The Herstory of Wearing our Babies in Aotearoa.

By Anna Hughes
Jun 2014

Almost everywhere you look you’ll see babies peering over Dad’s shoulder, or a bundle with legs nestled into Mum’s chest while that Mum or Dad merrily swing their arms, hold an older child’s hand, or carry their wares. Babywearing has become commonplace in New Zealand today but only 10 years ago it was a rare sight to see. Go back 38 years and you’d hear Tony Culling of Dunedin tell you that the ‘poor baby, won’t he suffocate?’ comments made very explicit the taboos of ‘wearing’ your baby in the 70’s. Yet it was that decade when babywearing really started its revival in the West. Many ‘soon to be parents’ are being given baby carriers by a friend who was in turn given it and didn’t have clue how to use it. There is a huge gap in babywearing knowledge that has come about through a long period in history when babywearing was barely evident. Understanding our history in terms of parenting, in this case wearing your baby, can help us to decide where we want to go in the future. So,let’s go back a bit further, say 15 million years. Early humans were nomadic hunter gather people. They carried their babies with them because to not meant probable death. Babies put down were vulnerable to attack from insects, animals, and other people, but carrying them during migration was at the expense of food for the tribe. In times of unknown food supply this would have been a tough decision.

A Kali’na hunter with a woman gatherer. Scanned from Na’na Kali’na: Une histoire des Kali’na en Guyane. Used under permission of
creative commons.

One theory of how humans became hairless is the Naked Love Theory. As we know the feeling of skin against skin is desirable. Lack of sufficient grasp reflex and body hair in the modern human meant a baby needed to be held by the caregiver. Using just your arms uses three times as many calories as wearing them in a baby-carrying device so it’s assumed that a baby carrier would have been an essential first piece of clothing to be developed.

Creative commons hunter gatherer tribe wearing baby.

As cultivating food, farming and permanent villages developed babywearing became less essential. Many early farmers were aware that babywearing decreased mortality rates by allowing regular access to breastmilk, protection from insect and animal treats, security, comfort and therefore low stress for a vulnerable baby and they continued its practice. Other ways of managing a baby developed. Older children and grandmothers looked after babies while capable mothers worked in the fields. Babies were reunited with Mum to breastfeed. Swaddling and cradleboards developed. A swaddled baby strapped to a board could be strapped to the mothers back to get to her place of work, then hang from a tree to keep them from danger. In early Greece and Rome swaddling was practiced and infant mortality rates were high. “Babies were often swaddled up to the age of 2 years and strapped to cradle boards.” (Golden, M. 1990). More babies died from abandonment than from all of the plagues combined in this era. There was still evidence of babywearing during this time. In Central and Northern Greece, “As the baby grew, his mother or nurse wore a sling to carry him around.” Nemet-Nejat, Karen Rhea. (1998). Throughout the ages babywearing was always evident in some sectors of society.  Rembrandt’s ‘Beggars at the door’ painting in the 1600’s depicted a baby on the mothers back. When the pram was invented in the 1800’s babywearing still existed amongst the poor. This era also heralded the start of more medicalised birth in which chloroform was used and forceps were invented. Separation of mother and baby was increasingly common due to the effects of the medication.

‘Three Beggars at the Door of a House’ by Rembrandt van Rijn. Etching

During the colonization of New Zealand babywearing was evident amongst Māori mothers, fathers, and grandparents. The British brought with them doctors who had taken up the role of ‘experts’ in the fields of birth and child rearing. This was due to high infant mortality rates and the opportunity to make money through the control of birth and early parenting. As the colony was made up of mostly young couples the support networks of mothers such as grandmothers and sisters were no longer available making a new mother reliant on childbirth ‘experts.’ A Māori woman was tapu (sacred) during pregnancy and birth. Babies were also considered tapu and were treated as such. “The first duty of a parent was to inculcate fearless energy of thought and action. Therefore, a father would seldom chastise a boy lest he himself should be punished by other men, for children were tribal property, and it was important that the future warriors and warriors’ wives should grow up as bold and headstrong as they pleased.”   (Tregear, E. 1904). Babywearing was common from as little as a day old. Mothers were the main carriers though “…an old man (if not a chief) might be seen toiling all day at his work with his little grandchild strapped on his back.” (Tregear, E. 1904).

Rihipete Nikorima and baby. Portrait of a young woman with a moko, carrying her baby on her back enclosed in her cloak (pikau) Photograph taken by William Henry Thomas Partington. ca 1900. National Library NZ

Dr Frederick Truby King who formed the Plunket Society became known for his “scientific system of infant management” (Kedgley, S. 1996). Scheduled feeding and strict hygiene wererecommended, and mothers were advised to avoid all unnecessary attention and handling so as not to spread germs or cause behaviour problems. Although it went against a mother’s instincts and thousands of years of responsive, attentive parenting evident amongst Māori eventually most mothers took King’s advice for fear of losing their baby in an era of high infant mortality. In the mid 1900’s woman started to question the advice they were getting from the experts. The Natural Birth Association (now The Parents Centre) developed antenatal classes where women learnt about natural birth by other women based on their experience and the book ‘Childbirth Without Fear’ written by British doctor Grantly Dick-Read. La Leche League (LLL) was established in New Zealand. The mother-led breastfeeding support organization also supported the resurgence of babywearing. A LLL magazine in the 70’s featured a pattern to make your own Asian style baby carrier the Mei tai. This decade saw an increase in childbirth inventions in hospital encouraging more women to return home to birth their babies. One of the biggest influences in the resurgence of babywearing in the West came in the form of a book written by American model Jean Liedloff who had spent 2.5 years living with the Yequana people of the South American jungle. She criticised the Western practice of leaving a baby alone in a cot, pram, or car seat. She believed from her observation of the Yequana people that to be held by another human being is an evolutionary expectation that a human baby is born with. In speaking of a baby Liedloff says “…his place in arms is the expected place, known to his innermost sense as his place, and what he experiences while he is in arms is acceptable to his continuum, fulfils his current needs and contributes correctly to his development.” The concept of the ‘in arms’ phase of a baby’s life that Liedloff developed found support in LLL and the evolution of attachment parenting that came out of the attachment theory developed by psychologists.

Creative commons. Photo taken in 1979. Daily life in the Wayana village of Antecume Pata in French Guiana. A mother and her son

Babywearing along with other attachment parenting techniques are finding their place in mainstream parenting. Many babywearing support groups that often include carrier libraries can be found around New Zealand and the world. For many midwives, childbirth educators and new parents babywearing is still a bit of a mystery. Recommended safety practices for babywearing are still not widely known nor are the dangers of some carriers

The New DVD, Wearing Your Baby is due to be released at the end of July 2014. This video is well constructed with 3.5 hours of comprehensive instruction on how to wear your baby. A real and amazing resource.


Anna Hughes is an energetic contributor and luminary in the babywearing and natural parenting world. Her approach of being an advocate for conscious parenting and providing a community to support other parents in their journey has been invaluable. Anna has written about and presented on babywearing for many years and is a key contributor to the babywearing community in Aotearoa. Her knowledge and wisdom have shaped our approach to healthy and achievable babywearing. Anna Hughes is also a huge supporter of Home Birth and birthed both boys at home with hypnobirthing. Anna and her husband Wayneof Pizzini Productions have created this video to bring babywearing to the wider community. This is a huge body of work which represents hours of mahi and research.