Friday, December 08, 2006

Baby Carriers - Cultural History

In cultures around the globe, people have been carrying their babies for centuries. Yet in much of the Western world, it is a reviving art.

The invention of simple baby carrying devices may have played a decisive role in the development of the human species. Blaffer-Hardy (2000) suggests that 50,000 years ago, this “technological revolution” (p.197) allowed mothers to carry food as well as their babies, leading to a new division of labour between men and women. She indicates that this led to better fed mothers, who gave birth after shorter intervals, and an expanding human population moving out of Africa.

Blaffer-Hardy (2000) also indicates the difference between baby carrying in foraging/nomadic peoples and pastoral/horticulturalists. For nomadic mothers, the decision has always been whether it is safe to leave her baby with another carer, and whether she will return in time to feed him. If she takes the baby with her, will she have the strength required to carry baby and enough food to make the outing worthwhile? “For a foraging mother to remain in close enough proximity to nurse could require carrying babies – plus supplies and gathered provender – back-breaking distances.” (Blaffer-Hardy, 2000, p.197). With more settled peoples, there are often many carers for each baby eventhough mother is usually nearby. Whilst women were grinding cereals against a stone, “her baby might be held by an allomother, cradled nearby, or wrapped on to her mother’s back using a sling arrangement.” (Blaffer-Hardy, 2000, p.197).

Climate has of course had a powerful influence on the type of baby carriers that have been used, not only in terms of the thickness of fabric, but the position of the baby. Solter (2006, personal communication), says, “Only in extremely hot climates do mothers suckle their infants frequently, both day and night, sometimes as much as once or more per hour. The major cause of infant mortality in those cultures is dehydration (caused by diarrhea and heat). The mothers in those cultures want to make sure that their infants obtain enough liquids….. In some indigenous cultures, the mothers work in the fields during the day, leaving their infants with other family members, but they nurse their infants frequently during the night. The infants go long stretches without nursing during the day.” Solter (2001) suggests that in colder climates, babies can be breast fed less frequently since they require less fluid. Longer and more spaced out feedings where at least one breast is completely emptied means that more of the hind-milk is obtained, which is higher in fat. The baby can thus go longer until the next feeding. Mothers in these cultures are less likely to keep their babies close to their bodies and have the option of placing them in “cradles or hammocks, and strap them to cradle boards, animals, or sleds for transportation.” (Solter, 2001, p.77)

The modern view of an idyllic past where all a baby’s needs were met may be a mythic one. Grille challenges many of our assumptions about the history of parenting, and suggests that apart from in a few isolated cultures such as the Yequana of Venezuela, the wellbeing of babies and children was placed low in the list of priorities until relatively recently. (Grille, 2005). Blaffer-Hardy (2000) has similar conclusions. Both write of the prevalence of wet nursing, both among wealthy and poor, in Europe and Asia, which can be traced back to pre-Christian times. So baby carrying may not have been common in some cultures for many centuries.

Rock-a-bye baby
The image of the baby swinging in the tree may not just be an imaginary nursery rhyme!
Swaddling was used by the ancient Jews, Greeks and Romans and continued in Europe until the Middle Ages. Swaddling was also practiced in areas of Indigenous American cultures, Eastern Europe, and Japan. It was still seen in England and America until the 18th century and in France and Germany until the 19th Century. (Grille, 2005) Swaddled babies were tied to wooden bards and hung up on hooks where they were left alone for hours. In Sweden, and in pioneering America, babies were also hung from trees whilst the women worked. Swaddled babies protested for a while and then gave up and became still as a result of the trauma. This meant ease for their parents, who could get on with their work. The idea of carrying a baby whilst working had been long-lost in these cultures.

Baby carrying and carriers around the world

Mexico and Guatemala
Short wraparound slings have been used in many cultures. The Mexican or Guatemalan Rebozo is well-known thanks to the work of Barbara Wishingrad and her Rebozo way project. These shawls are used for carrying all sorts of items as well as for clothing and protection from the sun. Rebozos are also used during pregnancy to reposition the baby and during birthing to help support the mother in various positions.

Peru and Bolivia
A Manta or Awayo has been traditionally worn. This is a large rectangle of woven fabric folded in half and tied in a knot at the mother's chest. The baby is carried on the mother's back.

A Pareo is a rectangular piece of printed cloth that is also used as a wraparound skirt.

Woven or sheet cloths are used on the back. Either a rectangular or triangular piece of fabric is used.

The Tribes from Borneo such as Kayan and Kenyah traditionally carry their babies in a rattan plaited carrier. These are decorated with multicolored beaded patterns of dragons, leopards and hornbills. Ancient glass beads and amulets of bear-claws or leopard's fangs add to the spiritual protection of the baby carried within.

