The Semantics of Babywearing
I’ve heard babywearing called a lot of things:
- convenient 1
- a way to promote bonding 2
- an excellent way to breastfeed 3
- educational (for baby) 4
- even trendy 5
But offensive? Disrespectful? 6 How so?
According to Janet Lansbury, the term “babywearing” is an outrage. The term is disrespectful to babies because it objectifies them. In other words, she does not like the image associated with wearing a baby like one would wear a coat. She encourages caregivers to “wear the sling, not the baby.”
Ms. Lansbury also takes issue with Dr. Sears’ use of the word “humanizing” with respect to babywearing. Babies, Ms. Lansbury points out, are born human. We do not need to teach infants how to be human, regardless of whether they are in a sling.
She also takes issue with Sears’ assertion that “babywearing enhances learning[, because] baby is intimately involved in the caregiver’s world.” She argues that passively carrying a baby around does not “intimately involve” the baby in the adult’s world. Instead, intimate involvement is attained by giving the infant full and loving attention.
Semantically Speaking, I Agree (to an Extent). But . . .
Talking about babywearing does not objectify babies: I understand Ms. Lansbury’s point that objectifying babies by “wearing” them like a fashion accessory is potentially . . . dehumanizing. But let’s look at the reality of the situation. Babywearing in the United States (at least) is practiced in large part by parents who are slinging their infants in an effort to get closer to them. To bond with them, to learn their rhythms, to calm them, to love them.
And to give Sears a little bit of credit, he specifically says that the term babywearing was born when his wife remarked: “I really enjoy wearing Mathew. The sling is like a piece of clothing. I put it on in the morning and take it off in the evening.” So the intent behind the term is that the sling is worn, not the baby. “Babywearing” is shorthand.
To accuse parents who bandy about the term “babywearing” of being guilty of objectifying their infants is excessive; maybe even a little insulting. When I think of objectification, I think of the way abusers reduce their victims so that they can hurt them without remorse. I think of the way women are portrayed in the majority of pornographic movies. I think of the way that closed-minded individuals reduce non-heterosexuals to some lesser/abnormal status so that they can belittle and damn them.
In other words, to objectify a person or group of people is disrespectful. It is demeaning. It is often intentional. And, ok – the above examples are extreme, but so is calling the term “babywearing” an outrage.
If you want to find parental behavior worthy of being called an “outrage,” I have a few friends who work in social services who would be happy to give you some examples.
Babywearing does involve babies in everyday life. Yes, full and loving attention lavished on babies is indeed “intimate involvement.” But it is also engaging and involving to give an infant an eye-level view of what is happening in the world around her. Ms. Lansbury’s argument in this respect does not have anything to do with the term babywearing, but with the practice – why would anyone argue against parents allowing babies the chance to interact with their environment?
The point Sears was making is that 1) babies who are in arms/sling cry and fuss less; 2) calm babies spend more time in a state of quiet alertness; 3) being content and quietly alert has been shown to be an optimal state for babies to learn; 4) therefore, babies who are in arms/sling may learn more. I simply don’t understand how arguing against babywearing results in a more beneficial outcome for babies. If they are being carried/worn less frequently, their parents will still have to go about their day – so instead of involving the baby (passively! yes, passively!), the baby is . . . where? On the floor? In the crib? In the swing?
And that’s better how?
I will also concede that Sears’ use of the word “humanizing” was probably not an accurate choice for what he wanted to convey. By “teaching them to be human,” I suspect that Sears was simply referring to the process of socialization and learning the “rules” of their particular environment. Babies, toddlers, and kids learn things passively – by quiet observation – all the time. Sears says:
Carried babies become more aware of their parents’ faces, walking rhythms, and scents. Baby becomes aware of, and learns from, all the subtle facial expressions, body language, voice inflections and tones, breathing patterns, and emotions of the caregiver. A parent will relate to the baby a lot more often, because baby is sitting right under her nose. Proximity increases interaction, and baby can constantly be learning how to be human.
I find it hard to agree with any conclusion that babies who are left in their cribs or swings will get more attention or will benefit from the decreased proximity to their caregivers. And again, “learning how to be human” may just be another way of saying that babies are learning how to interact, how the world works, and how their parents live life. If one is at all familiar with the rest of Sears’ work and parenting philosophy, one would be hard pressed to conclude that he thinks babies are less than human.
An Exercise in Semantics
What it ultimately comes down to for me is this: in general, parents who follow an attachment/natural parenting philosophy have a deep desire to live and parent responsively and consciously. Parents who spend time preparing for their pregnancy and birth, who nourish their baby with love and respect, who respond with sensitivity and provide loving, positive care, these are not parents who run the risk of treating their babies as objects.
Ms. Lansbury offers a variety of terms to replace babywearing: babyholding, babybundling, babysnuggling, babynuzzling, babyjoining, babykeeping, babyembracing, babycradling, babynestling.
And maybe if she had suggested one of these terms several years ago, it would have caught on (although many of her suggested terms do nothing to differentiate the fact that the baby is in a piece of fabric secured to an adult’s body, instead of simply in arms).
Ultimately, I am fairly confident that the children who have been worn are in very little danger of being seen as less than human by their parents.
Get back to me if you want to discuss the disrespect and objectification of children by parents who abuse.
- Laura Simeon, “10 Reasons to Wear Your Baby“: “When you carry your baby in a sling, you can walk around freely and not have to worry about negotiating steps, crowds or narrow aisles with a stroller. Plastic “baby buckets” are heavy and awkward for parents and they sure don’t look too comfortable for the baby being swung around at knee level!” It also allows parents to be hands-free for domestic/work tasks. ↩
- Paulus Wanandi, “Babywearing: A Dad’s Experience” ↩
- LLLI, “The Benefits of Babywearing“: “Breastfeeding mothers who practice baby wearing find it easy to nurse their babies more often. This may help babies gain more weight. The shorter the time between feedings the higher the fat content in mother’s milk. By wearing baby, a mother can easily respond to his early feeding cues.” ↩
- Dr. Sears, “Benefits of Babywearing“: “Sling babies spend more time in the state of quiet alertness . This is the behavioral state in which an infant is most content and best able to interact with his environment. It may be called the optimal state of learning for a baby. Researchers have also reported that carried babies show enhanced visual and auditory alertness.” ↩
- The Baby Website, “Babywearing is Trendy” ↩
- Janet Lansbury recently left a comment using these words re: babywearing on one of my (unrelated) posts, which led me to find her article on this topic. ↩
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"The Semantics of Babywearing"
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