When soon-to-be new parents venture into the baby store to buy furniture and register, one of the items that is sure to be at the top of the “must-have” list is a car seat that doubles as an infant carrier. They come in wide varieties of colors, designs, and even sizes to choose from. These seats, combined with the handy base that they easily snap into and out of without disturbing Baby, are indeed a must-have. We’ve all been in a waiting room or in a restaurant and seen a sweet little one snoozing away happily in her infant carrier, still buckled in from the car ride. The ability to avoid disturbing a sleeping newborn is surely a wonderful thing! Infant carriers are used as a convenient way to get Baby from car to stroller, and from stroller to the sling at the restaurant or the floor at Mom’s feet in a waiting room.

So what’s wrong with that? In the beginning, probably not much. The main job of newborns is to get used to being out of the womb and into the world. They are busy taking in the sights, sounds, smells, and textures of the world they’ve joined. Physically, newborns may feel most comfortable swaddled tightly, which mimics the warm, tight quarters from which they’ve recently emerged. But after the first few weeks, movement begins to become an increasingly important part of infant development. Baby can now hold up her own head and can even begin to look around the room. She starts to figure out that she actually controls those long appendages that have hands and feet on the ends. As the baby moves his arm toward that toy he wants to grab and then misses it, receptors in the nervous system report back to the brain about how it went. The brain makes adjustments to the message sent back to the muscles and the baby tries again. This process of feedback and feed-forward is vital to development. This is in fact an example of proper sensory integration, a term many are familiar with these days. The nervous system takes in information from the environment, processes it, and generates an adaptive response. This process when taken as a whole is sensory integration.

So what does all this have to do with infant carriers? In a word, gravity. One of the most important sensory systems that are developing during baby-hood is called the Vestibular system. This is the system that gets thrown off by a nasty inner-ear infection, when you find yourself walking into walls. It’s responsible for balance and equilibrium, and a successful vestibular system depends heavily on a naturally occurring phenomenon to develop properly: Gravity. The body’s ability to move in relation to the force of gravity is a simple, yet vitally important part of motor development.

Now think of that baby at the mall in the infant carrier. Her name is Claire. She’s about 6 months old. Her head control is excellent by this time and those arms and legs are firmly under control. Mommy had a bunch of errands to run today which Claire loves because she gets to see, smell, and hear so many new things. First they went to the grocery store. The grocery carts are designed to accommodate an infant carrier - how convenient! She didn’t even have to be unbuckled. Back in the car, snap! Onto get a quick oil change. There’s a waiting room in the lobby and mommy puts the infant carrier down on the floor in front of her chair. Mommy makes lots of funny faces at Claire and helps her grab the toys hanging from the carrier’s handle. Its time for a bottle and Mommy knows Claire will probably fall asleep eating so after a quick diaper change in the backseat of the car (who hasn’t done that?!), its back into the car seat. Mommy sits next to her feeding her the bottle and sure enough, she falls asleep and does not need to be disturbed by being transferred into the car seat and buckled in. This gives Mom time to run through the drive-up dry cleaners and pick up some of Dad’s shirts. Next, Mommy is meeting a friend and her baby boy for lunch and a stroll around the mall. Claire sleeps in the car the whole way there and its ok with Mom because luckily her car seat snaps right into the frame of her stroller, which she parks right next to the table. She wakes up while Mom and her friend are eating lunch. Mommy hangs a new toy from the handle and Claire is fascinated by the black and white stripes and the jingling sound it makes when she bats it with her hand. They go for a walk around the mall and then head home. Claire had a good day full of interesting sites and sounds. Her mom feels great that she got so much accomplished, got to see her friend, and was out of the house for a big part of the day! And Claire was such a good girl. But the one thing Claire did not get to do much was move, independent from the envelope of her carrier. The infant carrier kept her comfortable and cocooned all day, but she missed the chance to interact with gravity, to bounce around on mom’s hip, sit upright in a stroller, practice sitting on the floor or in a high chair.

So what to do? Stop buying infant carrier car seats? Or just feel guilty while you use them? Not at all. Infant carriers are safe and practical and sometimes the convenience they afford is all that gets us through a busy day! But they can also turn into too much of a good thing. As moms, we juggle so many things: we keep our households running and make sure everyone (including ourselves!) is in one piece at the end of the day. And meanwhile, we are trying to do everything we can to contribute to our babies’ development. So, good news! Instead of feeling like its either-or, like we are either out getting things done or at home practicing tummy-time, with a little tweak in our approach to infant carriers, we can do it all at once! Multi-tasking! Every mom’s favorite past time!

So next time you face a day of errands, embrace the opportunity to use all that running around to benefit your baby along the way! Abandon that carrier when you can in favor of a high chair at a restaurant (if your babe is ready of course), a stroller in which she can sit more upright and is less cocooned, or best of all when possible, your hip! Just think - one more thing to cross of your to-do list for the week! Groceries, check. Pharmacy, check. Lunch with friend, check. Motor development while on the run, check!