According to the Joint Commissioning Panel for Mental Health (2012), childbirth is a significant risk factor to women’s mental health.
There is a marked elevation of risk in the early weeks following delivery of:
- developing a mental illness.
- recurrence of a pre-existing mental illness.
- deterioration of a current mental illness.
Many sources quote that one in ten women suffer from postnatal depression but last year (2014) it was reported by the Royal College of Midwives (RCM) that nearly 60% of mothers felt down or depressed after giving birth.
According to the NSPCC (2013):
“Relapse or recurrence of previous post-partum mental illness is well established and believed to be a risk of between 33% and 55%.”
And the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (2013) observes that:
“Young, single mothers are thought to have a three times increased risk of post-natal depression compared to older women.”
This demonstrates that postnatal mental illness is much more prevalent than we are led to believe and that it is not limited to a diagnosis of postnatal depression.
In their same report, the RCM states that “encouraging mothers to use soft baby carriers” is recommended.
What do mothers say?
At the beginning of 2015, I conducted a survey which received almost 100 responses, mainly from the North (83%) and South (16%) of Ireland. The purpose of the survey was to capture the personal thoughts, views, feelings and emotions surrounding the ‘impact’ of the practise of carrying baby in a sling or other carrier on mother’s postnatal mental health. A significant majority (91%) of respondent mothers are ‘babywearers’ either currently or in the past.
Almost all (93%) were aware of specific benefits of babywearing on postnatal mental health, or were not surprised that there are benefits of babywearing on postnatal mental health.
Benefits cited by mothers include:
- Bonding: aids mother/baby relationship, attachment, closeness.
- Breastfeeding: supports breastfeeding relationship, helps in coming to terms with the end of the breastfeeding relationship before mother and baby are ready.
- Stress reduction in mother: feeling positive, calmness, reduces anxiety
- Responsiveness: recognising and responding to baby’s cues, baby cries less, baby is calmer, easier to settle, baby’s mental health is improved.
- Coming to terms with a difficult birth.
- Enabling mother to undertake other activities: tend to own needs and those of other children.
- Postnatal depression: helps through a period of postnatal depression, helps avoid a recurrence, helps maintain positive postnatal mental health when at risk of developing postnatal depression.
- Exercising: moderate weight bearing, ability to engage in exercise with baby.
- Socialisation: meeting other mothers, building a support network.
- Shared care with partner.
Interestingly, despite recommendations to encourage the practice, only 3% of mothers surveyed reported receiving information about babywearing from their health care providers.
Given the nature of the content shared, the option of anonymity was of great importance. The following quotations are those that were given specifically for the public audience. As you can imagine, this is just the tip of the iceberg. Other raw and heart wrenching contributions were given, many gave permission to disclose them for ‘training and research purposes’ which I can share in person during CPD courses if requested. Themes are listed alphabetically rather than in order of any measure of importance – each is equally important as the other to the individual mother.
“The first two weeks after birth were very difficult. I was exhausted and emotional. I cried a lot and couldn’t bond with a baby. After two weeks I started using sling and was ecstatic that I finally had a settled baby and two free hands. I believe babywearing has made the breakthrough for me.”
“Babywearing has helped me and my baby bond which has been great for my mental health. Babywearing helps us (me and my baby) remain as a unit which is the way nature intended us to be.”
“I am convinced wearing him in a wrap helped us establish a breastfeeding relationship after 6 weeks of him [in NICU] having my expressed breastmilk via tube and bottle.”
Many mothers felt that babywearing helped them overcome the grief felt when breastfeeding came to a premature end. Babywearing gave mothers a similar continued closeness that they experienced through breastfeeding.
“I have felt able to cope on my own with looking after a young toddler and newborn due to babywearing. It has enable my independence both in and out of the house, which has allowed me to return to my ‘normal’ activities and therefore my coping mechanisms.”
“I feel that babywearing really helped me get out and about more with the freedom of hands free, no pram to lug around everywhere, just me and my son and I’ll definitely be practising it in future children too.”
“Babywearing has allowed me to do so many things more easily even popping to the shops. I’ve also been able to share with my son things that I liked to do before I had him – all made possible by babywearing.”
