Frist published in ‘Mothering’ magazine, April 4th 2012
An evening Ceilidh
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. He nestles comfortably into my body, his eyes heavy, his breathing steady, as all around him people twirl to the rhythm of the music. Tummy full of milk, he is comforted by the familiar sounds of my heartbeat and voice, my smell and the touch of my hair on his face, sleeping soundly on my front for the rest of the evening. 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. Although this feels completely natural, I have stepped out of our cultural norms. Guests stare at the large bump I am carrying, amazed that a baby is sleeping through the noise, that I am not yet tired carrying him. 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, reaching 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 a 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. 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.
Baby-wearing slipped easily into our lives, easing the ‘burden’ of parenthood. My hands were freed-up to work around the house or garden, as Ewan contentedly watched or slept. Our days began to flow more smoothly as we slowly relinquished the baby rocker, play-gym, ‘Jumperoo’, the pram and the cot, offering instead my body. Our days had once been a series of disjointed movements, placing Ewan in one piece of baby equipment to the next, trying in vain to amuse and comfort him. 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. Baby-wearing whilst breastfeeding took time and practice to learn, as well as a suitable sling. It offered me more time to get on with household jobs, especially useful with Ewan, an enthusiastic nurser who would happily feed on and off all day long. However, on occasions sitting down to nurse was a welcome respite from being on my feet all day baby-wearing!
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 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 Quebec Province, Barcelona, London and on the Isles of Shetland 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 Bali 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 our love of the outdoors and our wanderlust.
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 now wear him in the back position, a more optimum position for a toddler, enabling me to see my feet and Ewan to see the world!
I can envisage at least another year or 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.
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 very common sight, as they carried on with their day-to-day lives. However, in the West baby-wearing is uncommon and often categorised as a hippy, alternative parenting practice. Perhaps we still unconsciously associate baby-wearing with being more primitive and therefore uncivilised. Hopefully as baby-wearing becomes more popular and society realises 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 also put pressure on muscles rarely used, having the potential to damage our bodies.
Western children may also find the experience of being carried unfamiliar and possibly uncomfortable, unused to being worn. By relying on technology and materials to do what our own bodies were designed to do so well for millennia, baby-wearing is becoming a lost art, much like breastfeeding. We no longer assimilate knowledge of how to breastfeed or baby-wear from our communities. Instead we have to learn how to do so through strangers, support groups and professionals. As both breastfeeding and baby-wearing have become marginalised within society, particularly as our babies grow into toddlers, those of us who wish to practice them must seek out subcultures to help affirm what are in fact biologically normal mother-infant activities.
I envisage a time that we have come full circle; back to our ancestral roots where baby-wearing 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 baby-wearing 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!