Estimated reading time: 4 minutes
Updated September 2016
HopeAllyson Dwiggins, Pennsylvania, USA
Photo: Christina Simantiri
Tradition is a powerful element in how we choose to do many things.
Our mothers and grandmothers were our first teachers and, through their often unconscious example, they paved the way for us. Following many of these maternal traditions makes sense. The tradition of carrying babies in our arms is as old as humanity itself. To keep our babies close meant they were physically safe, had immediate and direct access to the food in our breasts, were kept warm by our bodies, and were able to view the world from a safe perch, enabling them to learn every moment of the day. They also cried less, slept more peacefully, were more calm and content and benefited from the constant physical contact with parent or caregiver.
As humans, we use our hands for everything, and the loss of one or both hands to carrying an infant or young child hampers an adult’s ability to navigate and provide for themselves, older children and extended family. Finding a way to free those hands, while still keeping the baby close is enormously helpful. Baby wearing, using a sling or soft carrier, is a time-honored tradition that is seen as essential for caring for a baby in many cultures around the world.
But the traditions surrounding baby wearing go far beyond just carrying the baby close to a parent or caregiver; often, the actual carrier has a cultural and symbolic meaning.
Among the South American Ashaninka, the carrier, called a “tsompirontsi,” is a symbol of readiness on the part of the parents to provide for a new baby. The young woman, who likely has carried younger brothers and sisters in a tsompirontsi since she herself was a young girl, must grow, process the cotton, spin the yarn and weave the cloth for the tsompirontsi in anticipation of her marriage. This entire process shows her ability to contribute productively to the new household. The man is expected to hunt for small animals. A single bone is taken from each animal he kills, carved with protective symbols, and presented to the bride to add to the edge of the tsompirontsi. In this way, the man proves his ability to provide food for the new household. After the baby is born, the dangling bones clink as the mother walks, and both the sound and the symbols carved on the bones protect the baby symbolically and spiritually.
In China, babies and young children are frequently carried on the backs of those caring for ￼them. The carriers are often decorated with symbols to protect the baby, sometimes with elements of five things, or with coins to ensure prosperity. The number five is auspicious both traditionally and in modern China. Traditionally, five represents the five blessings: long life, good health, wealth or high social status, love and a natural death. The number five in modern China stands for the five guarantees: housing, food, clothing, medical care, and funeral costs.
Frequently, symbols for happiness will be embroidered on the carrier. Examples might include ducks, butterflies or stars; often, the bride receives the carrier as a wedding gift.
In Nigeria, mothers and babies are isolated for the first seven days after delivery. It is only on the eighth day that the baby will be named and carried for the first time. The first time a baby is carried it is usually by a grandmother who will fasten the baby to her back. Mothers are adept at shifting their babies to the back and fastening them there. Although names for the carrier differ according to population groups, the Yoruba women, whose name for their type of sling is “oja,” have begun marketing this sling, and the name has become a generic term for baby slings regionally.
Many of us have fallen out of touch with the traditions of our own ancestors and the way they carried or cared for their babies. However, new traditions are being created and handed down as we relearn the benefits of carrying our babies.
The number and type of carriers available on the market today is vast, especially with access to the Internet. More and more frequently, baby-wearing demonstrations are becoming popular with groups of new mothers. In these demonstrations, an experienced baby-wearing mother will come with a number of carriers, describe the benefits and limitations of each and allow new mothers to try them. The new mothers can then discover what works for them and their babies without having to purchase different carriers to try them on their own.
Several new traditions are starting with mothers who baby wear today. The “heirloom” carrier is one that a mother puts away after her child has outgrown it for that child’s own future babies. This lovely tradition is gaining strength among those who use a variety of carriers with their child or children and note that each child has a specific carrier that they particularly love to be carried in.
In a recent baby welcoming ceremony that I attended, a new mother was blessed with beads with which she could decorate her new baby’s carrier. [Note: any ornament that is added to a baby carrier should be very securely attached and positioned so that it cannot end up in the baby’s mouth.] By gifting a bead, or other ornament, the giver is not only welcoming the baby into the world, but showering love and acceptance for mother and baby into the community. It’s an interesting revival of old traditions along with a creation of new ones as we carry our babies into the future.
HopeAllyson Dwiggins is an LLL Leader, an Associate Professional Liaison Department Administrator for the Alliance for Breastfeeding Education, and a private practice IBCLC in Horsham, Pennsylvania, USA. She wore all three of her breastfed children.