Babywearing History & Benefits

This article has been used with permission from Wearing Your Baby.  It is reasonably New Zealand specific and we are a relatively young nation so I’ve gone back to the origins of all of us, then specifically the average New Zealander of European and Maori descent.

Our Early History of Babywearing

We all descend from nomadic, savannah dwelling, hunter-gatherers who over 25 million years evolved to an upright, bi-pedal human.  This evolution had many advantages and some disadvantages.  Whilst being able to cover larger distances faster we now had to carry food with us in case we couldn’t find any on the journey and we also needed to carry our young.  Standing upright on flat feet meant the grasp reflex was disadvantageous.  As human brain size increased the brain was less developed at full gestation, (  So now we have babies who cannot walk or crawl and cannot grasp effectively therefore they have to be carried.  Due to the natural selection for hairlessness there was also nothing to cling to.

The Naked Love Evolutionary Theory of how we lost our hair suggests that the desire of a mother to hold her baby was enhanced by the pleasure of skin to skin contact.  “For without the mother having a strong desire to bear her infant, infants would have been routinely left behind or put down and exposed to danger while the mother did other things.”  (Giles, J. 2011).  This Naked Love theory supports the idea that human infants over millions of years have been imprinted with the expectation of intimate and constant contact with another human being.

It is thought that hairlessness evolved approximately 1 million years before the invention of clothing.  Due to the energy drain of carrying an infant without the use of a sling, this would have been one of the first pieces of clothing to be designed.  Carrying an infant in your arms without the use of a sling creates a 16% greater caloric burden.  “…a greater energetic burden than even lactation.” Wall-Scheffler, C.M. et al (2007).

NambiaAs hunter-gatherer peoples discovered farming and became more settled the patterns of infant carrying changed.  Nevertheless many infants were still carried constantly in some societies, who knew that this would increase the chance of survival for these vulnerable new community members.

Swaddling and cradle-boards developed, allowing the parent to contain their infant. They were sometimes hung in a tree near to where the mother was working.  In some societies where the young, fit and capable mother was needed for her ability to work productively in the fields, older children and elders were charged with child minding duties.  Mothers would return to their children to breastfeed or the infants were brought to them at their place of work.

From Ancient Greece and Rome through to the Middle Ages and Industrial England life was pretty grim for babies and children.  There is evidence of swaddling, cradle boarding AND babywearing throughout these periods.  High infant mortality rates caused parents to limit their psychological involvement with their children. “As a result children suffered neglect,”  (Golden, M. 1990).  Infanticide and abandonment were common and somewhat condoned.  From the Middle Ages through to the 18th Century “More infants died from abandonment in Europe than from all the plague epidemics combined!” (Grille, R 2005).  Even so within these eras there is still some evidence of babywearing amongst the poor and the nurse or nanny of wealthier families.  Rembrandt’s painting of a peasant woman wearing a baby on her back was painted in this era.  You can view that image here.

Elizabethan and Victorian England continued with swaddling as a means to managing babies.  Medicalisation during birth developed, wet nurses were commonly employed, infanticide was becoming less tolerated.  The first pram (perambulator) was invented in the early 1800’s.  This has evolved into the modern day pushchair or stroller.  Older people recall babies being carried in shawls in Scotland.  In Wales a truly traditional use of the Siol Fagu (shawl) was to carry a baby.  The tradition is being carried on today by many of us with Scottish and/or Welsh ancestry who wear our babies.

Babywearing during British colonization of New Zealand

The British colonized New Zealand in the 1800’s.  Childless couples came to New Zealand leaving their child rearing support networks behind.  Birth and child rearing had become a medical science that had a particular impact on at least one generation that had missed out on the support and advice from their own mothers.

British settlers observed Maori (indigenous people of New Zealand) as their cultures integrated and documented aspects of how Maori lived. Observations of how Maori parented their young include; “The first duty of a parent was to inculcate fearless energy of thought and action. Therefore a father would seldom chastise a boy lest he himself should be punished by other men, for children were tribal property, and it was important that the future warriors and warriors’ wives should grow up as bold and headstrong as they pleased.”   (Tregear, E. 1904).

Maori had quite a different parenting philosophy and view of children compared to the British. Maori children were considered tapu (sacred) due to their spiritual connection with the Atua (Gods). To upset a baby or young child was to upset the Gods.  All adults protected children in terms of the rules of tapu.   “The whakatauki, ‘He tangi to te tamariki, he whakamā to te pakeke – When the (impudent) child cries, the elder blushes,’ expresses the idea that the child was responding to a negative response from the minder, hence the adult’s embarrassment.”  (Jenkins, K. & Mountain Harte, H., 2011)

There are accounts of swaddling, walkers and swinging bassinets.  Traditionally Maori babies were carried on an adults back. Mothers were the main baby carriers though within some iwi (tribal group) when a baby boy was weaned he became the responsibility of his father and was therefore carried by him.  Grandparents also carried their mokopuna (grandchildren), “…an old man (if not a chief) might be seen toiling all day at his work with his little grandchild strapped on his back.” (Tregear, E. 1904).