Pieces of fabric are also tied over one shoulder and are used as baby carriers. These are called selendang slings. They are also worn as a skirt or dress or used to carry things.
A rectangular piece of material with a border around it is also used by women and men to carry a baby on the back, as well as to sit on, to carry items on the head, and to protect clothing whilst cooking. In some parts it is called a kanga, in other parts a pagne, and in coastal region a woven style is called a kikoy. Last century, important Swahili sayings started to be printed on each kanga. Two identical pieces of fabric (called a doti) are usually bought together. An identical pair is sometimes split between best friends. A baby can be tied on using one or two kangas.

A Capulana is used, which is a printed piece of cloth used for baby carrying as well as carrying other things or as a piece of clothing. For carrying babies it is tied over a shoulder and knotted between the breasts (like a sling). The baby sits on the back.

South Africa
A piece of cloth is again used. Babies are tied onto the back with the cloth tied on top of the breasts, but straight around the back rather than over the shoulder.

Papua New Guinea
Ipili people use a net bag called a bilum to carry their babies. They are carried with the strap around the forehead of the mother and the baby in the bag carried on the front or back. A bilum is a bag available in many sizes and used for carrying many different things. The bag is lined with soft leaves or pieces of cloth to make it more comfortable for the baby.

Bainese babies do not touch the ground for the first three months, but are passed from person to person. After this time a special ceremony is held and babies are then welcome to play on the ground.

Egyptian women who picked cotton in the fields would make slings out of dress fabric. The patterns were colourful and bright, and the slings were wide in the middle and narrower at the ends. The women carried their babies on their backs in this way.

Asian carriers
In South West China, Thailand, Laos, and Vietnam, Mei Tais are worn, with either a double or single strap, as are Hmong style carriers which are usually beautifully hand- embroidered. The mei tai originated from China and has probably been around for centuries. They were used by peasant women whilst working in the fields.

Laos, Myanmar, and parts of China, Vietnam and Tibet
A "Hmong"-style carrier is used, a squre of fabric similar to a podaegi but narrower. The baby is worn in front or on the back. In these cultures there have generally been plenty of extended family so babies are often passed from one set of arms to another. As people move to cities and move away from more traditional ways, carriers are used far less and more Western ways such as strollers are adopted.
Onbuhimos were used, which are a wrap style carrier made from gauze, cotton, or wool, similar to a Mei Tai but with a narrower body style.
The Podaegi is used which is a kind of blanket tied around the wearer’s chest rather than over the shoulders.

In areas where the caste system still applies, some of the lower caste peoples carry their children by tying them into the shawl part of their saris. Apparently, higher caste peoples believe that it is only the lower caste carry babies.

Tibet, Nepal, Indian Himalayas
Wraparound carriers are often used, generally of a single colour; fuschia coloured ones seem popular in Lhasa. The fabrics used range in thickness from very thin to very thick.

A short piece of cloth like a rebozo would traditionally be used.

In Europe, recorded history has often focussed on the upper classes, where the art of baby carrying was lost earlier than in the rural areas and lower classes. Thus, information is not readily available on the history of baby carrying. At the Didymos website, pictures showing baby carrying give us some idea of what happened, for example a Rembrandt picture illustrates a woman a child tied to her back. These pictures indicate that in the Middle Ages in Europe, it may have been common for babies to be worn on their mothers’ backs.

During the 19th Century in Europe poor and uneducated people carried their children and were physically close with them, whereas the upper classes created a distance between adult and child, with the widespread view of not spoiling them.

In Wales, long pieces of fabric and shawls were used to carry babies, which continued until around the 1950’s.

Highland Scotland
Scottish women are also rumoured to have used their plaid to carry their babies.

Dalarna, a northern province in Sweden held onto traditions longer than any other part of Sweden. Interestingly, women in this culture had voting rights, ownership rights and kept their last names in marriage. They also carried their children in a "bog" or “boeg” – which has been carried on into the English word, "bag". It was made of leather and shaped into a rounded bag with edges and straps that were cut into traditional patterns. The baby would be wrapped in something warm, then placed in the bog.

In some Scandinavian cultures, cradleboards were also used.

In Germany, a traditional cloak or coat was worn, in which there was a piece of cloth to wrap the baby on the hip.

In Victorian England, upper class households would employ a rocking nurse, who would carry the baby in her arms on walks and rock them when crying. Rocking cradles were used by women working in houses.

The history of prams – from England to Europe
In 1884 Heinrich Ploss stated, " only since about one decade a vehicle for taking out a child arrived from England on the continent…. The British called this vehicle "Perambulator". In London they were in use so frequently on the pavement, overcrowded by pedestrians, that they were immensely opposed. But nothing at all could disturb their introduction." Wealthy upper class families already had their children raised by nannies. The perambulator was popularized by Queen Victoria. Roads and pavements were quickly built in the towns of Europe, which meant that the popularity of perambulators grew more quickly there than in the country.

