Why Sarah Shrestha-Howlett loves babywearing
It was a cold February night in Oslo when I went into labour. It had been snowing non-stop for three days, and the snowploughs were only just beginning their nightly clearance of the roads. My 3-year-old could barely walk up our drive because the snow was so deep, and the next few days were predicted to be even colder. Pushing a pram around in such conditions simply wasn’t feasible, and with it being several degrees below freezing I wanted to keep my newborn close and warm. I had packed a stretchy sling in my hospital bag, the one we had used to carry my son. When the time came to leave the hospital, I nestled our new little girl cosily next to my chest; the memories of carrying our firstborn flooded my mind, and as I looked down and kissed my baby’s head I couldn’t have been more content.
Over the next few weeks we experimented with using the pram, but our daughter hated it. She would scream her lungs out for what felt like hours until we picked her up. I decided she had digestion issues and that the upright position was more comfortable for her, but in reality I think she just wanted the closeness of her mama. So I continued to carry her, and still do today.
In Norway, although we had become accustomed to seeing babies in slings, and many people have some sort of buckle carrier, prams are certainly the norm. As was once true in the UK, people believe that children sleep better in the crisp, outdoor air, so it is commonplace to see a pram parked outside a restaurant or kindergarten with a sleeping baby inside. With this belief an integral part of the culture of raising children in Norway, babywearing is an uncomfortable oddity for many; I have received comments from people concerned about my baby’s breathing and comfort, and some who believe that babywearing is for hippies. This is in direct contrast to my experience in Nepal, where my son was born. There, buggies and prams are non-existent. The roads and paths in the capital city are a dusty mess, constantly under construction, flooded by monsoon rains and heavily congested. Nepali women typically carry their children on their backs, wrapped simply in a long shawl or a blanket. To push your child in a pram is impractical, so babywearing is the natural choice.
I became interested in these differences between cultures. Was babywearing a choice based merely on practicality? For me it had certainly begun that way, but it had become more of a necessity for my baby’s happiness and comfort. However, using a wrap or a carrier in Europe meant I was labelled an ‘attachment parent’, the assumption being that I had actively made the choice to carry my child based on a desire to build our closeness. Of course, this came into my thinking, but can every parent who babywears be slotted neatly into such a category? What are the other motivations behind it? In order to answer these questions, I decided to explore the history of babywearing.
The human race has always carried its children. Primate newborns were strong enough to cling to their parents, but as humans evolved and their brains grew bigger, babies were born earlier and were no longer developed enough to cling to a parent. Early humans therefore needed a safe and practical way to carry their children and go about their daily lives. Originally, carriers would have been constructed from animal skins and plants, and gradually evolved into the carriers we know today. From rebozos in Mexico to saris in India, different ways were found to keep babies close. In the western world, however, prams became fashionable during the Victorian era, along with new attitudes to parenting. Carrying became less popular, for fear of ‘spoiling’ children, and became associated with lower-class families.
In the 1960s an American woman named Ann Moore invented the first soft-structured carrier based on what she had seen during her work with the Peace Corps in West Africa, and slowly a few other slings and carriers started to appear on the market. In the 1980s the terms ‘babywearing’ and ‘attachment parenting’ began, after a man invented the ring sling for his wife and sold the idea to Dr William Sears. Since then, the number and style of carriers have exploded, and there is now an entire industry around babywearing.
It is believed that social media has played a big part in this surge, making babywearing open and accessible to everyone. Technology has made it easier for parents to share their babywearing experiences with the world and communicate with other parents making the same choices, helping them form communities. Research suggests that choosing a wrap or carrier can be an expression of a parent’s identity, with the colours and patterns being a reflection of part of their personality. Many parents own multiple wraps to express different sides of themselves.
