The poet Nayyirah Waheed said “My mother was my first country, the first place I ever lived.”
If we take the concept of home as a geographical place, then a mother’s womb is a baby’s first home. When the time comes for that baby to move outside of the mother’s body, the most natural place is next to their mother. Their new surroundings become their first country.
Across the earth, babies are born every second of every day, and despite our differences in environment, climate, location and culture, the basic primal need to care for newborns remains consistent.
In mountains, valleys, beside rivers and oceans, within city high rises and traditional huts, mothers (or carers) look for innovative ways to care for their babies as they slowly recover and adjust to daily life with a baby to provide for. They need to hold and care for their baby, but more often than not, mothers need their hands to be free to continue with the everyday necessities of life.
Arising from this need, through centuries and generations, baby carriers around the world—in all their shapes and forms—have evolved.
Baby carriers are pioneering: garments and works of art designed to keep a baby close to their mother and protected from the harsh elements of the outside world. Such a garment could only be created by women—women with years of knowledge of motherhood and a deep understanding of the environment. With their own functionality, design and materials, baby carriers represent the different places we’re from and different cultures we’ve grown up in. Yet with their common purpose—to protect and nurture the baby while continuing with life—they represent our universally shared values and needs.
The need to keep a child’s body heat regulated doesn’t change, even though the temperature of the external environment alters across the world. Carriers are created by the materials available at hand: cotton, wool, wood, grass and leather.
The bilum, a nettled bag iconic to Papua New Guinea, perfectly demonstrates an effective use of local materials. Dyed in bright colours that are individual to the owner, the bilum symbolises identity for both men and women around the country. At first glance, its design may appear simple, but it’s this simplicity that makes it so functional. Created with local grasses and reeds that identify the location of its maker, the bilum carries groceries, tools and materials. It is an everyday item used for everyday needs; carrying a baby is just one of its many roles.
Mothers balance the bilum strap across their forehead, leaving the bag to hang down against their back: a perfect hammock that sways gently to a mother’s step. Dappled sunlight sneaks through the netted bag and fresh air finds the baby to regulate his or her temperature.
In drastically colder climates, the Inuit women of the Eastern Canadian Arctic also use their knowledge of the environment and local materials. Here, they have developed the amauti parker, a necessary item of clothing that carries babies in freezing temperatures and icy winds.
The amauti is testament to the first women who adapted the leather coat to fit a baby within their hood. The extended hood allows a mother to carry her child upon her back and keep her hands free. The stitching is designed to allow warm air to circulate while protecting the baby against the cold. The technology behind the amauti is nothing short of fascinating.
The first amauti dates back to the 1850s when each region had their own version of the hooded parker, though amauti is now the accepted standard term for the variations across Inuit communities. The making of a traditional amauti can be likened to making a piece of art. An animal must be killed at a precise moment in the season to create variations within the leather, giving it the quality to breathe.
As mother and baby travel as one, the baby sits high on their mother’s back, protected from the elements. A child’s face will peek out from behind the mother’s shoulder to breathe in the fresh air and take in the view. Variations of amauti allow room for mothers to reach within and pull their babies to the front of the parker, so that they can feed the child without exposing them to the elements.
For the Dayak people of Borneo, their traditional carrier, a gendongan, is a structured backpack made from wood and plaited rattan. A seat is carved within the structure for the baby to nestle into while their mother uses two shoulder straps to attach the baby onto her back. It would be remiss to ignore the intricate embroidery, glass beads and teeth that hang from the gendongan. The gendongan is a work of art, often displaying the wealth or status of the baby and family. Traditionally only from the Kajang, Kayan and Kenyah tribes, the glass beads triumphantly hang from the carrier, displaying the craftsmanship of the women within the tribe.
Colourfully embroidered symbols and pictures are believed to protect the baby from bad spirits and danger. In the beginning, babies don’t often leave the family confines, so when they finally venture out with their mother, the carrier acts as a protective barrier in more ways than one.
Today in Borneo, these traditional carriers are now seen as a rarity, while conventional, store-bought carriers have gained popularity. Interestingly, the design of the gendongan can be seen as a pivotal predecessor to Westernised ‘backpack-style’ carriers.
From humble beginnings, the baby carrier’s evolution shows us how much traditional carriers around the world have informed how we care for babies today.
The Welsh and Scottish wool shawls that were used to keep babies attached to their carers seem to have faded out with modern day baby carriers. While the traditional shawl has lost popularity in Britain, the versatile kanga cloth—worn across African countries including Tanzania and Kenya—is still the most popular and convenient way to carry children. So much so, the style and specific wrapping of the carrier has spread across the world and is still seen today as one of the easiest ways to wear a child.
As knowledge, materials and resources are increasingly shared universally, the collective knowledge on how best to keep babies safe and next to their carer has informed modern baby carrier designs.
The first two years of a child’s life are some of the most vulnerable. There is nothing truer than the mother being a child’s first home and this doesn’t cease being so at birth. The carrier serves to continue this connection of a new baby and their mother, now living together on their small parcel of earth.