Avoiding Paternalism in Babywearing Education

When I began my role as a babywearing educator, I did a lot of reading. I felt a responsibility to know the dimensions and differences between all the big box store brands and the more well known custom carrier makers. I felt the need to learn about particular syndromes and disease processes that might affect babywearing. What I discovered very quickly is that I can’t ever know enough. Even if I study and memorize pages of information I will never know enough. The more I learn about being an effective educator, the more I’m convinced that my job is as a guide, not a leader.

According to Webster’s, paternalism is “the attitude or actions of a person, organization, etc., that protects people and gives them what they need but does not give them any responsibility or freedom of choice” (http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/paternalism). Another definition describes paternalism this way; “entails interference with the liberty of another for the purposes of promoting some good or preventing some harm” (Merry, 2011).

As an educator, paternalism can sneak into your thoughts and into your language. You’ve spent considerable time learning best practices and gathering information on the very many choices and aspects of different carriers. You’ve researched companies and accessories. You’ve done countless consultations and spoken with hundreds of other wearers. You have expertise in your field. But education and paternalistic attitudes are at odds. The caregivers that come for your help may ask you what your favorite carrier is, and they may ask you to tell them what they need, but if they have the time what they really need is for you to ask them questions. You cannot complete an adequate assessment without having the information you need. Any conversation in which you are hoping to teach someone about babywearing should initially consist of questions such as,

  1. How old is your baby?
  2. Do you or your baby have any health problems or physical characteristics that are not typical?
  3. What kind of carrying have you done so far?
  4. What are you hoping to accomplish through babywearing? (more freedom, mitigate effects of prematurity, promote breastfeeding, etc.)
  5. Do you have a carrier? What type of carrier are you interested in? What is your preferred price range? Do you have access to a baby carrier lending library?

Paternalism is even more dangerous when targeted towards populations at risk, such as caregivers with limited economic resources. When babywearing educators suggest ergonomic carriers with high price points (“high” being a completely relative term), we are alienating a large portion of the population that could benefit the most from babywearing practices. While I agree that the $80 spent on a new narrow-based carrier could be better spent several different ways, we also have to recognize that the $5 carriers found in second hand shops and garage sales or pulled out of your best friend’s closet are more likely to be a narrow-based carrier. And those carriers can help people hold babies! Encourage people for babywearing. Because that really is the most important thing. Next, if you feel it’s necessary and welcome, ask some questions.

  1. What a cute carrier! Is it comfortable for you?
  2. Your baby seems so happy/content. Do they like being in the carrier?

If they answer yes, then enjoy some chitchat and maybe invite them to your local babywearing meeting.  If they are having a babywearing problem and voice some problems or concerns to you, ask if they mind if you help them with their carrier.

We all have our favorites and I’m guilty myself of gushing over my newest carrier from the “_____” babywearing company who supports this cause that I’m passionate about, etc. But honestly, I have worn a used Infantino meh dai very happily for an extended amount of time.

Now, about narrow-based carriers. There is no scientific evidence that narrow-based carriers cause hip dysplasia. Just in case you haven’t heard that before, here is a great article: http://beltwaybabywearers.blogspot.com/2014/02/lets-get-real.html?m=1. If you’d like to talk more about that, I’m open to discussion. We need all kinds of babywearing research. We just do not have research that supports limiting carrier choices unless there is a specific physical impairment that would warrant that.

Withholding information or limiting choices is paternalistic. Believing that you know what the best type of carrier would be for someone else is paternalistic thinking. Caregivers who are not looking for their child’s best interests typically do not pursue learning about babywearing. Trust that the parents and caregivers you come into contact with want what is best. Teach them what you know. Ask them what they need from you in order to accomplish their goals.

As a babywearing educator, I encourage you to come alongside your learners. Avoid teaching from a point of superiority or power (Mckinnon, 2014). Work to dismantle social structures that disempower people. Share knowledge and allow learners to decide what is best.



Mckinnon, J. (2014). Pursuing concordance: Moving away from paternalism. British Journal of Nursing, 23(12), 677-684. doi:10.12968/bjon.2014.23.12.677

Merry, M. (2011). Paternalism, obesity, and tolerable levels of risk. Democracy & Education, 20(1), Article 3. Retrieved from http://democracyeducationjournal.org/ home/vol20/iss1/3

Another great reference on this subject: https://www.facebook.com/wrapyourbaby/photos/a.128382603843490.23965.127323970616020/1347385771943161/?type=3&theater



2 thoughts on “Avoiding Paternalism in Babywearing Education

  1. I really like how you explained this. I tend to be very pedantic and am a sponge for knowledge of all kinds. It can be so easy to tell someone what works for you but it doesn’t help when there is no one size fits all answer. I try to ask questions instead of giving advice when it comes to baby related things with strangers. I once started talking to a mom in the grocery store who was using a narrow based carrier. I said how much I missed wearing my son and asked how it was going for her. Turns out she loved it but the carrier hurt her back. As I got out to my car, I realized I had my old ergo in there that I was trying to find a home for. I saw her at her car and offered it to her along with my phone number if she had any issues with it. For me, narrow based carriers, jumpers, standers, and restrictive chairs and car seats were not an option for my son. I have hypermobility and it turns out my son has hypotonia and hypermobility. It would have been a perfect storm for hip dysplasia as it was not diagnosed by a doctor until he was nearly 3. These things are more common than we think and often go undiagnosed. As a low income parent, I appreciate that aspect of this article. Using what you have and figuring out how to make it comfortable for you and baby is crucial to making babywearing accessible.

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