With so many parents now choosing to babywear, there is increasing research into its benefits, both scientific and anecdotal. There is a wealth of information about these benefits at carryingmatters.co.uk, but here is a summary of some of the main points:
Convenience is a big bonus of babywearing. For me wearing my baby meant that I could leave the house, meet other mums and do the grocery shop without the hassle of navigating a pram in rush hour. Eventually I learnt to nurse while wearing a carrier, so when my son became distressed on the walk from kindergarten and took an hour rather than 10 minutes to get home, I could comfort both of my children at once. Sometimes I’ve even tandem carried, with my baby on my front and my 4-year-old on my back. Wearing my children has enabled me to continue with the day’s necessities while still giving them both the attention they need. I could respond to my baby’s cues quickly, building a sense of safety and ultimately experiencing less crying. My husband can also babywear, helping him to bond with our baby and giving me the chance to rest.
Babywearing has huge benefits for the health of both mother and baby. It can help regulate the baby’s heart rate, breathing and temperature, and it helps breastfeeding to be established. As a result, it is often used as a tool with premature babies to encourage skin-to-skin, aiding their development and deepening their connection with their parents. Wide-based carriers are used as part of the treatment for hip dysplasia. The upright position is often more comfortable for babies with reflux or colic and can reduce flat head syndrome. Babywearing is considered an equivalent to tummy time and can help babies to develop physical strength. Many people observed that my babies had a greater level of head control than their pram-pushed peers. Now 8 months old, my daughter is increasingly curious; through being carried she can interact with the world, and when she is tired she can turn back to face me and rest.
At the babywearing course I attended recently, our instructor, Lorette, commented: “Pregnancy and motherhood change us completely, so why are we pushing mothers to bounce back into the bodies of people they no longer are?” In an age when mothers face increasing pressure to ‘bounce back’, many struggle with insecurities about their postnatal bodies and feel pushed to hit the gym, often before they are fully recovered and ready to do so. Babywearing can be empowering and a helpful reminder of the strength of women’s bodies; it is also the perfect physical activity. In the early days with my daughter, I had to spend a lot of time dancing around or walking with her in the sling to help her settle, so I got a lot of exercise. This workout was completely tailored to what my body was able to manage; my baby grew in weight gradually, my muscles were able to adapt and strengthen to support this weight, and my endurance and stamina grew. Carrying also helped my muscles to realign and redistribute strain after hours of one-sided breastfeeding or carrying my toddler’s bags. Women who have been through a c-section are often advised to carry nothing heavier than their child, so babywearing is an option (with the right guidance), again helping muscles to recover and strengthen gradually.
Physical benefits aside, there is increasing research to suggest that babywearing can alleviate symptoms of mood disorders such as postnatal depression. This is believed to be in part due to the release of oxytocin, which helps reduce stress, but also due to the mobility it can give mothers, enabling them to attend mums’ groups and appointments and reach out for support.
Having experienced many of these benefits myself, I wanted to be able to help other parents along their babywearing journey.
Becoming a babywearing consultant
Immediately after giving birth to each of my children, I was overwhelmed by a desire to help other mothers in some way. Initially I considered becoming a midwife, but I quickly realised that was not the path for me. More realistic would be training as a babywearing consultant, so I decided to take a course with Slingababy. It was amazing. Being immersed in a group of like-minded mothers was truly empowering and at times incredibly emotional. I learnt a lot and am now trained to help other parents become more confident with babywearing. This is an exciting new chapter for me as my children continue to grow further and further away from their baby years until eventually wearing them will no longer be an option. I am happy that I can offer other parents some of the joy and beauty I have found in babywearing, and hopefully make it the new normal.
Sarah Shrestha-Howlett lives in Oslo, Norway. She has spent the last three years working as a TEFL teacher while studying for a Masters in Development, Environment and Cultural Change. She graduated last year, shortly followed by the birth of her second child, and recently qualified as a Slingababy babywearing consultant. She is eager to put her newly acquired skills to use, and is exploring the opportunities open to her.
The feature was originally published in JUNO Winter 2019.