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Clinging is a developmental process. Although it isn’t currently recognised as such, the anecdotal evidence strongly backs this theory up.

Newborn babies are born with primitive neonatal reflexes, some of which previously enabled them to explore the place they grew up in before birth – the womb. For example, grasping was practiced in one way by grasping the umbilical cord, and swallowing triggered by ingesting amniotic fluid. Others were activated during the birthing process (including the spinal galant reflex, responsible for enabling them to navigate the birth canal) and yet more after entering the big wide world, for example breathing and rooting. Some of these reflexes (e.g. breathing and blinking) will last their entire life as long as certain neurological damage is not sustained. Others, such as the Moro and Tonic Labyrinthine Reflex, are designed to be integrated (used enough so they gradually disappear when certain physical milestones are achieved) and replaced by voluntary actions.

Babies are born with many reflexes which assist the carrying process long before they are in full control of their physical bodies. These reflexes also assist in other physical developmental processes so – even though it comes as a bit of a shock that we are still able to cling to our caregivers, long after active carrying was regularly practiced – they are still about and can be utilised when we practice in-arms carrying.

Some of the carrying reflexes are:

 

  • Grasping (palmar reflex)

    This is one of a few overlooked reflexes. Thought to be vestigial, from when we clung to fur, this reflex is still very much integral to our development. We now grab to clothing and skin instead of hair, and still utilise this reflex so much in this “furless” day and age. It also helps the arm position itself in time and space. It’s responsible for the sometimes-annoying reflexive grabbing onto our hair. That vice-like grip can be hard to get out of, but there’s a counter-action you can try to trigger their release. Seen in the following video, it requires you to stroke the outer side of their hand, up to their little finger, which should produce a fanning of the fingers and enable them to let go of their grip.Off-body, it enables them to grasp objects, such as toys or small items we give them to explore, and as it integrates we start seeing more considered, fluid and purposeful actions with the hands as they start learning the voluntary action.

  • Moro reflex

    This one is usually tested off-body and in the extreme. This method of testing produces the exaggerated response of extension of body and limbs, frozen body, fear, crying/screaming and increased cortisol and heartrate, followed by a flexion of the body and limbs. It’s no wonder this reflex gets a bad name and is widely referred to as one to avoid triggering! In fact, it can be seen working in its (presumably) normal range when observed in-arms. In-arms we tend to see a much milder response. This reflex is a vestibular one, meaning it’s linked to the baby’s sense of balance and when the equilibrium is disturbed, vestibular reflexes are activated. In the normal sense, the reflex is gently stimulated, triggering the flexion part rather than the extension and following stressor responses. Sometimes it may be stimulated more strongly and trigger an extensor response, but not as extreme as to also coax a stressor reaction. Flexor occurs alone. Extensor and flexor occurs in another situation. Flexor, stressor and flexion occur in another instance.When enough disturbance happens to trigger the extensor reaction first, it actually protects the body in a way we may not realise when we think of this as a survival reflex. In our minds we may think that a clinging reflex would be what we need for them to keep themselves safe. However, this reflex doesn’t make them a straight, hard to hold infant. No, the extensor response enables a reflexive tightening and stabilising of muscles, potentially protecting them from sudden movements (either backwards or suddenly correcting to flexion in the speed of the moment) to keep their head from flopping/whiplashing in non-extreme movement. When on-body they also benefit from the plantar (foot) responses which can counteract the limb extension by triggering squatting and clinging responses.
  • Tonic Labyrinthine Reflex (TLR)

    This is another incredible reflex, which is split into two – TLR(flexion) and TLR(extension). TLR(f) occurs when the head goes forward of the midline of the body. TLR(e) occurs when the head tips behind the midline. On the midline, a fairly straight spine is exhibited with possible differences in situations such as when a baby is on their back but they adopt the squat reflex. This ties into other reflexes inhibiting the full response of others. On-body, TLR(e) tends t be inhibited to a lesser or greater extent. When loose foot contact is established a lesser or slower response tends to be observed. When more firm contact is achieved, quicker and/or stronger responses are observed.

