The neuroscience of strollers

It is striking for me that this is a question that most of us, scientists included, have not really contemplated:  how does the way we transport our babies shape their brain development?  Yet is clear, given what we now know of neuroscience, that infant transport must be shaping infant brains.

This is because brains are growing more rapidly between the ages of birth and 3 years than they ever will again.  Moreover, relationships with other people have a tremendous influence on that growth:  the attention that babies receive, the amount of touch they are treated to, the amount of emotional attunement they experience all matter.  Since babies spend their whole first year (at least) being transported by other people, their experiences of that movement must be shaping their neural and psychological development.

It was this insight that, in 2008, led me to carry out a small scale study of strollers at the request of the National Literacy Trust.  Our aim was to try to get some basic insights into how stroller design impacts on parent-infant behaviour, which would in turn allow us to think more deeply about the implications for longer term development.  You can still read the results of what we found, in the report that the NLT published on their website.

Who would have thought that that work would lead to yesterday’s event:  a product launch by a stroller company, in which they have given serious thought to how their products are likely to be shaping infant development – and how best to communicate the science to their customers.

Stokke is a Norwegian-based company, with an impressive global reach, whose core aim is to create products that serve “the best interests of the child”, by facilitating the emotional bond between parent and child.  I have been working with Stokke over the past year, assisting them in thinking about how the emerging neuroscience can be used in their product design and marketing.  Yesterday they launched their new range of Connection Strollers, accompanied by two videos that convey this science to consumers.  One video does that explicitly, through a verbal explanation,  given by myself.  The other one does so implicitly, through creative photographic means.

It will be interesting to see what kind of debate is generated by these products and by Stokke’s marketing material.  The transport industry is acutely aware of the need to guard children’s physical health and safety.  What I love is about Stokke’s actions is that they prompt us to think about children’s emotional health and safety.

It is tricky for any academic to sit within the intersection between science and commercialism.  People wonder whether your comments are trustworthy, whether your objectivity has been ‘bought’ for financial gain.  I decided that working with Stokke was worth this risk, because there was no other stroller company I knew of who was actively engaged with puzzling out the implications of our neuroscience knowledge.

Babies throughout the world are now transported in strollers – as well as in other devices such as slings, carriers, and car seats.  There is a fair bit of psychological research available on slings, but virtually none on the rest.  It is time, therefore, for the sake of babies and parents, that we begin to carry out more scientific studies on the psychological effects of all infant transportation.

My hope is that Stokke’s efforts will do just that:  generate a spate of new research studies.  I hope that parents will agitate for them, that scientists will see their value, and that funding agencies will be keen to invest in them.  I want to personally thank Stokke for retaining my comments, within the film, about the need for more science on this front.  That single sentence will ensure that every person watching this video will think a bit more deeply about the evidence base on which all infant products are designed and regulated.

Yesterday marked for me a turning point in infant transport:  infants’ emotional needs entered the transport territory.   I look forward to discovering, in a few years time, where that turn took us.

Links

If you want more reading material on scientific studies of infant transportation, here are some references to get you started.  I know it can be frustrating for members of the public who cannot get access to many scientific articles without paying for them, but in those cases below, I give online links so that you can at least read the abstracted summaries of the article.

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