Suitable from birth

I finally left the house today, for the first time in days. That’s thanks to a raging migraine headache, which suggests that my body hasn’t thought that all the excitement and activity over the last weeks was necessarily exciting. It also explains why this blog is delayed from the weekly rhythm I’ve aimed to instantiate. But finally I am up and out walking, in between the requisite British summer rain showers.

And what do I come across, lying on the ground at my feet? A discarded label, thoroughly soaked from the last string of showers. It’s a big circular label, attractive and trendy, black background and crisp white lettering. On one side, a very serviceable line drawing of a stroller – positioned facing outward – and, on the other side, a list of the stroller’s ten key features.

The first reads: ‘Suitable from birth’. The next: ‘Maximum child weight 15kg’. The final eight features all focus on functionality: ‘Umbrella fold’; ‘Multi-position recline to near-flat’; ‘Soft grip handles’; ‘Lockable swivel wheels’; etc, etc.

There’s a final line talking about age recommendations: ‘This vehicle is intended for children from Birth up to 15 kg.’

And at the bottom, a logo and customer service email address.

I stand there, speaking almost out loud to the manufacturers (whom I have left anonymous within this blog, you will note):

  • Suitable on what basis from birth – physical basis, sensory basis, emotional basis, postural basis? What precisely does ‘suitable from birth’ mean, anyway? Do you mean suitable for a long journey or a short journey? Do you mean on a country road or an urban road or in an airport or in a grandparent’s back garden?
  • Intended? Intended by whom? The use of the term ‘intended’ implies that it must be safe for newborns. Somebody in your company must have tested this claim, in order to be able to make it. In that case, what exactly did you test for?
  • And why are 8 out of the 10 features listed all about functionality – about how the stroller suits the needs of the parent? There are only three wee phrases that I can find in this long list that even hint at the baby’s experience of the stroller: ‘safe finger folding mechanism’; ‘chest and buckle pads for comfort’; ‘calf support’. I absolutely agree that the needs of the parent are important; parents need to have a stroller that they can easily manage. But what I can’t quite get my head round, is why the needs of the baby, for whom this vehicle is intended, aren’t important enough to highlight within the features list as well?

Somewhere, a parent (or maybe a childcare professional?) bought the stroller to which this label was originally attached. I think its perfectly reasonable, from the tone of the information given here, that he or she would assume that there is nothing more they need to worry about, because the stroller explicitly says it is ‘intended’ for babies from the age of birth.

But the point of the growing Buggy Debate is to ask: what exactly are a baby’s needs, in regard to a buggy? What is the neuroscience and the psychology (and I know some grandmothers would add ‘good old fashioned common sense’) telling us that would be valuable for parents and childcare professionals?

One of the first insights yielded by neuroscience is that it is likely that a stroller that faces away from a parent is NOT suitable for a newborn. It may be physically safe, but it is likely to be emotionally challenging and thus physiologically challenging. If parents are not advised about this aspect of their baby’s needs, then they cannot make the informed choices they wish to make.

So who is responsible for informing parents? Scientists? Health professionals? Grandmothers? Childcare experts? Manufacturers? Part of the fascinating aspect of the Buggy Debate is that this is an area for which there is surprisingly little empirical data currently available. Its as if, over the last few decades, the science and/or health sectors somehow overlooked this area of childcare. (That gap was one of the reasons that the National Literacy Trust had asked me to carry out some very basic work trying to begin exploring the issue, a couple of years ago). Maybe there were so many other areas of concern that feel really important, so that something as innocuous as strollers hasn’t seemed worth worrying about.

But the neuroscience is encouraging us to have another look at that assumption. We especially need to do this if it is the case, as some of the National Literacy Trust’s data suggests, that UK babies can easily spend between 2 and 5 hours per day in a buggy.

It might be that the manufacturer who produced this label isn’t aware of the neuroscience, or of the physiological imperative that a baby has for emotional safety in the early months. On the other hand, a growing number of other buggy manufacturers are coming round to this understanding. They are recommending that in the early months, a baby should be in a vehicle that ensures they can see (and hear) the pusher. (Which leads to the question of: at what age should a baby be ‘turned round’ to face outwards? Ah…there’s a topic for another blog and more debate.)

What I’m curious about at the moment is what it is that’s led this particular manufacturer to come to the conclusion that their outward-facing stroller is ‘suitable’ for a newborn. So here’s a copy of the email I’m about to send to the customer service address they gave at the bottom of the label.

Dear Sir/Madam: I have recently become aware of your stroller. I note that you say on your label that it is ‘suitable from birth’ and that it is ‘intended’ for children from birth to 15 kg. Could you please clarify for me the basis on which its suitability was evaluated? I am particularly interested in whether it is the child’s physical, emotional, sensory, or postural needs that you have used as the primary basis of evaluation for your statement. With many thanks, Dr. Suzanne Zeedyk, Developmental Psychologist.

I’ll let everyone know if I get a reply!

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