About 6.5 million years ago, the large monkey family, hominoids, gave birth to the hominids lineage that now represents gorillas, chimpanzees, bonobos and… humans! In the beginning, all hominids were quadrupeds and as such walked on all fours which allowed babies to easily hold onto their mothers and go for a ride.
Australopithecus Afenrensis appeared 4 million years ago and this species was the first to walk upright. Walking on two legs enabled us to save a tremendous amount of energy, so bipedalism most likely became necessary after geographic changes forced us to travel further in order to find food.
Even if this change in evolution characterizes one of the most important for Homo sapiens there are downsides to walking upright. The baby finds it more difficult to grab its mother without its hand shaped feet like before and holding onto a mother who now walks upright is darn near impossible. But it’s dangerous to leave an infant alone so the mother needs to hold her offspring, making her dependent of her partner and the rest of the family to find food and shelter. So, acting purely out of instinct, our ancestors used their knowledge plus experience to create baby carriers, naturally! They could carry their offspring securely while keeping their hands free to continue taking care of their daily tasks.
Based on this concept it is reasonable to assume that the invention of a simple baby carrying devices may have played a decisive role in the development of the human species. Blaffer-Hrdy (2000) suggests that 50,000 years ago, this “technological revolution” allowed mothers to carry food as well as their babies, leading to a new division of labor 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-Hrdy 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 caregiver, 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.” With more settled peoples, there are often many caregivers for each baby even though mother is usually nearby. While 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.”
Prior to the early 1900s, parents worldwide used a variety of long cloths, shawls, scarves and even bedsheets to snuggle up their babies and get the chores done. Styles of baby carriers cover the map, ranging from the simple Mexican rebozo (a square of woven cloth tied over one shoulder) to the elaborate Alaskan/Canadian amauti (a thick, warm jacket with a baby “pocket” in the back), and they’ve been made from every material from bark to hemp to polyester.
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.”
Although babywearing has been a way of life for parents through the ages, it wasn’t always popular in the Western world where parents have been captivated by modern baby gear and gadgets. In some developing nations, carriages and strollers have also become a status symbol—despite the fact that the terrain makes them difficult to use—because they are more expensive than slings. The Western emphasis on fostering independence in children at an early age has also led many parents to falsely believe that carrying a baby in a sling might make him clingy and dependent, when in fact evidence exists to support the notion that a securely attached baby will become a more confident and independent adult.
But over the last few decades, the pendulum has begun swinging back the other way toward more nurturing parenting techniques. Along with that shift, babywearing is becoming vogue again. In 1981, a book called Babywearing by Maria Blois started a modern babywearing revolution. That same year, activist Rayner Garner created and began promoting use of the modern ring sling. The rights were later sold to Dr. William Sears who continues to make and promote them.
Babywearing has since been on the rise in the Western world, which has led to an explosion in the selection of available baby carrier types in trendy, fashionable styles and materials. Many of the best quality slings are sewn by work-at-home moms, though some have grown so popular they are manufactured. The largest selection is usually available online, though some excellent, mom-made slings can be found in local boutiques and baby stores in major cities.
Today, baby slings have become the focus of numerous celebrity sightings and a growing fashion trend among new parents. As more moms and dads learn to wear their babies and experience how natural and joyful babywearing can be, it will continue to catch on. More parents around the world will connect with the past and benefit from the wisdom of the inventive, caring moms who came before them, while also connecting with the future by staying close and nurturing the next generation.
Sources consulted for this section include Blaffer Hrdy, 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.; and Wishingrad, B. (1986) Reflections on Constant Carrying.