Explanations of how a baby was carried are ambiguous.  It is very likely that the methods differed between iwi.  One of the more descriptive by Matereti Papakura in 1938 explained that “A pueru [cloak] is passed round the child and crossed in front of the mother, and the ends are tied at the back under the child’s tou [bottom], so that he sits against them. Sometimes, if the mother is doing nothing, she will hold the ends of the cloak in front. This way of carrying the child is very comfortable for the child and for the mother, and enables the mother to carry on her work with the child on her back.” (Papakura, M. 1938).  This method sounds like a simple Rucksack carry with a short sling.  It is unclear whether the cloak covers the back of the child from bottom to neck like the Rucksack carry or whether it is wrapped across the child’s upper back, coming under her arms before being passed over the mothers shoulders, similar to how the Japanese traditionally used their Obi’s (sash of their Kimono) to wear their baby on their back.

There is a description of a lacebark or hohere sling, “plaited to form a soft band” being

A painting from the Tangata Whenua exhibition in the Otago Museum.  Looks like a depiction of the Hohere type sling

A painting from the Tangata Whenua exhibition in the Otago Museum. Looks like a depiction of the Hohere type sling

used to secure the baby in position.  This account came from Southern New Zealand and sadly “This sling went out of fashion well back in the last century, and none can be seen in our museums today.” (Phillipps, W. J., 1955).

Noi Hudson of Te Arawa, Rotorua said “It takes weeks to get a decent amount of muka (soft fibre from the Harakeke – Flax) to be strong enough to make something to hold a baby.” (Personal communication, 2012).  Lacebark (hohere) would have been quite rough on both wearer and baby. When the British were well established in New Zealand the old, heavy, rough army blankets became readily available and made baby carrying easier.  Noi demonstrated how this was done.  The bottom of the blanket was wrapped around the mothers back and tied at her chest, hanging apron style down her back.  She would then lift the top of the blanket up over the baby and over her shoulders tying it high on her chest.  The baby sat in the pocket created.  It was very restrictive on the mother’s arms, but allowed enough movement to carry kete (bags) and work in the fields. An example of this can be found in the Promoting Babywearing NZ video at 1.20mins in the videos page.

YoungMwomanpikauMaori woman were still carrying their babies in the 1950’s.  Plunket nurses of the time attempted to ‘educate’ Maori mothers on the European scientific way of mothering.  Most of the time the “Maori mother nodded politely and carried on doing what she was doing once the nurse had left.”  (Noi Hudson, personal communication)  However by 1960 Maori were no longer carrying their babies.  Second hand prams were readily available and were shared amongst the whanau (families) in the Pa (village).  The common practice of Pikau or Waha waha (to carry on back or lift up) was no longer.


Babywearing in New Zealand Post European Settlement

Although Maori continued to wear their babies until the mid 1900’s the availability of prams and influence of the British settlers lead to the loss of this traditional practice.  Dr Frederic Truby King was the first child rearing ‘expert’ to have a significant impact in New Zealand.  He developed the Plunket Society and his “scientific system of infant management” (Kedgley, S. 1996) was the basis of training for Plunket Nurses.  Due to the high maternal and infant death rates and everyone’s interest in decreasing these, King’s advice was appealing. They were instructed not to give their babies any unnecessary attention or handling so as not to spread germs or potentially cause behavioural problems.  “What mothers had been doing for centuries, in other words, cuddling their babies, feeding them on demand for as long as they wanted, soothing them when they cried, was now deemed damaging.” (Kedgley, S. 1996).

Rural women were somewhat protected from this advice due to their isolation.  Along with Maori women they were slowly integrated into the system and strongly encouraged to follow King’s advice.  King himself showed that he believed that to be in her mother’s arms was what a baby really wanted through his comment “There are few sights more pathetic than that of the weak mother not daring to lay her child down because he will cry for the snuggling warmth of her arms…”  (Kedgley, S. 1996).

