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Toddler Wearing: The African Approach to Avoiding Tantrums

Although it is now commonplace in the West to see mothers wearing their babies, it is still not very common to see the ubiquitous African image of a mother going about her daily business with her toddler strapped to her back. All over Africa there are simple pieces of cloth, usually cotton, such as the West African wrapper or the East African khanga or kikoi that are pragmatic and multifunctional. They can be used to carry a child from the moment he is capable of sitting until he is about four years old.

I did not fully appreciate the benefits of toddler wearing until my daughter was about three. My daughter was one of those children who had always wanted to be on the move - she rolled over at only nine weeks, crawled with a mission and walked early. I interpreted her locomotive determination as a bid for freedom and had pretty much stopped wearing her by the time she was two. I still carried her a lot, but it was very different from the early days when she was essentially an extension of my body.

Some time shortly after her third birthday, the regular cries of "bebe" (carry me) seemed to escalate. At first I would respond by carrying her on one hip or sometimes stopping entirely to see what was going on for her, but there were times that this was not possible. Mornings or evenings when I was trying to set the day up or ensure that the day closed well were a particular challenge.

There were days when my daughter would wake up and want to be cuddled for at least half an hour before anything else could happen. I was keen to support her transition but we had also built up a nice routine that had previously been working - the dog still had to be walked at a certain time, breakfast still needed to be made (sometimes she felt like helping with it, sometimes she didn't). And all the other chores, not all of which could wait, were not going to miraculously disappear.

In exasperation I called my grandmother, who still lives in a village up country in Kenya, and asked her what I should do. She reminded me of the women in the village - the strong women who regularly carry a load on their heads and a child on their back. The following morning I was eager to try. My daughter had woken early and although not ready to be awake was also not wanting to go back to sleep. I put her in a carrier on my back and we walked the dog and went through all of our morning routine. She didn't come down until it was time to get dressed and she didn't once cry or complain; she even ate her breakfast in the carrier.

Soon I began to use a backpack style carrier, as my grandmother had encouraged. If my daughter was restless or grumpy, I would put her on my back and, potential crisis averted, we would both enjoy the comforts of being close. I found that this non-verbal support could be more appropriate than trying to continually ask "What is wrong?" to a child who could not always find the words to explain what was going on inside. If my daughter was scared about trying something new, such as meeting cows on a farm, I found if I put her on my back she would be much more willing to try it out and therefore quick to build up the confidence to try it on her own.

Interestingly, although there has been substantial research and writing about baby wearing, the literature really drops off when it comes to toddler wearing. Yet mothers who talk about it consistently say the same thing. To quote Gretchen Otto from, "In frustration one day I grabbed a carrier when he was at his worst, and the effect was astounding. He became calm once again."

It became clear to me that a child's need to be physically close did not suddenly drop off as they grew older. The number of parents I saw both in my hometown of Nairobi and when I was traveling in Europe who were pushing empty strollers as they carried their toddler confirmed it.

There is a different kind of autonomy developed within toddlers who are regularly carried. While still benefitting from the close contact, they often engage in conversations with other people without the help of their caregiver. The adult (or as is common in Kenya, the older sibling or cousin) carrying them cannot see what they are doing, which allows the child to develop independent action. On the other hand, the child can often see things that they would otherwise not be able to see the adult doing. They can learn through imitation how to carry out activities that are performed at adult height that they would not be able to see if they were on the floor or in a stroller. As for their caregiver, it leaves their hands free.

The effect on a toddler's mood, however, is the most profound. Overtired children or those having a hard time getting to sleep can literally be walked to sleep. If one is using a simple piece of cloth as a carrier this can easily double as a sheet or blanket as the sleeping child is then transferred to the bed.

Once again my grandmother's gentle wisdom had steered me through my mothering. It all came down to this:

  1. Do not assume that toddlers are too old to want to be carried (a lot) - they thrive from physical closeness.
  2. Wearing your toddler doesn't spoil them or make them less independent - in fact they may be more independent when they are ready to explore on their own.
  3. Wearing your toddler still gives her plenty of opportunity to interact independently. Even though you can hear and feel them - you cannot see what they are doing, and they know that.
  4. Having a toddler on your back places much less strain on your body than front-carrying.
  5. What could be better than wearing a hug?
J. Claire K. Niala is a mother, osteopath & writer based in Nairobi, Kenya.