  • Plantar reflexes

    When we talk about the plantar reflexes we’re referring to the plantar grasp and Babinski’s sign. Both are frequently reported to be present to around 12 months of age, sometimes to 2 years and even more rarely, 3. A big function of these 2 responses is the stabilising action they produce, on- and off-body. Instead of looking at numbers, look to your child. Plantar reflexes play a huge part in keeping them stable when they begin walking independently. In the following video you will see the ways in which the feet and toes respond to stimulation off-body (to show you the explicit responses clearly).They also trigger a “chain reaction” of subsequent reflexive responses further up the body. For example, the plantar reflexes often trigger the “stepping reflex” and clinging reflexes of the legs.

  • “Stepping” reflexThis reflex is perhaps the least understood in the scientific world. It supposedly simulates walking, but defies one of the “rules” of primitive reflexes. That a reflex is there as an immediate precursor to the learned, voluntary action. When we look at it on-body, though, it makes so much sense!

This is a “carrying adjustment reflex”, enabling them to reflexively correct their position as their foot and/or leg slides down the caregiver’s body.

 

These reflexes, and others, enable the infant to help with the carrying process in the early weeks and months through positional and postural reactions. Working with these reflexes helps you as a caregiver to identify ways to vary how you support them to enable them to engage in carrying in a way which is suitable for their current stage of development.

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When we’re carrying it’s useful to know what makes a carry active or passive. Knowing this means we can support their physical development appropriately, as well as switching to passive holds when they are tired, relieving them of some of the work. Each position has its own rules for active- and passiveness, so let’s take a look to see how some of these differ.

 

Shoulder hug

A shoulder hug is a carry where the baby or child’s legs tend to be always supported. The nature of the carry, being off-centre at the front of the body, with legs up on the chest/ribs means it’s not generally conducive to clinging. Clinging usually relies on the clinger grasping on to the body either at the side or the front/back of the body. The way it varies from passive to active is to do with how their upper body is (or isn’t) being supported, as each position offers a greater or lesser opportunity of active clinging. Clinging can, of course, happen here too, but to speak to a more general audience we are approaching from a more generalised approach.

In an active hold, the baby/child tends to support their upper body either partially or fully (dependent on stage of development) and is lower on the caregiver’s body. In a passive hold they tend to be higher up and partially supported by the caregiver’s shoulder and may also have the additional support of the caregiver’s hand on their back/nape of neck. This isn’t always the case but is usual of “regular” of in-arms carrying here in the UK. The shoulder hug helps newborns develop neck control and upper-torso strength and forms a large part of their active carrying in the early weeks. Here we will look some other different positions on the caregiver’s body to show how an active carry can vary drastically depending on where on the body – and how! – you are supporting them.

 

Hip carry

Hip carrying’s activeness is all about what their legs are doing. To support them in an active position all hands and arms need to be away from the legs and bum. An active hip carry is where the baby/child is clinging with their legs, doing most of the work. When they are clinging, their perceived weight is much less than “normal” in-arms holds and babywearing. Supporting their back lower down reduces the amount of work they need to do with their legs, whilst supporting higher up increases it. This means the caregiver and baby/child have to prioritise more their teamwork in carrying as the little one learns how to take on a more active role. For caregivers with children past the reflexive carrying stage it can sometimes mean taking them back to the reflexive stage and supporting them in ways seemingly more suited to younger ones.

Hip carrying is inherently active. We do also carry passively on the hip but it is a practice which seems to come with questionable poses. Is it that we have learned to hold them on the hip like this so know no better, or have our bodies become so weak that we cannot support them actively? Regardless, the biomechanics of the hip carry suggest it is meant to be an active one, ideally combined with movement.

A passive hip carry is where the caregiver supports the bum, legs, knee-pit/s etc. (one, all, or a combination of these), bearing the majority of their weight. Creating a “seat” for them triggers the baby/child to become passive and relax their legs. They may still be active in their upper body (or may be cuddled into you), but their participation in the carry is much less than when they are clinging with their legs. The physical response to a hand or an arm applied to the knee or leg/bum of the person being carried is phenomenal and I hope that this will be studied in great depth in the years to come.

 

Chest-to-chest

This carry is passive when the legs are supported too. There is a slight difference here to the hip carry though. Newborns can be active in this carry even if their upper body is being supported against the caregiver’s body, as enabling their bum to rest on your hand keeps them reflexively squatting and “clinging” to the caregiver.