Things slowly began to change in the 1950’s due to a couple of significant people.  Christchurch psychiatrist Dr Maurice Bevan-Brown showed an interest in what Plunket was teaching  “based on a growing belief in psychology that an adult’s emotional stability was based on emotional needs in infant [infancy] having been met.”  (Bryer, L. 2003)  He encouraged parents to touch their babies and not leave them to cry or even to be alone.  “Never leave a baby (in the first year) alone to cry.” (Bevan-Brown, M. 1950)  His book “The Sources of Love and Fear” 1950, didn’t go down well with King’s Plunket successor Helen Deem and therefore didn’t have an influence on the Plunket Society’s teachings.  This was likely due to a contributor of Bevan-Brown’s book commenting that some of the advice of Plunket nurses “filled me with horror…dismay and despair.” (Bryer, L. 2003) However, Bevan-Brown was potentially an influence on the formation of The Natural Birth Association in 1952.   “According to one of the founders of Parents’ Centre, [the name the Natural Birth Association changed to] his book spread like a forest fire, and was quickly out of print.” (Bryer, L. 2003)  There is rumour that at the end of Truby King’s life he asked Bevan-Brown to take over the Plunket Society.  “Had he done so, the Plunket Society would undoubtedly have taken a very different course.” (Kedgely, S. 1996).  Founder of the Natural Birth Association, (now the Parents’ Centre) Helen Brew says that both Plunket and the Obstetric Society felt threatened by this group of women who were re-establishing women’s informal networks, supporting and empowering them as mothers. “The attitude of doctors and health professionals was, what do these mothers know about anything?” (Kedgley, S. 1996).

The advice of new child rearing ‘experts’ Dr John Bowlby and Dr Benjamin Spock wrote of maternal deprivation and the importance of the emotional needs of babies giving fuel to women’s demands to have their babies with them after birth.  “From his studies he [Bowlby] concluded that infants and young children required for their mental health a warm, intimate and continuous relationship with their mother…” (Bryer, L. 2003).

The 1950’s/60’s was a time of great change to mothering and family life.  As mentioned mothers outside the norm, including those who lived rurally were less influenced by the latest ‘expert’.  They followed their instincts more and learnt from their mothers and neighbours.  Alison East from Dunedin remembers how she and her brothers were carried around their parents King Country farm in the 1950’s.  “Mum was a nurse in the war.  It was all about marching around the farm, keeping up an exercise regime and helping with the productivity. She was never at home.” (Alison East, personal communication, 2012).  Alison describes a canvas seat with a strap and belt-like buckle.  The strap sat on one shoulder and the seat sat on the opposite hip with the baby in it, much like a Ring Sling or Pouch.  The seat had a base that may have had a pocket where a piece of plywood was inserted or it may have just been reinforced canvas on the base.  It had a back and sides and the straps passed right under the base.  She wasn’t a sewer so she must have bought it or been given it by someone.  Although uncommon during this time babywearing did happen – for rural mothers it was practical.

First founded in the US in 1956 La Leche League (LLL) started in 1964 in New Zealand.  LLL is a mother-to-mother support group that educates on and actively supports breastfeeding and the breastfeeding relationship between mother and baby as well as supporting anything that enhances this relationship such as skin to skin contact, a woman’s active participation in her birth and nowadays, practices such as babywearing.  Mothers volunteer to train and practice as a Leader providing information, time, empathy and advice to other breastfeeding mothers.  This group added more strength to mothers who were increasingly standing up for their rights to make decisions about how they raised their children based on their instincts and learning from other mothers rather than, often male doctors and ‘science’.  Sometime in the first 10 years of La Leche League an instruction sheet on how to make and use a May Tie (Mei Tai) was printed in a LLL magazine.May-tieLLLphoto

Corrine Rooney who was born and raised in New Zealand remembers her mother talking about making and using a baby carrier for her older sibling.  “I found it very useful for trips to town (not so frequent in those days ) and particularly for late afternoons /early evening when I was trying to get a meal and L was very fractious!”  Nonie Rooney.
The 1970’s are well known for the social movements that occurred.  The world was becoming more accessible through air travel and parents or parents to be were able to see how others in the world raised their children.  One of the biggest influences in bringing babywearing back to the West was American, Jean Leidloff and her book ‘The Continuum Concept.’  After years in the Venezuelan Jungle, Leidloff wrote of what she had observed and how she believed the way we were raising babies in the West was wrong.  She spoke of the ‘in arms’ phase of a baby’s life; when they are totally dependent on another and have the innate expectation to be held.  “…his place in arms is the expected place, known to his innermost sense as his place, and what he experiences while he is in arms is acceptable to his continuum, fulfils his current needs and contributes correctly to his development.” (Leidloff, J. 1975).  Leidloff’s book encouraged the move towards more empathetic parenting and as the idea of the ‘in arms’ phase of a baby’s life took hold so too did the idea of babywearing.

