Many of us curl up into a ball when we may be at our wit's end; there is something soothing and comforting to it. Countless artists have sculpted and painted adults in the self-soothing fetal position. It’s no secret that babies love it too. When you carry your baby with his knees flexed against your chest, the fetal position, the pressure and containment he feels assures him that he is in contact with you and physically safe and secure.
But there’s more to it than comfort! Read on to find out how curling up into the fetal postion truly helps your baby.
1. Babies breathe easier.
A flexed position is optimal even for tiny delicate preemies. When you lay a preemie on his back it’s pretty stressful. His little underdeveloped lungs need to work against gravity. In flexion, a preemie requires less oxygen pressure and volume and breathes easier.
2. Grow baby Grow!
Using less oxygen means that their little bodies don’t need to work as hard. Not working as hard means they can devote their energy and calories toward growth.
3. Coordination and strength are nice.
The “spread out on the back” positioning of infants adversely affects the development of their muscle tone. Yet, the flexed position actually helps not only speed up muscle development, but also speed up the maturation of nerve cells that control the muscles. Stronger muscles and better functioning nerves telling those muscles what to do means better motor skills.
4. No one wants to wear a helmet to reshape their head.
Laying on your back all the time may dispose your baby to a deformed skull or plagiocephaly- literally a flattening of the head.
5. Reflux stinks.
Any eight month pregnant woman knows that she shouldn’t lay flat on her back after eating anything. An infant in flexion digests his food easier.
6. Baby’s backside is more than “cute”.
When held tummy to tummy not only does the baby have mom or dad’s heat to help regulate his own temperature but a protective heat retaining barrier. Infants have more efficient temperature regulating cells and more fat cells that serve as superb insulation on the back side of their bodies.
7. Another way to keep warm.
In flexion your baby’s arms and legs are bent, cutting off exposure of arteries to cold air. Bent arms and legs also cuts in half the surface area from which heat can be lost to air. Additionally, reduced stomach exposure means babies can better regulate their body temperature and subsequently use less energy trying to maintain warmth.
8. Hides that belly.
When we hold our infants stomach to stomach we are protecting all the receptor and vital organs. A cat has a tendency toward curling up when sleeping. If a predator were to come, the flexed position of the cat offers natural protection. Yes, it hides mama’s belly too!
9. Helps little hip development and actually is an option for treating DDH!
Babies whose legs are swaddled or forcefully straightened (as in the Navajo papoose) have higher incidence of hip dysplasia. Casts and harnesses are actually used to force baby into a flexed widespread legged position to treat babies born with DDH (Developmental Dysplasia of the Hip).
10. Newborns are virtually impossible to straighten out anyway.
So many think it is gentler to lay a baby on his back than to carry him. Babies’ spines are not straight; they are born with a convex c-shaped spine so their thighs naturally pull up toward their chests. Laying them flat stretches out their natural position and can actually be stressful on their little spines and hips.
When you pick up your baby his legs will rise to his chest. His body is naturally adapted to being carried. The fetal tuck is soothing; it is the natural position of infants, and helps your baby to thrive and grow strong. Don’t try to straighten out your babies!
Reading to inspire:
Montagu, A. (1986). Touching: The Human Significance of the Skin. Harper Paperbacks.
Ludington-Hoe, S. Kangaroo Care: The Best You Can Do to Help Your Preterm Infant. Bantam Books, 1993, New York.