Why Does Infant Carying Soothe Babies when Other Things Fail?

By: Dr. Gregory Popcak

baby sling dad

Every parent has had the experience of having to walk around carrying a crying baby to soothe him.     We have a lot of different ways to soothe a crying baby, but when all else fails, carrying often does the trick.   Why does carrying succeed when other strategies—including merely holding the baby—fail?

Studying the process of infant  soothing is extremely important  because inconsolable babies are more susceptible to abusive treatment by parents.   Understanding the psychological or biological mechanisms that  enables infants to  be calmed is a significant public health concern.   Because of this, researchers at the  RIKEN Brain Science Institute decided to investigate whether there was a neurological basis for the effectiveness of infant carrying.     They discovered some surprising things.

Carrying Triggers Newly Discovered Calming Reflex

It turns out that carrying an infant triggers a  three-way mechanism in the brain that suppresses involuntary muscle movements & struggling while also dramatically reducing the infant’s heart rate.   These changes happen almost immediately.   In fact, this process is such an automatic response to  being carried  that it could almost be considered a  previously  undiscovered reflex.   The study noted that merely holding a baby does not stimulate this reflex.   Only carrying does.

Moreover, this relaxing response to being carried by one’s parent is not just found in humans, it  is consistent across mammals—from mouse pups to lion cubs—indicating that this response  is a deeply ingrained part of mammalian brain programming.   Indeed, the study notes that the brain mechanisms responsible for this soothing reaction is controlled by the cerebellum (which is responsible for monitoring muscle control) and the parasympathetic nervous system (responsible for relaxing the body).

So What?   —The Practical & Spiritual Significance of Infant Carrying

Practically speaking, research like this  gives further weight to the recommendation to practice “baby wearing“; that is, keeping a baby close to your body in a sling to maximize bodily contact between parent and infant.   Pope John Paul II’s Theology of the Body suggests that as we prayerfully contemplate the meaning of the body, we can discover God’s intention for how we are to relate to one another.   In light of his profound reflection, findings like this from the RIKEN Brain Science Institute are even more significant.  Think about  it.  God actually created structures in the brain that  require a specific kind of external stimulation in order to be activated!   Even our brains are not  entirely our own.   The brain is truly a social organ that effectively  reaches outside of us  so that it  find wholeness and health  by  plugging into the surrounding social network.   Understanding this offers  stunning new insights into  why  Genesis 2:18.  Findings like this speak to both the deeply social nature of the human person and gives neurobiological credence to the otherwise merely philosophical assertion that we were created, primarily, to love and be loved.

When parents are willing to learn from the instruction manual God has given them in the form of their baby’s cues, both parents and baby can be happier and healthier.

For more information on  how principles from interpersonal neurobiology and the theology of the body can make your parenting life easier and more effective, check out  Parenting with Grace:   A Catholic Parent Guide to Raising (almost) Perfect Kids.

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