For those of you who missed this announcement, it was casually made on St Patrick’s Day at a reception for army wives. Kate commented to some of those gathered that she had chosen a Bugaboo, also letting slip that she had settled on a light blue colour scheme. This has led many commentators to conclude that we are all expecting a boy.
Four months on, news of the couple’s transport choice continues to circulate within the media. One of the most recent mentions is that in the New York fashion magazine, The Cut. Amongst the many others are discussions about whether the choice of a non-British brand was unpatriotic, and the Guardian’s retrospective on how Bugaboo’s Dutch designer, Max Barenburg, transformed his 1994 student project into a global company that, by 2011, had an annual turnover of £70 million.
Those of you who know my interest in buggies will not be surprised to learn I have followed these media stories with interest. I have watched to see whether any of them link their story of strollers to child development. While it has been pointed out that a Bugaboo is a departure from the Silver Cross strollers of previous royal childhoods, Kate’s choice is not surprising, given that the Bugaboo has become a style icon, popular amongst celebrities. But, no, not one of the articles I have been monitoring has linked strollers to children’s development. (If anyone knows of an article that I have missed, please do let me know.) This means that, despite all the information that is now available about infant neuroscience, we have not yet grappled as a society with the fact that buggies will be shaping the growth of babies’ brains.
How could that be? Is my use of the term ‘fact’ too strong? It is certainly the case that we have virtually no empirical evidence about the impact of buggies on babies’ development, and especially on emotional health. I certainly wish we had more, for that would have meant that the scientific field had shown as much curiosity about devices including buggies, car seats and travel systems as it has done for slings. The (positive) effects of slings are the only data we have in any depth. That’s my key point in this blog: there is no movement blossoming for a ‘science of infant transport’, despite the fact that buggies are now cultural norms. So do we need to wait until we have robust data sets to raise questions about design? Answer: No.
As helpful as data would be, we do not need specific empirical evidence about buggies before we can talk seriously about them. We know beyond a shadow of a doubt that social interaction dramatically shapes children’s brains, and that buggy design frames the kinds of social interaction that babies can have with the pusher. So buggies, brains, and child development have to be linked. If a baby faces outward, then she cannot see, or often even hear, the parent who is pushing him. If the height of a stroller’s seat is close to the ground (as is true for almost all strollers), the baby’s view of the world will include knees, shopping bags, and vehicle tires, which means they aren’t sharing the view that the taller pusher sees. And if a baby gets anxious about the loud, busy, unfamiliar world into which he or she is being thrust, he/she will get more anxious until reassurance is on offer, which can only be found in the attentive presence of someone whom the baby trusts.
Why is social interaction so terribly important for babies? The answer is that babies come pre-wired for it. The physiological connection between babies and parents is nothing short of amazing. For example, babies can read the emotional expression on a parent’s face long before they can talk, and they use that expression to work out whether something in their own world is safe or dangerous. Babies are calmed simply by hearing their parent’s voice, and if they are picked up in response to crying, their heart rate immediately begins to slow down. When a baby sleeps next to his mother, the physiological systems of the pair become synchronised, with breathing rates, heart rates, and sleep cycles matched.
In case anyone thinks I have a hang up about buggies being somehow extra special for development, let me make clear I don’t. Buggies are only one of many activities that shape parent-infant interaction. Sleeping, feeding, playing, bathing, talking, singing, shouting, laughing, and all the others count too. Everything that happens to a baby is shaping brain development, because neural pathways are being formed every single second by every single activity. Never again in life will synaptic connections in the brain be created so rapidly as the period up to 3 years of age. Every time a baby has a repeated experience, the neural pathways associated with that experience are strengthened (through a process called myelination.)
My hang up about buggies comes from the fact that science and regulators have given so little attention to them. Of all the activities I just named, transportation devices such as buggies have received the least consideration in the scientific literature. This is despite the fact riding in them is one of the things that almost all babies these days will have daily experience of. Babies in the UK apparently spend an average of 2 hours per day in a buggy, with this stretching up to 5 hours or more for some children. A lot of synapses are formed in 2 hours a day x 7 days a week.
This neglect continues despite my own efforts to work with manufacturers and retailers such as Stokke, Gracco, and Mothercare. Respected educational bodies, such as the National Literacy Trust and The Sutton Trust have also given buggies serious attention. Other professionals have too, including Sally Goddard Blythe, who is concerned about the possible impact of today’s strollers on crawling and motor development, and Leigh Wilson, who wonders how the contemporary penchant for placing a blanket over a pram may affect a baby’s breathing. The thoughts of the highly respected Elizabeth Jarman, regarding the impact of colour and texture of a stroller’s fabric, probably sound laughable, until you understand the basics of brain development.
I get lots of letters from parents and grandparents, telling me lovely stories about their buggy choices. And I know of childcare settings, such as VIP Childcare, in Elgin, Scotland, who feel that they have improved the care they offer children by buying double buggies that face the pusher, despite the increased cost of such models. But these are not enough for me! So I thought that the story of our royal parents-to-be presented a new opportunity to try again.
Therefore, let me shout it in bold letters: The buggy that Kate and William have chosen will shape the brain of the future King. (Why a king, you ask? It might be a girl. Yes, that’s true, but why not just go ahead and take the colour choice as a tip-off? Its one of the many pieces of evidence that are being used internationally by bookies to offer odds on everything from the baby’s sex to the name to the likely date of birth to hair colour.)
Do the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge know about the importance of their buggy choice? I don’t know. I have this week taken the liberty of sending them a letter with this information, hoping that it might reach them, via the circuitous route through their staff.
I have done this because it is not just their baby I am thinking about, although I do wish them much joy and fun. I am thinking about all the babies whose development can be boosted through Kate and William’s awareness of this information. Their baby is about to be the most famous baby in the world. In the months and years to come, we will all be peppered with photographs of the royal baby being transported in that Bugaboo.
If Kate and William are photographed with the buggy oriented so that the baby faces them, then millions of parents will follow suit. If they are photographed talking to the baby while in that stroller, then millions of parents will follow suit. If they happen to be photographed sometimes wearing a sling to carry the baby in, then millions of slings will sell out too. (Especially if its William wearing the sling!) And if they were, per chance, to mention in any speeches they deliver that they were learning about the ways that strollers and everything else is influencing their baby’s brain development, then millions of parents will have the chance to listen. Because the media can be counted on to report everything they say and do.
Buggies matter – as does everything else in a baby’s day. After mid-July, Kate and William, and Bugaboo and Max Barenburg, will have a once-in-a-global-lifetime’s opportunity to help the world understand this.