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Social work professor to study babywearing as Fulbright Scholar

Practice said to increase bonding, provide benefits for both caregiver and child

Lela Rankin "babywears" her son in a colorful cloth wrap as both look at the camera, a brick building behind them.

ASU social work Professor Lela Rankin practiced babywearing with her son, who at the time of this photo was 3 years old. Rankin's research has found increased bonding and health benefits as a result of carrying a child either in a cloth wrap or backpack. Photo courtesy Lela Rankin

May 25, 2023

When Lela Rankin first became a mother, she engaged in a parenting practice not many Westerners are aware of, even though its roots date back to the dawn of humankind and its advantages include providing health and bonding to both caregivers and children.

It’s called babywearing. Rankin, an accomplished Arizona State University researcher on the practice, will spend a semester in Canada further studying its benefits as a 2023–24 Fulbright Scholar.

Babywearing involves carrying a child for long periods, either in a cloth wrapped around the mother’s torso or in a backpack-style carrier. It isn’t as popular in Western societies as in others, said Rankin, a professor at the School of Social Work’s Tucson campus.

Among the reasons are cultural norms and workplace policies, as well as times when children are secured in car seats or placed in swings to soothe them.

Rankin has been studying babywearing for many years and successfully practiced it herself, frequently advocating for its use nationally and internationally to enhance parenting and promote infant development.

“Babywearing is a tool that can enhance attachment and understanding of the child’s needs,” she said.

The Fulbright Scholar Program supports U.S. academics’ travel abroad to collaborate, interact and share knowledge, then return home with a deeper understanding of other cultures.

The program is administered by the State Department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs and awards approximately 8,000 grants each year, mostly to students. About 800 of the grants go to scholars such as Rankin.

Alumni include 62 Nobel Laureates, 89 Pulitzer Prize winners, 78 MacArthur Fellows and thousands of leaders and internationally renowned experts in academic disciplines and many other fields in the private, public and nonprofit sectors.

Rankin will spend one semester in eastern Canada researching, as well as developing a collaboration between ASU and St. Mary’s University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, where she will be based.

Rankin said compared to societies on other continents, parents in the West are more apt to use devices such as swings and car seats that separate them from their infants and toddlers, who, in the first months after birth, often long for the reassurance of physical contact with their caregivers.

Babywearing has actually been around quite a long time, Rankin said, adding that archaeologists have discovered evidence of the practice occurring thousands of years ago.

Her research found that babywearing provides benefits beyond mere transportation. Children and parents bond more deeply, experience reduced stress and are healthier overall.

Helps mothers 'feel the joy' through physical proximity

Carrying their children for much of the day helps mothers “feel the joy,” Rankin said. Such feelings don’t simply come through an instinct with which parents naturally come equipped; instead, they are enhanced through physical proximity, she said.

In addition, fewer instances of post-partum depression are reported in cultures where babywearing is more prevalent, Rankin said. Dads, too, can reap the benefits of babywearing in the form of increased bonding time with their children.

Rankin, who was born and raised in eastern Canada, still has family in Nova Scotia and will return there next year.

“It will be a great opportunity to be reconnected with the community there,” she said.

School of Social Work Director and Foundation Professor Elizabeth Lightfoot, who was a Fulbright Scholar in Namibia in 2008 and Romania in 2018, said she is thrilled that Rankin’s Fulbright award will enable her to conduct more babywearing research in Canada as well.

“As a former Fulbright scholar myself and the current Fulbright ambassador for social work faculty, I know how career- and life-changing a Fulbright scholarship can be,” Lightfoot said. “We look forward to Dr. Rankin’s new partnership with colleagues in Canada and the potential for broader collaborations for other faculty and students.”

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