Wrap your baby (safer people are happier people)

Text by Emily Wax / Photographs by Elisa Amati & Claudio Maria Lerario

In cultures around the globe, people have been carrying their babies for centuries. The invention of simple baby carrying devices may have played a decisive role in the development of the human species.

Since 50,000 years ago, this “technological revolution” allowed mothers to carry food as well as their babies, leading to a new division of labour between men and women. This led to better fed mothers, who gave birth after shorter intervals, and an expanding human population moving out of Africa.

The anthropologist Sarah 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 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?

Traditional wall decoration in Arba Minch, Ethiopia / Ph. Claudio Maria Lerario

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 carers for each baby even though 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.

Today, across Africa, Asia and South America, women can be seen carrying sleeping or sometimes giggly babies on their backs, swathed in cloth.

The babies move to the sway of their mothers’ hips, synchronized throughout the day, bending with them as they collect water or sweep the floor and rising again when the women stop to rest. They hang on as their mothers sell food in the market or pray at a church or mosque.

New York: model Miranda Kerr featuring on the cover of Marie Claire with the Silver Cross Balmoral Pram / © Marie Claire

At the same time, in the United States and Europe, web sites and magazines dedicate a lot of space to the subject of choosing a style of stroller or carriage - front-to-back or side-by-side, a jogger or a sleeper, with or without a lightweight titanium frame, pneumatic tires, rear suspension, mud flaps and/or battery-operated blinkers.

Some European-made antique carriages are status symbols for celebrities such as Madonna and Celine Dion, who spent $2,600 on the classic Balmoral Pram, described by some web reviewers as a tiny Humvee.

But - as recently some doctors and child psychologists have blamed them for everything from pediatric obesity to low self-esteem later in life - in much of the Western world, the traditional style of carrying babies is a reviving art.

So, while in the Western world a growing movement among child advocates promotes the idea of carrying babies more and getting them out of their strollers… these four-wheeled plastic and metal tool of modern motherhood are appearing in major cities around Africa, but so far they have not been a hit.

A detail of the Instagram page of Wrap Your Baby, an American small business — founded by Diana Rosental — that sells wraps | wrapyourbaby.com

A story from Kenya

Irene Wambui works in a store located in the middle-class Westlands shopping district of Nairobi, Kenya. She sells strollers… but she can’t imagine why anyone would buy a baby stroller. She says she sees it as a cold cage filled with useless rattles, cup holders and mirrored headlights. Imagine children being stuffed into such a contraption and pushed around town like some kind of pet.

It is not a surprise that, so far, strollers have been a flop in Nairobi, an affront to tradition. The introduction of strollers and baby carriages, both known here by the British word “pram,” horrifies traditionalists, even someone such as Wambui, who sells them.

“It’s not so wonderful. In Africa, we just carry our children or let them roam. They can’t sit like lumps,” said Wambui, 24. “Besides, our roads aren’t even good enough for these devices. If everyone had a pram, it would cause jam- ups in traffic. Then we would be bad to our children and bad to our roads.”

Ph. Elisa Amati

The stroller has sparked debate among African pediatricians who think the device - first crafted as a labor-saving tool for the European middle class - may damage the relationship between a mother and a child.

“The pram is the ultimate in pushing the baby away from you,” said Frank Njenga, a child psychiatrist in Nairobi. “The baby on the back is actually following the mother in warmth and comfort. The baby feels safer, and safer people are happier people.”

Africans consider the traditional method of toting their children the only true version of day care. When it’s time for feeding, the food is right there as a mother shifts her child to the front of her body, nestling the infant to her breast. The baby stroller could change all of that. But many people in Nairobi said they thought the devices would be just another instance of Africans adopting the worst habits of industrialization.

“There are customs from a hundred years ago that are not relevant today for Africans,” said Carol Mandi, managing editor of EVE, an East African women’s magazine. “Our challenge is to pick the good from the bad. But carrying on your back, well, that is just a wonderful custom that keeps the baby emotionally stable and lets the mother feel bonded. We can’t stop being African women just because we are suddenly thrust into the modern world. What next? They will tell us to stop breast feeding in public? No way.”

Ph. Claudio Maria Lerario

Some women in Africa at first apparently hoped the stroller could help reduce the physical exhaustion suffered by mothers, the backbone of Africa’s labour force in both domestic duties and small-scale businesses.

But because the pram is not only socially unacceptable but expensive, merchants are finding they aren’t selling. The average pram, though far cheaper than some car-like US models, still hovers at least half a month’s wages even in Africa’s most successful urban economies.

At the baby store in Nairobi where Wambui works, dusty models sat untouched. “We’ve never used a pram. They are a bit pricey,” said Nellie Mwanzia, who was shopping nearby while her husband, Roy, carried their 20-month-old son, David. “Just carrying the baby is no bother. It’s more personal.”

Babywearing spreads across the world: here, Susie Martin, meteorologist at Praedictix, delivers forecast with sleeping baby on her back in occasion of the International Babywearing Week, an annual outreach event in which the mission is to promote babywearing as a universally accepted practice.

Mary Mwanzia, 32, a mother and part-time government secretary, popped into the store to buy baby bottles. Esmail corralled her potential buyer over to the strollers. But Mwanzia, even with her modern job and her braided red hair extensions and bell-bottom jeans, found the baby buggies “oppressive”.

Irene’s boss suggested a test drive. Mwanzia was not having it. “It’s just not Kenyan,” she said. “For the child, the love will not be there if the child is cooped up in such an antisocial device.” She purchased her bottles and left.