Native American and Canadian /First Nation Cultures
The Inuit women used a parka called an amauti to carry babies and toddlers. The baby sits in the back of the parka, and the large hood can be used when needed, going over both of their heads, but still enabling to child to see over the mother’s shoulder.

Cradle boards were used by many Native American and Canadian cultures. Babies from birth onwards were wrapped up and then put into the cradle board which was then strapped to the wearer’s back, like a backpack. Navajo peoples used cradle boards. Cradle boards were also hung from the pommel of a saddle when travelling.

Between about 1870 and 1920, cradle boards were made by traditional peoples who were prohibited from practicing their own cultural ways. The cradles gradually went out of use after the 1950’s, to be replaced by strollers and playpens.

Not all indigenous North American peoples used cradleboards to carry their babies. Long pieces of woven cloth were also used by many peoples for back carries.

Australian Aborigines
When a baby is very small it may lie in a curved wooden dish that the mother holds at her side or lays in the shade of some scrub while she hunts and gathers. During a corroborree it is common that a child is balanced on his mother’s shoulders, fingers clinging to her hair, sleeping as her mother dances. (Lawlor, 1991) However, many kin care for each child, particularly the grandparents. In the early months, many kin women care for and breast-feed a baby, yet the baby still spends most of the time with his mother.

Recent American history
The first structured baby carrier appears to have been developed in 1969 by a woman called Ann Moore, who called her carrier a Snugli. She had seen African women carrying their babies and made the Snugli, which seems to be most like a podaegi. The two ringed sling was developed by Rayner Gardner in Hawaii in 1981. He and his wife started with a tied scarf but soon developed the ring sling made of two wooden curtain rings. His wife Sachi says, “Rayner’s two ringed tailored sling is, in essence, a bridge between the indigenous cloth sling and the highly constructed baby carriers of modern society.” (in Blois, 2005, p.33)

Carrying baby close was greatly popularized in the United States by William and Martha Sears. In 1985, after the birth of their 6th child, they began to carry him everywhere using tied up baby sheets. Then they used Garner’s sling, and later bought the design rights. William sears made the slings and called them The Original Baby Sling. The Sears coined the (now trademarked) term “babywearing”. Barbara Wishingrad recalls returning to the US in 1989 for a visit. She says, “That year, Mothering magazine published articles on babywearing by Dr. William Sears and also by Jean Liedloff, and The Continuum Concept came back into the bookstores. I also noticed an emergence of advertising for sling-type baby carriers, as opposed to the upright front pack carriers. This coincided with my work on an instructional rebozo brochure.” (Wishingrad, 1986) Babywearing was taken up by many who embraced attachment parenting.

Recent European history
Long woven wraps have become increasingly popular in Europe, particularly in Germany. Nowadays, in Germany the long wraps are used most often for the first five or six months. Some maternity hospitals even present new mothers with a long woven wrap. In Europe, many people use both strollers and wraparounds.

Around the world, carrying a baby is often still associated with low social and economic status. As a culture becomes more Westernised, carrying a baby becomes less common and is replaced by carrying in objects such as strollers, baby swings and baby seats. However, with the resurgence of interest in baby carrying that is occurring in many Western countries, carriers from more traditional cultures are being adopted and developed. I hope that this process continues to gather momentum, benefiting babies, their families, and their cultures.


Blaffer Hardy, S. (2000) Mother Nature – Maternal instincts and the shaping of the species. Vintage, London.

Blois, M. (2005) Babywearing – the benefits and beauty of this ancient tradition. Pharmasoft Publishing, Texas.

Grille, R. (2005) Parenting for a Peaceful World. Longueville, Australia.

Lawlor, R. (1991) Voices of the First Day. Awakening in the aboriginal dreamtime. Inner Traditions International Ltd., Vermont.

Solter, A. (2001) The Aware Baby. Shining Star Press, California.


The Rebozo (Using a rebozo in pregnancy and birthing)

Wishingrad, B. (1986) Reflections on Constant Carrying

Wishingrad, B. The Rebozo Way project

Selendang baby slings

Kanga Baby carrier wearing instructions
The history of the kanga

Borneo carrier picture

Vietnamese Hmong carrier
Photos of mei tai style carriers and pictures of Tibetans carrying babies

The Welsh Carry

Dalarna (Sweden) history

The Inuit Amauti

Baby on Board - An exhibit of Kiowa and Comanche baby carriers by Chad Galts

European history of carrying

Heinrich Ploss (1884) at

With many thanks to the forum users at for ideas and information as well as Beate at and the web sites at (where lots of information on different cultures is available), and www.attachedtobaby


Blogger Ann-Marie Dewhurst said...

Great article..I've linked to it from my blog. Hope that's Ok!


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Blogger The Squished Hippie said...

You forgot the Chitenge from Malawi =)

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