The Way of the West vs the Way of the Rest and How Babywearing Helps

The Way of the West vs the Way of the Rest and How Babywearing Helps

I was privileged enough to recently attend the farewell lecture by Dr Anita Franklin at a British University on the topic of Black Feminism. It was superb; and one of the things I was most struck by was the contrast she drew between the way of the West, and the way of the rest...

She suggested that Western culture can be broadly described as individual and secular, in contrast with the rest of the world which values communalism and spiritualism.

Western society tends to be, on the whole, more consumer led and likely to engage in conflictual relationships, whereas the rest of the world tends to be more aware of their place in the ecological landscape and seeks to live among others in a more consensual fashion.

Of course, she was drawing very broad brush strokes about very large people groups, and there will be many exceptions, but it got me thinking about the effect of science and knowledge on how we live our lives. We in the West, who live and work in the parenting community are often encouraged to use evidence-based practices, and are required to have the backing of science for any advice we offer.

However, much of current popular advice on how to bring up children isn't based on any solid scientific foundation and is instead based on past cultural philosophical ideas that have lingered and rarely been challenged.

Children should be seen and not heard is one of the best known phrases that have shaped Western thought about childhood.

Much of current thinking about children has its roots in Victorian times, the idea that children in polite society should be kept separate from their parents in order to avoid them becoming dependent, and that parents should impose their rule on their children from early infancy, to avoid spoiling them or weakening their moral fibre. Immediate obedience was highly valued. These ideas were not based on science, but more on a desire to control and influence society according to the prevailing philosophy of the era; which was promoting morality and order.

From The bitter cry of outcast London : An inquiry into the condition of the abject poor. by Andrew Mearns and William Carnall Preston: Publisher London : James Clarke & Co., 13, Fleet Street, E.C..

This was in direct contrast to the majority of children of the time who lived lives of hard labour on the land or in industry, part of large families who all had to work to survive. Many charitable enterprises were set up to try to improve the lot of these children, with a romanticised, idealised view that childhood was precious and should be protected, however many others saw children as savages that needed to be brought under control.With such conflicting and inconsistent ideas about children and parenthood underpinning much of Western society (as the Victorians were great colonialists and imposed their ideas on much of the world), it’s easy to see why there there was so much ongoing conflict about the best way to bring children up, none of it based on scientific data.

Even the ideas about feeding babies on a schedule was based on convenience for the nurses in hospital, rather than any knowledge about baby’s needs or digestion.

These ideas cast long shadows around the world, and to this day, there remains a lot of conflict about how to rear children successfully.

In much of the West, parents bring up their babies in isolation, rather than in community. They are not surrounded by parents and grandparents and siblings who have generations of experience behind them of caring for children; so they turn to the internet or to books, where they then find a staggering amount of discordant and conflicting information, often stridently discussed, which just makes everything even harder and more and more confusing.

So where does a parent start?

If we begin by looking at how the “rest of the world”, un-influenced by the West, bring up their children, we may get some clues.

  • One common feature is that children are not separated from the life of the family; they are kept close to their parents, they sleep in the same spaces, they share the same foods, they participate in the same daily activities (either by observing or by playing a part).
  • Children are looked after not only by their parents but by several “alloparents” in the community, which helps to spread the child care, and also increases the child’s sense of belonging within a group of people. There are always other hands around to help.
  • Formal structures of each day into working or school hours may still exist but the close local presence of other people means that mothers (or fathers) are not left alone at home in isolation and loneliness in the same way.

Human beings remain biological organisms, for all their scientific and technological advances. Our bodies are still controlled by our internal chemistry; we are not machines, but living beings with feelings and fears, thoughts and ideas, at home on planet Earth.

We can’t escape our physiology; and trying to fit into artificial social constructs isn’t always good for us. We are an incredibly adaptable species and can often be very content in the circumstances we live in, but these limitations may not be in our best interests as human beings or in terms of our health and wellbeing. Society is difficult to change, especially if you are not part of the dominant culture.

So how can we care for our children in a way that understands their biology (as much as we know of it) and helps them to thrive, despite the structures and limitations around us? One thing we can do is learn about their brains and how they develop, and use the scientific data we have to try to work out what it is that babies need to grow well.

There is a lot of research going on to gather data about the effects of practices like early skin to skin, or the effects of childhood trauma on long term physical and mental health. There is a growing body of evidence that suggests our children’s early experiences matter enormously.

A child’s brain is shaped by the behaviour and responses of their primary caregivers and the quality of the environment in which they grow. Children who grow up in homes where they are loved and respected, where parenting is gentle and consistent, are more likely to thrive despite adversity.

The early laying down of strong and secure foundations helps them to become more confident children, and more resilient to troubles later in life. One “always available adult” and physical closeness may be all a child needs to have a positive future.

This closeness encourages parents to notice their baby’s attempts at communication and be responsive, as well as encouraging release of the hormones that build feelings of love and connection in baby and parent/carer.

However, for most of parents in the West, it is hard to be as available or as focused on children as often as would be ideal... especially when life has to go on in its current form, and when parents are isolated or lonely, or when bills need to be paid. Our bodies are often not as strong or toned from daily activity compared to our forebears; our largely sedentary lives are not good for our health or strength.

Babywearing is one thing (among many others) that can help. In arms carrying can be hard work as we are not used to it, and inconvenient, so babies are put down quickly.

As there are fewer pairs of arms to help with the holding, babies are placed into safe containers; this has the effect of creating physical separation, which can soon become the “norm.”

A comfortable, safe and well fitting baby carrier can do much of the work of keeping baby close; giving baby that sense of security and being loved, while the parent can get on with their lives. Baby gets what they need, parent gets to do what they need to do or want to do; while both are sharing space and experiences together. And underneath it all, bonds are forming and strengthening. A tool that helps babies to be portable allows parents and carers to be more mobile with minimal organisation and fuss, therefore able to participate in their communities better; the activity and being among friendly and welcoming human beings is good for us. Baby carriers can be shared between busy people who are all able to care for the baby without feeling limited.

As babies get older and begin to want to engage with the world more, they will want to be able to see better. Hip and back carrying are natural ways to keep on the move with older children, and baby carriers will facilitate this too, keeping them safe near busy roads or to be able to get somewhere quickly, until children are able to walk or run confidently for longer distances.

Babywearing is not a new and modern Western idea; the term may be new, and the types of carrier used today may be innovative in design and function, but the practice of using a cloth to carry a child close to a parent’s body is ancient indeed.

Babywearing is a practice that definitely began in “the rest of the world”, is about connection and communalism. However, it is a practice that that every family in the world can benefit from.

Rosie Knowles is a mum of two and a family doctor in the UK with a particular interest in holistic medicine as well as children and women’s health and mental health. She is a passionate advocate of building secure attachment relationships between children and their carers, due to the long lasting effects this has on future health. Her book, “Why Babywearing Matters”, was published by Pinter and Martin in May 2016 and she has written for a wide range of publications. She trains carrying advocates, peer supporters and health professionals, and speaks at conferences around Europe about why carrying matters. You can find more information at