From Baby Toting to Babywearing

The use of infant carriers wasn’t a novel concept in North America in the 20th century but it had a stigma of poverty or transience attached to their use in the West since the European Middle Ages. The post-war (WWII) Baby Boom seems to be the impetus for changing attitudes about infant carriers over the following half-century. Patents for infant carrying devices were filed in quick succession after WWII ended. Even though traditional infant carriers were known of and in use, North American parents wanted innovated forms made of new materials for their modern lifestyles. Yet even then, many people were suspicious of use infant carriers and the implications for the relationship between parent and child. 

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Big Babies

Humans, like the other Great Apes, are physiologically riders; breast milk composition is not suited to parking infants for long periods between feeding (Ross). For this reason among many others, our species has had to carry our babies with us wherever we go. Unfortunately, humans find carrying infants more difficult than our evolutionary cousins for three reasons: lack non-grasping feet and body hair, physically helpless infants and, most importantly for this post, the relative size of our infants.

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Non-human apes in the taxonomic family Hominidae (literally means “Great Ape” and makes me think of Charlotte’s Web’s “Some Pig” but I digress) have smaller, more precocious babies than humans. Adult gorillas, for example, are significantly larger than adult humans, yenewborn and adult weightst their newborns are about half the size of human newborns. Chimpanzees, which are our closest extant evolutionary relative and have a similar adult body weight to us, give birth to newborns that are around 3% of their adult size, while humans have newborns that are around 6% of adult size (DeSilva). At what point since our common ancestor with chimpanzees, did hominins start having bigger babies? Continue reading

Beng Babies of the Côte d’Ivoire

In 2004, Alma Gottlieb published a unique ethnography on the babies of the Beng people in Côte d’Ivoireivory coast. The majority of ethnographies focus on the culture of adults or verbal children. Babies, if considered at all, are described in the context of their relationships to adults and older children. Gottlieb’s work focus on infants as the subject in The Afterlife is Where We Come From: The Culture of Infancy in West AfricaI hope that her work inspires more ethnographic research into the cultures of infancy around the world. For me at least, the subject is endlessly fascinating.  I recommend the book to everyone interested in anthropology, parenting, or infants.

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The Costs of Carrying

Many moons ago at a family gathering, a relative was complaining about her baby’s fussing, “He won’t let me put him down and he’s so @#%!ing heavy!” I offered to get one of my baby carriers out of my car and she refused, claiming that he was too heavy to be carried all the time. I tried to say that “the weight seems to disappear in a carrier because of the distribution…” but she wasn’t listening. Fully glazed expression as she was strapping him into a 20 lbs car seat, in order to swing it from arm to arm, for the. next. four. hours.

But back to that bit about infant carriers making baby’s weight seem to disappear. Those of us babywearing nerds can give a good schpeel about how (ergonomic) infant carriers distribute the weight through the pelvis instead of pulling on the shoulders. But is there a way to scientifically quantify how an infant carrier reduces the energetic drain of carrying? Why yes, yes there is– by measuring the differences in calorie expenditure between different ways of carrying.

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Indonesia

In Indonesia, the Luwu people of South Sulawesi wrap the newborn and the placenta (known in the west as a lotus birth) together in a sarrong. The placenta is referred to as the newborn’s “older sibling”. When the placenta is ready to separate from the infant, the father carries the older sibling out of the house, in a sling (just like a baby) and buries it near a tree.

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In East Nusa, Tenggara Province, sarrongs are also used as baby carriers, in East Flores they are referred to as wėngko molė , or “making the blanket”– wėngko refers to the placenta. Infant carriers are considered an artificial womb, a substitute placenta for the baby.

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