Bringing slings to a wider audience

Hi again everyone. Six months seem to have elapsed since I wrote the last blog post and I can only apologise and say that life got in the way! Good news though: part of the reason for my silence during this time has been that I’ve been busy writing up the first academic article from the research that I’ve been doing on how slings can impact on people’s experiences of getting out and about with young children. And I’m very pleased to say that it has now been accepted by the academic journal Mobilities and has been published online here.

However, I know not everyone wants to read an academic journal article (I don’t blame you!) so I want to use this blog post to provide a more accessible summary of the key points and let you know why this research matters. Doing this is particularly important to me since, above all else, I want this research to be useful and relevant to a wider audience. So, with that in mind, I’ll try and share three things with you…

  1. I’m excited about this because, to my knowledge, it’s the first study which explores the use of slings on parents’ experiences of getting out and about. This matters because, at the moment, babywearing is still very much a niche activity in the UK. As a result, it’s very hard to fund research on it[1] (so huge thanks to Lancaster Environment Centre for giving me some money to do this!). This means that the studies that do exist tend to be restricted to specific scenarios such as hip health, postnatal depression and kangaroo care. However, as I’ll come onto in a moment, my research has been able to show that slings have the potential to be really useful as a regular part of normal, everyday life for parents and children. Of course, if you are a sling user then you’ll know that already. BUT, often, in order for policy makers and the wider media to take an interest, there needs to be a study that demonstrates this in a more systematic way. And that’s exactly what this new journal article does. My hope is that having this research will make it easier for babywearing professionals to argue for more support for what they do, on the basis that slings’ potential are proven by research.

    Slings can really help when you’ve got your hands full!
  2. This research was most definitely not a ‘slings Vs prams’ type of project: everyone I interviewed had also used prams at some stage of their parenting journey and found that they could be great in particular scenarios (for example, allowing baby to sleep while you strim the allotment!). However, the research does show that the design features of a sling allow for a very different experience of getting out and about in ways which can be very helpful to parents. I’ve already discussed some of these examples in more detail in previous blog posts but here are a few headline reminders:
    1. Since a sling doesn’t go along the ground, it can help deal with some of the common obstacles that you may face when travelling with a pram (steps, cobbles, mud, escalators, etc.). This means you can go to places that you would find it hard to access with a pram.
    2. Since babies often settle and sleep well in a sling (and, with a bit of practice, some mums learn to feed in one too), you are often freed up from having to go home for naptime or find somewhere to sit for feeds (some of my participants were able to feed their babies in the queue for the supermarket checkout or while taking an older child round the zoo – now that’s what I call multi-tasking!)

There are many other benefits that I could list here. However, the most  important conclusion is that mobility with a young child is not just about getting from A to B – it’s also about a multi-way relationship between you, your child, other people and the wider landscape. And slings work because their design – holding a child on the body of a caregiver at (almost) adult eye level – tends to facilitate this relationship really well. That sounds very abstract, so let me give you some examples from the research to explain what I mean:

Imagine…

  • You’re a walker and love finding space and solitude in the hills. A sling enables you to reach those places and share those landscapes and experiences with your child.
  • You’re a new parent and getting used to your new baby. What if he/she is too cold/too hot/not breathing? You go out with the pram but still feel worried and keep stopping to check on the baby. With a sling, you can just glance down, feel the baby and know they’re ok.
  • Your pre-schooler has been running around all day and is starting to get over-tired and fractious. He/she wants to continue running but there’s a busy road coming up. You pop them in the sling quickly to keep them safe and, if you’re lucky, you both enjoy a cuddle and a chat rather than an argument. (Or perhaps you get the argument anyway but maybe it’s easier to recover because you’re able to be in the storm of emotions with them.)

Notice how ‘getting somewhere’ is only part of the battle in each of these scenarios: rather, the main challenge is often about how you or your child are feeling both physically and emotionally whilst on the journey. My research shows that slings don’t just offer a practical solution to the physical barriers faced by parents (steps, cobbles, mud, escalators). They also give you new tools to manage the emotional challenges of journey-making, because having the child on your body makes it easier to cuddle, talk, rock, feed, etc. and just generally do all those things that give you a better chance of navigating the swirling emotions that are an integral part of parenting.

To be clear, I’m not saying that these things are impossible in a pram, or that a sling will always make a journey easier (parents have been successfully feeding, comforting and talking to children in prams for many years and there are some days when one or both of you needs more space!). However, hopefully you can see that a sling can offer you additional options, particularly in relation to the challenging feelings that can arise during a journey.

Slings can allow you and your child to experience the landscape in new ways
  1. A final main headline of the research is that I was able to show how mobility in early family life is constantly fluxing and changing as your child grows. I think there is often an assumption that getting out and about with a newborn will be hard and that an older child will be ‘easier’. However, this is not necessarily the case. Older children might be more capable physically but there will also be new challenges that arise (tricycles that want to be ridden – for a few minutes at least! – toys that ‘have’ to come too, fluctuating energy levels, missed nap days etc. etc.). And, of course, add a younger sibling to the mix and things get more complicated still! So a more accurate picture is that you find yourself constantly having to reinvent journeys as your family grows. Here, again, slings can be very handy – either on their own or alongside a pushchair – as they can be packed down small and then brought out to help in trickier moments. (Kind of like having a little extra something ‘up your sleeve’ – not that you’d want to keep your sling up your sleeve but hopefully the analogy is still useful!)

Anyway, I’d love to know what you think of all this. Do please get in touch if you’d like to chat more. I’m also thinking of writing a couple more articles from the research which focus on different aspects of ‘slinging’. As always, I’ll post my thoughts here to keep you up to date…

[1] If you want to know why then this excellent blog series will help you understand more about that.