The babies' need to be held

Why can't I put my baby down?

From birth, babies need a close connection with a caregiver for warmth, food, comfort, and reassurance. When they are physically separated from their caregiver, they cry more and show other signs of stress. Severe or continuing stress caused by separation can seriously harm the baby’s long-term health. As babies mature, they start to tolerate more separation. The rate of increasing tolerance depends on the baby. A baby carrier can make holding the baby much easier.

A) How to hold the baby

How babies are held changes with the baby’s head control and age and the family's preference. Immediately after birth, holding starts with kangaroo mother care and skin-to- skin careThey may be cradled in a caregivers arms when younger and carried on the caregiver's hip or back when older. Holding a baby can be easier with a carrier. Frequent use of a carrier that keeps the baby close to the caregiver's body can be called baby-wearing. 

B) The biological need for closeness

The biological need for closeness. Photo by Larry Crayton on Unsplash

Babies do not respond well to being separated from their caregivers but rather have a biological need to be close to them. They need frequent contact with them for warmth, food, comfort, and reassurance. They cry less when held and more when put down (St. James-Roberts 2008). This is normal and reassuring behaviour. It shows that the baby is aware of what is happening and finds separation stressful.

1) Babies are very immature

Consider that babies:

  • Are used to being inside the mother’s body and need time to adapt to their lives outside.
  • Cannot control their body temperature very well.
  • Are born very immature and need time to develop their brain and body.
  • Are unable to eat without their caregivers help.

2) Babies are hard-wired for closeness 

Also consider that babies are born with their fingers tightly curled, a reflex shared with other members of the monkey family (primates). It allows the young to hold onto their mothers. This shows that babies have a primal need to be close to their mothers – they are hard-wired in this way.

3) The nature of human breast milk 

One of the defining characteristics of a mammal is the making of milk for their young. Some mammals such as opossums, kangaroos, and monkeys, carry their young and others such as deer, bears, and cats don’t. The protein and fat content of the milk is lower in carrying mammals than that of the non-carrying ones (Tilden 1997). Human milk has lower protein and fat, as is typical of a carrying mammal.

4) Babies cry when they are not held

Babies will cry when not held.

One example is the down-up sleep cycleMothers may find that their baby falls asleep after breastfeeding but wakes upon being placed down and cries. Mothers respond by picking up the baby and breastfeeding the baby to sleep again. Putting the baby down creates a down-up sleep cycle. This cycle is normal and reflects the baby’s need to be held.

Some mothers misinterpret this behaviour as a sign that the baby is not getting enough milk.

C) The benefits of holding babies

Babies have a physical response when carried; they become calmer and stop crying (Hunziker 1986; Norholt 2020). When closely held by their caregivers, their heart rate drops and levels of the oxytocin hormone are increased both in the caregivers and the baby (Esposito 2013; Uvnäs-Moberg 1998; Yoshida 2020). Oxytocin levels are controlled by a complex array of nerves and mechanisms also known as the calm and connection system (Moberg 2020). 

Numerous studies have shown that the loving touch of a caregiver causes positive changes in a baby’s genes that support brain and neural development and later health (Moore et al. 2017).

Studies show that children who have their needs met are more likely to become independent (Stein 1994).

Holding babies, instead of laying them down, may help the bones of the head (the skull) develop normally and may minimize or prevent flattening of one side (De Bock 2017). 

Holding a baby can help the mother's attachment to her baby (Anisfeld 1990). The smell of a newborn has been shown to activate reward-related parts of the adult brain and may make bonding easier (Lundström al. 2013). Mothers who keep their babies close through baby-wearing and bed sharing are more likely to respond to their babies’ hunger signs, to breastfeed exclusively to six months, and continue breastfeeding beyond, compared with mothers who have less contact (Little 2018).

Severe or continuing stress caused by extended or repeated separation can seriously harm the long-term health of babies.

D) The attitudes in modern societies

The demands and cultural practices of modern society can be at odds with the evolutionary programming of babies. Mothers may even be told that holding a baby is spoiling. In fact, it is meeting their biological needs and helping them to feel secure. As babies mature, they start to tolerate more separation from their caregivers. The timing of this increasing tolerance is very individual.

Humans have always held their babies (Berecz 2020). Indeed, mothers in traditional societies tend to hold babies more and respond earlier to babies in distress. Their babies also tend to cry less (Lehtonen 1996). 


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