An active version of this carry for older babies is similar to the hip carry when babies are older. Their back is supported by the caregiver (what part of the back is in relation to physical development) but the legs are unsupported, so have to cling on. This can be harder for them until their legs are long enough for their feet to hook around the caregiver’s waist. The longer their legs, the more leverage they have. This can make clinging easier for those less physically-inclined towards it, as well as potentially guide us as to suitable positions for different ages.

 

 

So, it can be a bit confusing at first as different positions have different considerations, and so do different stages of development, but I hope this gives you an idea of how to gauge some positions’ activeness or passiveness. Each position offers different benefits to both clinger and caregiver and, as always, we recognise that each carrying dyad is different, that the clinger usually needs to learn how to cling effectively to each caregiver and that the needs’ balance may differ. Please comment with any questions and we’ll get back to you as soon as possible.

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In-arms carrying tends to be viewed by society as holding your baby. While it is of course a form of carrying, there is so much more to it than that. Here are the 3 main categories of carrying:

 

Holding/passive carrying

This is where the caregiver does the majority of the work and bears most of the baby or child’s weight. Passive carrying promotes stillness and rest and is useful when babies are tired or asleep. It can also usually be recognised by full body contact. This sort of carrying is what makes caregivers feel that their baby or child is too heavy to carry.

 

Active carrying/clinging

Active carrying is where the baby does at least 50% of the work, often much more. In most cases it’s defined by the baby clinging with their inner thighs, calves, ankles and feet, or some combination of these. A clinging baby/child is a lighter one – their perceived weight is much less than in passive carrying. Active carrying usually involves some disconnect of their upper body from the caregiver, and is used most when the baby/child is active and alert, wanting to engage in with their environment and caregiver. It is a developmental process, movement and exercise.

 

Independent clinging

Independent clinging is defined by the baby/child holding on to the caregiver’s body with no support from them. They do all of the work to hold on. It differs from the full body contact seen in passive carrying as having no support from the caregiver means they must usually use their whole body to cling, so it’s easier for them when in full contact. The exception is when they cling with only their legs.

 

Carrying is a physical developmental process and usually takes years to fully complete (being able to hold on independently for extended periods of time). It begins as a reflexive process and as babies develop their muscles, spine and motor skills they gradually learn to cling voluntarily. If they are not encouraged to do this, they are likely to lose the skill until it is re-taught.

Every baby is different. Just like with other skills we each have our own potential “clinging capacity” built in. There is a wide spectrum – some will be extremely natural clingers who are able to cling even if they have not participated in active carrying before, and others will find clinging harder even if they have always been carried actively. Working with their in-built abilities increases their chances of developing normal clinging behaviours, but some babies will have developmental issues or specific conditions which may affect carrying.

A normal developmental process would see them building up their upper-body strength from birth onwards in shoulder hugs and front carries, then transitioning to the hip once they have good upper-torso control. From here they begin strengthening their lower-torso and legs, gradually increasing their leg strength from when they are sitting unaided. As they grow bigger (legs grow longer) and their leg strength increases (walking independently) their clinging capacity grows even stronger. By the time they can physically hook their heels around the caregiver’s body and hold onto their shoulders, they should have the ability to cling independently to the caregiver’s slightly angled back (with a stacked spine) for short periods of time. As they get taller and stronger they will cling for longer and the caregiver won’t have to angle their back at all.

 

It’s important to raise awareness about active carrying as it is a normal part of their development. As an added bonus it’s easier on our bodies and helps us carry for longer periods of time without needing to rely on carrying aids as much. As little is known about active carrying in Western society it means that it can all be a bit confusing, especially when there are conflicting schools of thought about how we should hold our babies. On top of this, babies and children do not simply learn to cling and apply it to everyone who carries them. Carrying behaviours have to be learned to be applied each body the baby/child is clinging to. They have to learn different ways of clinging to different bodies, and it’s common to find that the person they cling to best is their primary caregiver (who is usually the gestational parent also).

This website aims to help demystify the carrying process and encourage caregivers to “tune in” to their babies and children to learn the unique carrying language for their dyad. Stay tuned for more blog posts exploring the many aspects of in-arms carrying!

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