Trenton rocks the Khanga carry with Jess
Impromptu Babywearing by Jessica Richards
“What a nice..errr...cloth you've got there?” hesitated a lady next to me at the markets. I smiled and thanked her. If only she knew how much I paid for it! I thought smugly. Then stopped myself. Why should it make my sling better, because it was costly? Surely I wasn't being a sling-snob? Was I?
Babywearing has long been considered for hippies and poor nations. Western society turned its back on babywearing, after the Industrial Revolution after-effect allowed baby trainers and doctors to discourage mothers from carrying their babies or even interacting with them. Developing countries see babywearing as something only poor working class people have to do, and would rather follow America's lead of strollers and other baby recepticles- never mind that they are often unpractical for the land and aren't where the babies want to be!
Fortunately, in the last 20 years parents have reclaimed their beliefs, how deciding where and how to birth and bring up their offspring. A side effect of this has been an increase in babywearing. Parents rediscovered the joy of meeting their baby's needs while at the same time getting their chores etc done. This has increased even in the last 5-10 years with the range of carriers skyrocketing. Traditional carriers have been resurrected, redesigned and redistributed in the West.
There are now 5 main types of carrier, with many sub categories. We are spoilt for choice!
Some would say it has even ventured into elitism- one can spend hundreds, even thousands of dollars on a 'limited edition' or rare carrier, especially wraps and ring slings. Each fancy new carrier on the market has a fancy new pricetag, putting it out of reach of many New Zealand mums and dads. For that money, one can't even be sure it is actually a 'good' one, unless they have access to a real life babywearing group, Slingbabies.co.nz or TheBabyWearer.com for unbiased information. They can end up with a really expensive dangler that lasts 4 months and puts them off babywearing for life. Funnily enough, many carriers are seen as 'good' by the public, based soley on their pricetag.
But hang on a minute. Haven't women been wearing their babies for thousands of years? What did they do before limited edition silk wraps with peacocks or geckos? They used whatever they had around them at the time. This was often skirts, shawls, sashes and blankets. Each nation had a particular style they prefered, depending on the culture, heat and purpose for wearing.
For example, Welsh women used a Siol Fagu- a thick warm shawl they tucked around to create a pouch for baby. Other European mothers used whatever shawls and wraps they had at the time, knotting or twisting them to keep baby close. African mothers past and present, use a light cloth called a Khanga to wrap their babies in the small of their back. (Sometimes a breezy gauze is put over the top for protection against flies and dust.) Maori mothers carried their babies in a Pikau or their cloak. Often they'd wrap baby to them in a short cloth pouch before topping with the cloak. The result was spectacular!
Nowadays we pride ourselves on the massive selection of carriers in NZ, thanks to dedicated, passionate vendors. (Well placed pride might I add, because even 5 years ago it was a very different picture!) But what happens when we forget our carrier, lose it, break it, can't afford to spend much money or want to have a little fun? There are a couple of very handy everyday items we can put to use! Most people have a sarong/lavalava, a single sheet, and a big beach towel at home. This is all you need for three great comfy carriers.
The sarong and beach towel can be used to Khanga your baby on your back. I found this especially helpful when packing up our things at the beach. It means your hands are free to carry stuff, baby is up out of the way and drying off simultaneously. You can do a nice hip carry with a sarong and a bed sheet- knotted just under your shoulder. My own sarong cost $2 at the local market- that's 80 times less than my expensive German woven wrap, and 50 times less than a short German equivalent wrap.
You can make your own stretchy wrap with 5m x 70cm of jersey cotton knit. For a more supportive wrap, sacrifice your old brushed cotton bedsheet to cut into 70cm wide strips, doubled over by 30cm in the middle for a centre panel. A great baby carrier for very little outlay! Make two, give one to a friend! (More complicated carriers like Mei-tai and Soft Structured Carriers are much more involved to make yourself, so unless you're talented it may be prudent to invest in a professionally made one)
In emergency situations (as we know all too well in NZ recently) one of these basic household items may be the only thing you can grab as you're running out the door. If you can't manage these, even a man's belt around the bottom of your jumper will hold a baby your top quite well, while you get yourselves to safety. Two belts attached together will give you a 'strap carry' for a toddler. The Beltway Babywearers blog has an excellent article on emergency babywearing.
Youtube is very helpful for videos of Khanga carries with sarong and towel, but the best resource I have seen so far is the Tummy2Tummy DVD available at babywearing online stores. It is a wealth of information and demonstrations for beginners and experienced people.
Safety is of the utmost importance of course- no matter what you wear baby in, make sure it supports them with a straight neck so you can fit two fingers under their chin, and their face is not covered.
So do go and have a play with your less expensive babywearing items, have a go at making your own, or delve into some traditional carriers. It's so much fun and you never know, it may come in handy when you least expect it!
Jessica Richards is a mother of 3, ex-teacher, LLL Leader and founder of Slingbabies- a non-profit babywearing group and website.