The History of Babywearing

Babywearing is a term that was coined in the 1980s by Dr. William Sears when he established the philosophy of Attachment Parenting, however the practice of baby carrying, as opposed to leaving your child in a crib, stroller, or other external device, is a much older practice.

As quoted from Wikipedia, the following are benefits of babywearing:

  • Mothers' oxytocin is increased through physical contact with the infant, leading to a more intimate maternal bond, easier breastfeeding and better care, thus lowering the incidence of postpartum depression and psychosomatic illness in the mother; similarly, the father carrying the baby has benefits for the paternal bond.
  • Infants who are carried are calmer because all of their primal/survival needs are met. The caregiver can be seen, heard, smelled, touched, tasted, provide feeding and the motion necessary for continuing neural development, gastrointestinal and respiratory health and to establish balance (inner ear development) and muscle tone is constant.
  • Infants are more organized. Parental rhythms (walking, heartbeat, etc.) have balancing and soothing effects on infants.
  • Infants are "humanized" earlier by developing socially. Babies are closer to people and can study facial expressions, learn languages faster and be familiar with body language.
  • Independence is established earlier.
  • Attachment between child and caregiver is more secure.
  • Decreases risk of positional plagiocephaly ("flat head syndrome") caused by extended time spent in a car seat and by sleeping on the back.

In terms of positional plagiocephaly, it bears mentioning that it is a condition that is influenced by the societal norm of laying babies down throughout the day instead of holding them. This means that it’s not something that is commonly seen historically or in cultures today which commonly practice babywearing. All of the other points are natural/instinctive/primal concepts, which bring me to my point.

I recently read an article in Science News which is not specifically about babywearing, but discusses the possibility that the evolution of primates walking upright (ie: from apes to humans) may have had to do with the need to carry heavier babies. The young of all non-human primates are transported by clinging to the hair on their mother’s belly or chest. As they get older, they ride on their backs. Through the different species of primates, a correlation has been made between body angle, infant weight, and body hair density. As humans, the suggestion is being made that we may have developed bipedality out of necessity for carrying our young. It further suggests that our human tendency towards group cooperation, (hunting and gathering), has to do with mothers not having their hands free and needing the support of other members of the community.

Now, why did I tell you this story? My point is that carrying our children is a biological instinct. We most certainly have the free will, and the technology, to buck this instinct, but are all technological advancements in our best interests?

So the history of babywearing starts before the evolution of humanity and is a biological instinct. What came next?       

I was not able to find any suggestion of the first baby carrier, but perhaps that is because the practice is as old as humanity itself. All civilizations, both ancient and modern, have a history of babywearing in some form or another for reasons of practicality and of the culture of keeping children close to their caregivers. In terms of recorded history, babywearing dates back at least as far as ancient Egypt. This image was found in a tomb from the 25th Dynasty, which reigned from 760 BC until 656 BC.

 

What was quite a bit easier to trace, was the invention of external carriers. The first wheeled transportation device for babies which was invented by garden architect William Kent in 1733, which was done as an assignment from the Duke of Devonshire. The device was designed to be pulled by a goat or small pony. Following this, it wasn’t until the 1830s that carriages began being sold in America and they were popularized in the 1840s by Queen Victoria. It’s worth noting that around this same time, hospitalization and medication during childbirth as well as formula feeding became popular.  

Only recently has this Western trend towards keeping children separate from their caregivers began slowly reversing. In 1969, Ann Moore designed the Snugli, which was designed after the devices used by African woman she had seen during her time as a nurse with the Peace Corp. In 1981, the ring sling was designed by Rayner Gardner for his wife. Finally, in 1985, Dr. Sears and his wife, Martha, broke through and brought the practice back to life by coining the term babywearing and encouraging the practice through their books and medical practice.

Although there is still a huge trend towards the use of external carriers, babywearing is slowly gaining popularity and is being seen with increasingly regularity. Currently, there are many styles available and the practice is becoming more and more mainstream. It’s given a further boost as we see celebrities wearing their babies and as fathers become more involved with their children than they had been in past generations, and they start picking up on the trend as well.  

October 08, 2013 by Allison Lund
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