By Caroline Jane Cole
April 4, 2012
The author would like to dedicate this article to Jean Liedloff, who passed away in March 2011. "Her work profoundly affected the way I parent, and continues to teach me new ways of seeing each time I re-read her work."
It is the evening of our friend's wedding. We dance enthusiastically at the Ceilidh, a hundred bodies dressed in their finest, moving in tune to the music. Instinctively I swoop to avoid a flying arm, my free hand reassuringly touching the blonde mop nestled at my chest. As I move to the rhythms of the music my son unlatches himself from my breast, drifting contentedly into sleep. Tummy full of milk, he nestles comfortably into my body as all around him people twirl to the rhythm of the music. He sleeps soundly on my front for the rest of the evening, reassured by the familiar sound of my heartbeat and voice, the smell and the touch of my hair on his face. Conscious of his every movement, I am free to join in the evening's celebrations safe in the knowledge he is with me.
As I dance I feel deeply connected to every mother throughout the ages who has danced the night away with her kin, her baby strapped to her, lulled to sleep by her movements. Deborah Jackson explains the significance of dancing-in-arms in ‘Baby Wisdom’; ‘[it] is a baby’s way of participating in music, long before he learns to swing, or way on his own two feet, or beat out a rhythm with his own hands’.1 Although this feels completely natural and has been for all millennia, I have stepped out of our cultural norms. Guests stare at the large bump I carry, amazed that a baby is sleeping through the noise, that I am not yet tired. Puzzled, a few ask where our pram is. The caller remarks this is her first ceilidh with a toddler in tow. Photos are snapped of this unusual spectacle. Yet I do not tire of the weight of my baby or the comments. Ewan is sixteen months old. I have worn him in a sling almost every day of his life, often for many hours at a time; my body strengthening as his grows. We have grown together in this journey.
In a culture which dictates separation from our babies, wearing a toddler at an adult dominated, evening event is an unusual occurrence. Placing Ewan in a pram at the side of the room or arranging a babysitter to care for him would have been far more socially acceptable. Yet something precious would have been lost, the continuum between the mother-and-child dyad, broken. This gentle way of parenting offers us a happy equilibrium, a more peaceful state of being where Ewan is fully integrated into our lives. This extends to full-term, sustained breastfeeding and to bed-sharing. Over time this attachment-style parenting has broken down the barriers built by years of cultural conditioning, helping me to reach the instinctive voice below. Listening to this voice has become a powerful tool, helping me along the path of motherhood; the most rewarding and difficult journey of all.
Re-finding the continuum
A formative moment along this path came when I placed six-week-old Ewan in his baby rocker so I could make tea. As I let him go I glimpsed sadness and a loss beyond words hidden behind his eyes, which touched my soul. Responding to him contradicted the false belief that babies must learn to be alone in order to develop their characters, to ensure they are not 'spoiled'. Yet I could not help it. I began wearing Ewan in a sling, which we both enjoyed immensely.
I then read 'The Continuum Concept' by Jean Leidloff.2 This thought-provoking book about childcare practices of the Yequana tribe deeply impacted on me. I wept with guilt as I relived the first days and weeks of Ewan's life, realising he had been separate from me more than he had been in continuum. I had simply followed my culture, yet it wasn't too late. Ewan was still a young baby; I felt strongly that we could make up for lost time. That is what we did.
Babywearing slipped easily into our lives, easing the 'burden' of twenty-first century parenthood. My hands were freed-up to work around the house or garden, as Ewan contentedly watched or slept. I began to appreciate Jean Leidloff’s passionate treatise, her insistence that we move away from our baby-centeredness to a new way of seeing baby-care, as a ‘non-activity’. Ewan became my constant companion as a matter of course, a ‘passive alert’ observer to all my activities. From a series of disjointed movements, placing Ewan in one piece of baby equipment to the next, trying in vain to amuse and comfort him, our days began to flow more easily. We slowly relinquished the baby rocker, play-gym, activity-station, the pram and the cot, offering instead his mother’s body. We became a symbiosis as I learnt to read and respond swiftly yet gently to his moods and desires, his body movements and voice communicating with me.
I felt his need to nurse when he nuzzled into my chest. I responded by latching him on to my breast without interrupting the flow of what I was doing. Babywearing whilst breastfeeding took time and practice to learn, as well as a suitable sling. It offered me more time to get on with household chores, especially useful with Ewan, an enthusiastic nurser who would happily feed on and off all day long. Research indicates the various merits of breastfeeding on the move, including the convenience, the calming effect and nurturing benefits. As Dr Sears, creator of the ‘Seven Bs’ for attachment parenting, usefully summarises, ‘babywearing allows breastfeeding on the move so that busy mothers can nurture their babies with the best nutrition, yet continue their active lifestyles’.3 This said, on occasions sitting down to nurse was a welcome respite from being on my feet all day babywearing!