Impact: Managing Family Life
“For me, babywearing eased the adjustment from having bump to baby – it kept him as close to home as he could be which benefitted us both. With another child to look after, babywearing ensured all our needs were met. And I got lovely oxytocin.”
“Managing my life helps me manage my mental health. As a parent of more than one child it helps me in a very practical sense. It helps me to comfort my child as well as get on with home life, responding to the needs of all my children more effectively.”
Impact: Postnatal depression
“I was at high risk for PND given my baby’s traumatic newborn period and continuing medical needs and I firmly believe that babywearing helped me avoid illness and contributed to a stable mood. What I did struggle with was anxiety over other people’s reactions to my baby’s unusual appearance. Eventually my anxiety eased and I thank my slings for being the crutch I needed to take those first steps.”
“I honestly believe babywearing has massively contributed to me avoiding PND with my second baby. It has helped me recover from a traumatic delivery by being able to keep my baby close and know that he is safe with me. My baby is so content in his sling. I adore having him so close.”
S Nix, NI
“Whilst I am lucky enough not to have suffered PND, I know that baby wearing has contributed positively to my mental health and well-being.”
“Babywearing has helped me bond with my son in the midst of severe PND, and helps ease the guilt I feel for crying around him and for wanting periods of alone time.”
“Providing my baby is not hungry, being ‘worn’ makes him sleep and / or calm. This causes me and him less distress and it also allows me to get things done around the house, for work, for leisure and / or for my physical health, in particular the ability to eat.”
“If I didn’t babywear, I would feel I was constantly in battle with a baby who fights sleep. But instead, I put her in the carrier, we dance around the house and she will magically fall asleep…and I have both hands free to make a cup of tea. Babywearing gives me a break while meeting my baby’s needs.”
“Babywearing eliminated the typical stresses of a newborn baby and as a result I could enjoy those early weeks and months with my new baby. Babywearing was always a definite way to soothe him within seconds.”
“When my little one was just born I was very stressed and she was quite unsettled. I feel babywearing would have been beneficial for both of us had I been aware of it and confident. I will definitely be using a sling quicker if I have another baby.”
The risk of suffering a postnatal mental illness is greater than commonly thought. Mothers’ voices are clear: babywearing has a positive impact on their postnatal mental health. For some it is simply the ability to manage day-to-day life and for others it is profound. The benefits of babywearing should not be overlooked.
As primates, humans are carry mammals.
“carry mammals are the most immature at birth, need the warmth of the mother’s body, and are carried constantly… human infants are meant to be carried and held… a sling should be on everyone’s Essential Newborn Accessories list, rather than being considered just as a nice optional extra.
La Leche League (2010)
By engaging in babywearing, mothers are using one of the most powerful parenting tools that has served women well since the beginning of time (and clothing!).
“Babywearing was a positive experience that I and my husband both enjoyed. I felt close to my son and I loved every minute of it. I would highly recommend it for practical reasons as well as supporting positive mental health.”
Modern ignorance of, aversion to or alternatives for the practise of babywearing are robbing mothers of so many advantages practically, physically and emotionally: not least their mental health.
One Mother’s Voice: Gráinne Evans
I had the very great pleasure of interviewing Gráinne Evans who responded to my survey. She felt that the impact on her postnatal mental health and her ability to mother was so powerful that others need to know about its benefits. My interview with her is here:
Joint Commissioning Panel for Mental Health (2012) Guidance for Commissioners of Perinatal and Mental Health Services http://www.jcpmh.info/resource/guidance-perinatal-mental-health-services/
Royal College of Midwives (2014) Maternal Emotional Wellbeing and Infant Development: A Good Practice Guide for Midwives https://www.rcm.org.uk/sites/default/files/Emotional%20Wellbeing_Guide_WEB.pdf
Hogg, S. (2013) Prevention in Mind All Babies Count: Spotlight on Perinatal Mental Health. NSPCC http://www.nspcc.org.uk/globalassets/documents/research-reports/all-babies-count-spotlight-perinatal-mental-health.pdf
RCOG (2013) Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists. TOG release: Managing teenage pregnancy. http://www.rcog.org.uk/news/tog-release-managing-teenage-pregnancy.
La Leche League (2010) Babywearing, Sarah Barnard, From New Beginnings, Vol. 31 No. 2, 2010, pp. 18-21 http://www.llli.org/nb/nbiss2-10p18.html