Pushing your baby around in a stroller allows both of you to get fresh air, see the world, and get places on time. But what if all that stroller time is impeding her brain development? New research out of Britain suggests that babies who face forward in their strollers may be at a disadvantage compared with babies who face their parent or caregiver.
"Life in a baby buggy facing forward might be more emotionally impoverished," says Suzanne Zeedyk, lead author of the new study and a psychology professor at the University of Dundee in Scotland. "What babies want is interaction with their parents. They soak it up."
The study comprised two parts: an observational study of more than 2,500 caregivers pushing strollers in 50 towns and cities in Britain, and an experiment involving 20 mothers and children using both forward-facing and inward-facing strollers.
In the first part of the study, researchers found that children faced forward in about 60 per cent of the strollers observed. While only about 20 per cent of parents or caregivers were talking to the baby in their care, those who were facing the baby were twice as likely to be doing so.
In the experimental portion of the study, researchers found that mothers facing their babies talked to them twice as much. The babies fell asleep more often, laughed more and had lower heart rates - all signs, Dr. Zeedyk suggests, of being less stressed.
Dr. Zeedyk's findings are in line with similar research about babies' and toddlers' reactions to television and video.
It's not so much the object - the TV, the stroller - as the effect it has on child-parent interaction in the key developmental years of birth to 3.
"In no way are we saying buggies are the only answer," she says. "The main issue is: Make sure you're talking to your kids."
In Britain, inward-facing strollers - called prams, buggies or push-cars there - were the norm until 1965, when major manufacturers started producing outward-facing strollers that were much more lightweight and portable.
By the 1980s, the outward-facing style was dominant and children were spending more time in strollers each day and using them even after they'd learned to walk.
At the same time, Dr. Zeedyk says, the belief arose that babies needed to see the world at about six months of age.
"But what we know from other developmental research is that if babies see the world unmediated with help from parents, it's just this blur to them."
What babies see is a world of knees, shopping bags, dogs and traffic fumes, she says.
Michelle Heyburgh, who manages the stroller and gear section at Toronto retailer Moms to Be ... and More, says she's not surprised by these findings.
The majority of strollers available in her department are forward-facing.
And, as in Britain, models that allow parents to watch and chat with their baby, by companies such as Bugaboo and Peg Perego, tend to be more expensive (up to $1,000) and heavier.
Many parents, especially first-time parents, are keen to try the parent-facing models, she says.
While Ms. Heyburgh says she raises the issue of parent-baby communication with most customers, with new parents, "We almost don't have to mention it."
Dr. Zeedyk says her research shouldn't be taken as an attack on parents who are currently using forward-facing strollers.
Instead, she hopes parents armed with new information might change their shopping habits and even drive the manufacturers into producing more affordable versions.
"If there's a difference, we think parents will want to know before buying a stroller," she says.