Babywearing International is thriving. This makes me very happy. When I began babywearing almost 19 1/2 years ago, there were no babywearing groups. A mom could go to a La Leche League meeting and meet other mothers who breastfed, and chances were good you’d see a few babies in padded ring slings or front packs, a wrap if you hit the hippie jackpot. I told my midwife I needed “a Snugli or something”.
She said, “No, you need a Baby Bundler.”
Shelley from Baby Bundler came out to my little duplex apartment and taught me how to do a basic front wrap cross carry, while I was pregnant. Two weeks after my daughter was born, I wrapped us up in the carrier and went to the grocery store. I nursed my baby in the wrap while grocery shopping, and that was the first moment I thought I might be getting the hang of the whole Mom thing. I was 21.
I wish I could say that I wrapped constantly. But the Bundler is wide, and thick, and it was summer and hot, and so wrapping was something that happened when I was desperate or just could not deal with the idea of the stroller on the bus. That was not the carrier that turned me into a babywearing evangelist.
When my daughter was 10 months old, she was about 25 pounds (having reached 24 pounds by 6 months old) and my arms were tired from carrying her all the time. She had not yet started crawling (though she did that month) and I felt like my left arm had locked into position lugging her pudgy self all over. New Native advertised their pouch as being simple, and they had a program to give carriers to low income moms. I was on welfare at the time, and she sent me a pouch.
It was too big, so I took it in about a foot to fit me better with a basting stitch. While I was doing so, I realized how simple the design was, and on a whim, turned my Baby Bundler into two pouches. The stretchy fabric combined with the simple shape was a dream come true, and I wore the heck out of those grape-colored pouches as my daughter went through her “up down” crawling stage.
But that’s not what turned me into a babywearing evangelist.
As part of working my way off of welfare, I was getting training as a doula and childbirth educator. Through a series of roundabout events, this resulted in me being in the home of a young mama who was struggling with a high-needs infant. She said, as I helped clean her house, “I’ve been living on Ramen, because I can make it with one hand and don’t have to put him down. I had a dream that I tied him on me with a bedsheet, at the corners, like an arm sling.”
A lightbulb went off, and I said, “No, you wouldn’t do it like that. Do you have an extra flat sheet?” She handed me one, and I folded it the long way, and the long way again, and wrapped it around her and her baby, and tied it at the shoulder snug… she pulled her arm away slowly and nearly burst into tears.
“I can make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich!” she exclaimed. “I have two hands free!”
THAT turned me into a babywearing evangelist. The very idea that a simple bedsheet could be tied without fuss to make an instant sling? It felt revolutionary.
Not terribly long after that, I attended a Midwifery Today conference. I brought along a very old, striped purple-and-white bedsheet. It had been given to my parents as a wedding present, I believe, so it was older than I was. I got up at the Tricks of the Trade circle, asked for a volunteer mama, and showed the midwives my sheet-as-sling.
It was one of the conferences where Jan Tritten had brought in traditional midwives from all over. We had Inuit midwives, Mexican midwives, and Japanese midwives, plus other midwives from around the world. One of the midwives from Alaska said, “Let me show you how we do it!” and helped the mama put her baby high on her back in a basic rucksack hold, using the bedsheet on the diagonal with the tail hanging down, tied under the bum. It looked warm, secure, and easy.
The Japanese midwife stepped forward and said, “Oh, we do the same thing, but it’s hotter where we are, so do this first…” and she proceeded to roll the sheet on the diagonal and showed us a basic strap rucksack carry.
The Mexican midwife stepped forward, waved off my purple sheet, and said, “I brought my own.” She unwrapped the rebozo from her shoulders and showed us a couple of quick ties, then said, “But you don’t even need knots.” She took the baby from our volunteer mama and wrapped and tucked the rebozo around the both of them, and then brought her arms away… we gasped, but the baby stayed snugly on her front. It’s still not a carry I teach to mamas, but it was very dramatic and fast.
It was amazing. Breathtaking. I left the conference inspired… but the other emotion I felt was a surprising amount of anger. Not at the wonderful midwives who’d shared these amazing carries with us… but at a society that would allow such techniques to be lost. Why had I not grown up tying my teddy bears to me? Why did not every child grow up knowing that if you had something heavy, a piece of cloth could help you carry it? All the special bags and gadgets in the world would not make up for the loss of that simple knowledge.
THAT, too, helped turn me into a babywearing evangelist. I went to work for Midwifery Today later that year, and as part of that job, ended up reviewing almost every carrier on the market at the time. I sewed stretchy interlock pouches for friends and doula clients, and taught everyone who would hold still for it that if they ever needed a carrier, a bedsheet would do in a pinch.
In 2000, I think it was, I sewed my first ring sling, and the MamaBaby was born. In 2003, I tried my first mei tai. In 2003, babywearing exploded, the mei tai revolution and good soft structured carriers combined with thebabywearer.com to bring babywearers together at ever increasing rates. Babywearing groups started to form independently, and Vijay Owens sat me down and said, “We need an international organization.”
I said, “Yes, and this is what it would look like.” We brainstormed and developed the ideas that would become NINO, (Nine In, Nine Out).
My second child was born in 2005, and the number of carriers sent to me was breathtaking. I sewed mei tais and even a buckle pack, and tried everything I could get my hands on.
By 2006 there were NINO groups all over the world, and I ran the first International Babywearing Conference in Portland, Oregon. People asked, “Why would we travel all that way to talk about slings?” Then they came to the conference and did not ask that question anymore.
NINO ended in 2007, but the need had been demonstrated, and Babywearing International was organized by others. Another conference was organized, and I planned to attend, but in 2008, just weeks before the conference, I nearly died from a pulmonary embolism. Flying was out of the question, let alone traveling with my special needs 3 year old.
I drifted away from babywearing for a couple of years, not having the energy to carry Shiny (my middle child), the local group faded as our babies aged out of babywearing.
In 2011, I was pregnant again with my last child. And decided to see what was going on in babywearing. A new group of mamas were starting to get together in my town, and were thinking about making an official group.
In 2012, my son was born, and I am again a babywearer. It is more important to me than ever, as I have fibromyalgia and a special needs 7 year old and I cannot get done what I need to get done without it. My firstborn is in college now, so every morning I strap my son to my back, get my daughter ready and take her to the bus. Every afternoon I strap him to my back and we pick her up from the bus, then I wear him while I shop with both kids. One of her more minor diagnoses is cerebral palsy–she walks, but it is difficult for her over long distances, so I need to put her in the cart. They don’t make a tandem stroller I can lift in and out of the car that would support her weight and his, so he rides on my back in stores.
Because of babywearing, I almost always have two hands free. And that, at the heart of it, is why babywearing is important. Not for some higher ideal of attachment parenting, but because it is essential to helping parents function.
I can make a sandwich. I can take my school-aged child to the bus. It’s that simple.