Baby Toting vs. Babywearing: carrying infants in 20th Century North America

Dr. William Sears claims credit for coining the term babywearing when his children were small. Dr. Sears recounts how his wife would put on the carrier in the morning and not take it off until she undressed at night.

“I remember one day when Martha fabricated a sling out of material from an old bed sheet and said, ‘I really enjoy wearing Mathew. The sling is like a piece of clothing. I put it on in the morning and take it off in the evening.’ Hence the term ‘babywearing’ was born in the Sears household.”- Dr. William Sears (askdrsears.com)

Though Rayner Garner invented the ringsling in 1981, branding it as The Baby Sling, Dr. Sears developed his own versions (albeit with enough padding to resemble a duvet and prevent the user from adjusting the pouch effectively) and has sold it as the Over the Shoulder Baby Holder and The Original NoJo Babysling. 

The use of infant carriers wasn’t a novel concept in North America in the 1980’s but previously it had a stigma of poverty or transience attached since the European Middle Ages, to those who by choice or necessity carried their infants on their bodies. The Baby Boom seems to be the impetus for changing this attitude over the next half century. Patents for infant carrying devices were filed in quick succession after WWII ended– though traditional infant carriers were known of and in use, North American parents wanted innovated new forms made of new materials for their modern lifestyles. Yet even then, many people were suspicious of their use and its implications for the relationships between parent and child. 

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Europe: Medieval and Early Modern Infant Carriers

What kind of infant carriers were used in Europe in the Middle Ages and the Early Modern area? Europe has a variety of geographies and climates: from the sunny warmth of the Mediterranean to the deserts of Spain, the Alpine Glaciers, the ancient forests of Germany, the tundra in Finland, to the wetlands of eastern England. Different environments produce different carriers and Europe is no exception. In the Nordic countries, we find extremely complex carriers, called Komse, which are cradleboards that would not look out of place in many North American First Nations cultures. Elsewhere, there are extremely simple carriers: fabric tied at the shoulder to form a sling.  The most striking differences in how infants were carried in the Middle Ages versus today stems from the practice of swaddling. Continue reading

Taira, Okinawa

In 1966, Thomas and Hatsumi Maretzki wrote an ethnography of the Okinawan village of Taira, published as part of a series called Six Cultures: Studies of Child Rearing, which this article is a summary focusing on his observations of infant carrying.

okinawaBeginning one month after birth, a baby is kept in constant contact with its caregiver’s body and this continues until the child is around two years old, or whenever the mother becomes pregnant again.

“A child is strapped onto someone’s back from the time he wakes up in the morning to the time he is put to bed at night.”(Maretzki, 107).

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