and hear what their babies are telling them. Many parents even ignore loud crying because they've been told that crying is an attempt to manipulate the parents, not an attempt to communicate an important need. This has been an unfortunate and harmful development in parenting; it has created mistrust and fear where there should only be a joyful and loving connection.

So how should we hold our babies? Like many other questions new parents face, we should watch and listen to what our baby is trying so desperately to tell us. If she isn't comfortable, she will let us know, even in the earliest weeks and months. Ignoring this communication is as unhelpful as ignoring our partner's or friend's communication. It creates problems that shouldn't exist, and which can be avoided so easily by connecting and hearing what our baby is trying to tell us. Yes, it's easier to know what our baby needs once they learn our language, but their gestures, facial expressions, body language and verbalizations can give us a wealth of information if we only pay attention. Teaching a baby sign language (which can start as early as the third month, with the baby signing back by about the sixth month)2 can also make it easier to know their needs more specifically, but long before that, parents can connect so closely on an emotional and physical level that words are not needed.

Communication comes in many forms. While it's not possible to predict what kind of holding a baby will need at a specific time beforehand, in general, they like to be held with their head on our left side so they can hear our heart beat, as they did in the womb. Research suggests this facilitates the baby's emotional development.3 It also reassures them of our continued presence, and is emotionally and physically calming.

Babies like to be picked up in a gentle, natural, intuitive way, and to be held lovingly, calmly and gently, with no sudden changes or movements. They like skin-to-skin contact, which provides many physiological benefits.4 Whether using a baby carrier or your arms, have the baby facing in, which helps the parent attend to the baby's cues and avoid overstimulation. It also helps the baby's spine to develop normally.5 Be sure her head is held gently but securely at all times.

After picking her up, give her your full attention. If she squirms, stiffens, or looks uncomfortable, try a different position. Keep making adjustments until she looks and feels comfortable. She will let you know in many ways that babies want to be held as much as possible throughout the day. A baby who insists on being held all day is simply a baby who knows that holding meets her needs in the most beautiful and effective way. She is not "spoiled" - she is smart! And research suggests that babies who are held the most cry the least and have the most secure emotional attachment.6,7

Hold her at night as well as during the day, so she has reassurance of your continued presence, and so you can monitor her breathing (which will be more regular than if she were sleeping away from you). All other mammals sleep with their parents, and for very good reasons. Babies who cosleep have improved heart rates, breathing rates, blood pressure, blood sugar levels and body temperature. And they are learning what love should look like.

Of course, these are just general guidelines. Only your baby knows what she needs at any given moment, just as she will know at every age. Trust what your heart tells you. Connect, watch, and listen. Your child is the best parenting counselor you can have!

1 "Diaper Free! The Gentle Wisdom of Natural Infant Hygiene"

2 "Teaching Your Baby American Sign Language"

3 "Infant holding biases and their relations to hemispheric specializations for perceiving facial emotions"

4 "The Importance of Skin to Skin Contact" by Jack Newman

5 "Nine Reasons Not to Carry Your Baby Facing Out"

6 "Early skin-to-skin contact for mothers and their healthy newborn infants" ER Moore, G Anderson, N Bergman, T Dowswell. Cochrane Pregnancy and Childbirth Group, 2012.

7 "Does infant carrying promote attachment? An experimental study of the effects of increased physical contact on the development of attachment."

See also: "Ten Reasons to Wear your Baby" by Laura Simeon, MA, MLIS