How do women manage in cultures where wearing babies and toddlers is the norm, as they walk in search of food, work in the fields or in the home? How did our ancestors survive? On my many travels and when living in Asia I do not remember ever seeing a pushchair and rarely heard a baby cry! Mothers and older siblings carrying babies in slings was a common sight, as they carried on with their day-to-day lives. This is much how Deborah Jackson and Jean Liedloff describe numerous tribal cultures functioning. However, in the West babywearing is quite uncommon and often categorised as a ‘hippy’, alternative parenting practice. Perhaps we still unconsciously associate babywearing with more primitive and therefore uncivilised lifestyles. Hopefully, as baby and toddler wearing becomes more popular and society wakes up to its broad-ranging benefits, this judgemental mindset will disappear.
One of the reasons Westerners find wearing babies difficult for any length of time is because of our more sedentary lifestyles. We are unused to extended periods of physical activity so find carrying a heavy baby tiring. This activity can put pressure on our joints and muscles, having the potential to damage our bodies. I have much anecdotal evidence of this phenomenon; parents who infrequently wear their babies because of how demanding it is on their bodies. It is a circle that is difficult to break; the more sedentary we are the more trying babywearing is, so the less we practice it. If as a society we were more active babywearing wouldn’t be such a struggle, but a relief. Western children may also find the experience of being carried unfamiliar and possibly uncomfortable. I have noticed babies who are restless and unhappy being worn, perhaps because they aren’t used to it; these babies may also pick-up on their parent’s unease which compounds their negativity.
By relying on technology and materials to do what our own bodies were designed to do so well for millennia, babywearing is becoming a lost art, much like breastfeeding. We no longer assimilate knowledge of how to breastfeed or babywear from our communities. Instead we have to learn how to do so through online communities, support groups and professionals. As both breastfeeding and babywearing have become marginalised within society, particularly as our babies grow into toddlers, those of us who wish to practice these activities must seek out subcultures to help affirm what are in fact biologically normal mother-infant activities.
The freedom to travel
Toddler-wearing provides us untold freedoms which most parents may not even consider. Ewan experienced the deep snow of last winter kept warm nestled close to my body like an Inuit child, only his head exposed to the subzero temperatures. We continue to take him on countless walks in forests, up mountains and across cities, all in the sling. Being carried provides hours of being close to Mummy, feeling the fresh air, seeing the trees, the sheep, the cows, hearing the birds and insects or the bustle of city life, falling into a contended sleep to the familiar rhythms of Mummy's walking.
Travelling in the UK, Europe and Canada have all been a joy, made so much easier, more accessible and flexible because of baby and toddler-wearing. We prepare for our imminent trip to Asia safe in the knowledge Ewan will happily be toddler worn. In all these new environments we know Ewan feels safe and secure perched in his sling, taking it all in whilst allowing his parents to be far more mobile than other toddler transportation would allow! Toddler wearing enables us to continue to pursue and to share our love of the outdoors and our wanderlust with our child.
Many people express surprise that Ewan doesn't grow restless in the sling, or that my back doesn't hurt. Because Ewan is so used to being carried he will happily stay in his carrier for hours at a stretch. He is now twenty-one months old and shows no signs of growing out of the sling. The more he is carried, the easier it is for us both; I simply do not feel his weight. I can envisage years more of wearing him, less and less as times goes on, until the point when we have both outgrown the sling. Again, there are similarities with breastfeeding here, as he naturally weans from the breast in the same way he weans from the sling.
I envisage a time that we have come full circle; back to our ancestral roots where babywearing was the norm. We live in exciting times, where we can easily share expertise, resources and experiences with millions of people worldwide. Why not take advantage of this to share babywearing and breastfeeding advice and resources? These lost arts can be re-learnt, the skills that enabled us as humans to survive, thrive and become the dominant species can be reborn and celebrated.
Technology can aid us in creating slings for every conceivable lifestyle need, including breastfeeding-friendly slings. In the process we will become fitter as well as more in-tune with our babies and with it ourselves. Our babies will be more content, which will nurture our own sense of wellbeing and happiness. It is time for us all to dust of that sling and start baby and toddler-wearing!
1. Deborah Jackson. ‘Baby wisdom: The World’s Best Kept Secrets for the first Year of Parenting.’ 2002. Hobber Mobius.
2. Jean Leidloff. ‘The Continuum Concept: In search of happiness lost’. 1986. Penguin.
3. Dr Sears. Ask Dr Sears: A Trusted Sight for Parents. Babywearing whilst breastfeeding. Accessed 22/02/2012. www.askdrsears.com/topics/fussy-baby/baby-wearing/babywearing-while-breastfeeding
Caroline Jane Cole is a full-time Mum to one son, Ewan James, who has inspired her to become a breastfeeding peer supporter, an active member of La Leche League, and a freelance journalist. Jane writes passionately about natural parenting issues for magazines and her blog, Stone Age Parenting, on topics including sustained, full-term breastfeeding, babywearing and bed-sharing.