20120926094835012_0001Although still rare in New Zealand, families were starting to find ways to ‘wear’ their babies.  Slings were being made at home and occasionally one would appear from another country.  Tony and Suzanne Culling of Dunedin had their first born in Christchurch with a radical obstetrician of the time, Dr Vivan Croxford who operated from the Wendova Maternity home.  They prepared for the birth of their first child with antenatal classes at the Parents’ Centre.  It was here they met a woman who made and sold baby slings.  They were Mei Tai style and came with instructions. They look to be worn like a traditional Mei Tai rather than how it is recommended to be worn today.  This maybe why Sue found it to be “quite a weight on your shoulders” (personal communication, 2012).

Tony recalls comments such as “oh that poor baby” and “won’t it suffocate” from others, but personally found that it “left you free”.  “It put the baby to sleep because it was nice and warm and cozy” (personal communication, 2012).  Both Tony and Suzanne felt there was still a taboo associated with carrying your baby in 1975. Suzanne said, “I did it because it was something different.”

During the 1980’s baby carriers became more common. The front pack, hip seat/bag sling and fixed frame backpacks were growing in their availability and use.  The New Zealand Parents’ Centre Magazine’s were mentioning slings more often.  In an article in Summer, 1987 Bulletin it was suggested that “Slings are very good for walks along rutted tracks…”  In November 1989 Sheila Kitzinger  social anthropologist and “internationally acclaimed authority on women’s experience of pregnancy, childbirth and motherhood…” (Strid, J. 1989) featured in the Parents’ Centre magazine wearing her baby in a pouch type sling.  Judi Strid who wrote the article recalls carrying all 5 of her children through the 1980’s in a combination of sling, front pack and backpack.  In a 1994 edition of the same magazine two mothers graced the front page pushing their babies in strollers with one also carrying a baby in a front pack.  Another article in the April/May, 1995 edition of the Parents’ Centre magazine, looked at the safe use of devices designed for babies, such as highchairs, bouncers, jolly jumpers and prams.  Between 1983-1992, 256 children under the age of 6 had sustained injuries requiring hospitalization after falling from a pram or stroller. There was no mention of slings or other carriers in this article.

kyraollieIn the year 2000 when I was in my mid 20’s and a long way off having children myself, I met a woman in a market place who had a baby in a stretchy wrap around sling.  I had never seen this before and was taken by how ‘right’ it looked.  “Of course, that is where a baby should be,” were my thoughts at the time.  After asking the woman what material she had used, the dimensions and how she had wrapped it I went onto make one for a friend who was about to have a baby.  I knew little more about babywearing than what the woman had told me in our brief meeting.  As you can see from the photo of Kyra with Ollie in the sling, we weren’t too clued up on safe, ergonomic babywearing!  I continued to make these slings for my friends as they had babies and seven years later made one for my first child.

Just recently we have come a long way with our knowledge and understanding of babywearing benefits, safety and techniques.  Only 6 years ago in the Jan/Feb 2006 Consumer Magazine there was a review on baby carriers.  The three carriers reviewed were a bag sling, front pack and framed backpack.  As fantastic as it is to see people wearing babies we now know that these carriers are not the ideal baby carrier.

BagslingThe Bag style Sling is dangerous

Bag style slings are dangerous having lead to the death of at least 14 babies., warning  Front packs cause a baby’s legs to hang vertically from the hips putting pressure on the head of the femur not allowing it to sit in it’s ideal position in the hip socket.  This can potentially contribute to developmental dysplasia of the hip (DDH) if your baby has a predisposition to it, or hip problems later in life.  The problem being that the bones of the hip joint (along with most other joints in a baby’s body) are as soft as the cartilage in your ear and take a year or more to strengthen into solid bone.  These carriers can also cause injury to the immature spine with all the weight being supported by the spine at its narrow base., baby-carriers  For more information on babywearing safety see the Safety section.  Some framed backpacks are the same, though they are only recommended for babies who are sitting unassisted.  Hopefully their hip joints have already done most of their development in the correct position by then! The classic kiwi backpack is great for the tramping family.  Designs are being improved to support the baby’s developing hips and spine.

Just recently, Consumer Magazine, (Aug, 2012) did another review on baby carriers.  This time it featured Soft Structured Carriers, a Wraparound Sling, a Ring Sling and unfortunately a couple of front packs.  Unfortunately it failed to mention the problems narrow crutch front packs maybe causing to a baby’s hips.  We still have some work to do on educating the masses on ideal babywearing, but the fact that babywearing is a growing trend in New Zealand and other Western countries is heart-warming.  Not only are many of us carrying on with the ancient tradition, we are actively encouraging a resurgence of this practical and enjoyable parenting technique that has never actually been lost; only faded from the mainstream for sometime.


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