While there is much to be said for the empirically supported importance of close physical contact, particularly for newborns (it literally regulates their breathing!), every thing in moderation (strollers and car seats, and playpens - oh my!) surely can apply. Rather than banishing strollers and other baby-holding paraphernalia, we mommies may be better served by focusing on what's really important in nurturing a healthy attachment. Just this week, the blogs are afire with another example of parenting zeal impeding into does-this-really-matter territory as Gisele Bundchen, supermodel mom and breastfeeding advocate, is widely criticized for having her eight-month-old daughter's ears pierced. In the interest of wrangling focus in the direction of things that really do matter, I'm going to highlight the three major practices scientifically-linked to building and nurturing a healthy attachment--the #1 predictor of infant mental health.
1. Affectionate Play.
Play is bonding fuel for baby. Sharing pleasurable moments through excitement activates opioids in both play partners' brains. Along with dopaine and norepinephrine, these feel-good hormones help build and strengthen neural pathways that will make joy, playfulness, and positivity in general, more likely to be felt. In this way, play strengthens not only the immediate relationship, but paves the way for easier and more satisfying bonding in future relationships. Interactive, face-to-face play is neuro-psychologically beneficial from birth, helping certain right-brain social capacities to come online during the critical growth spurt happening in this hemisphere throughout the first 18 months. (Primary source: The Science of the Art of Psychotherapy by Allan N. Schore, PhD. 2012.)
So, as long as we talk to stroller baby and point out funny scenery as we stroll by . . .
2. Regulation of emotional states.
In the scientific community, the power of emotions is at a fever pitch. For babies, emotional regulation is even more important, both because they are in the process of developing soothing capacities and because their brains are in a tremendous growth spurt throughout the first year. When distressed or afraid, energy is robbed from brain growth while toxic stress hormones can even unhook neural connections that have already formed if negative emotions are prolonged. When a parent averts these negative effects and consistently soothes in response to emotional upsets, baby's bond with that parent is cemented while his brain is freed up to learn and explore in emotional safety. Baby trusts the attachment figure will be there for him, so he doesn't waste brain power worrying. (Primary sources: The Attachment Connection, by Ruth P Newton, PhD. 2008; and Why Love Matters, by Sue Gerhardt. 2004; "Effects of a Secure Attachment on Right Brain Development, Affect Regulation, and Infant Mental Health," by Allan N. Schore. 2001.)
So unless baby cries inconsolably when placed in stroller . . .
3. Close physical contact.
Ah, this is where those anti-stroller pundits may have a point. If we place baby in a stroller at times when he could be wrapped against our bodies in a cozy carrier, baby may be robbed of essential bonding-through-touch time. Touch really should be widely recognized as nourishment (it is in neurodevelopmental science). This is often why (my coaching clients are surprised to learn) babies wake in the night even after all other reasons have been eliminated; they need a refueling of physical contact. My favorite scientist for this topic is currently Tiffany Field, PhD of the Touch Research Institute. There's no doubt, touch and holding communicates love and safety, which I believe are one and the same in early babyhood.
But perhaps if we co-sleep at night and give lots of cuddles around the clock, not to mention the proven attachment-promoting effects of breastfeeding in and of itself (Thanks, Gisele Bundchen!), we can indulge in a stroll and still meet baby's touch quota.
In any case, shouldn't we mommies focus on the essence of parenting practices that really contribute to attachment rather than on the specific practices themselves . . . or the apparatus involved?