With a suitcase stocked with a rainbow of woven wraps and other baby-carrying gear, Morse showed the moms and dads how they could keep their hands free and their babies close. This practice is a given in many parts of the world where strollers are rare.
Many people in the United States think “closeness is equated to neediness,” Morse said. But for a growing number of American parents, the kind of closeness that comes from carrying their babies for many or even most of their waking hours is essential to creating a healthy and lasting bond.
“If you meet a need, it will go away. If you ignore it, it will reappear,” she said.
Morse — along with her husband, Kyle, and 1-year-old son, Zephyr — traveled to the District last weekend for the 2012 International Babywearing Conference at Catholic University, joining more than 200 other parents for whom infant carriers are more than an item on a baby registry. They are a symbol of parenting philosophy as well.
The term “babywearing” was coined by William Sears, a California-based pediatrician who in 1992 wrote “The Baby Book,” which popularized the concept of “attachment parenting.”
Along with co-sleeping and extended breast-feeding, baby carrying is a core tenet of that parenting approach, which is supposed to nurture a closer attachment between parent and baby and, ultimately, a healthier child.
Sears, who was recently featured in a Time magazine cover article, says on his Web site that he encourages parents to “wear rather than wheel” their children.
At the conference, which ended Monday, speakers projected over the high whine, hiccups and babble of babies to teach about the latest styles and safety requirements for baby wraps, slings and carriers.
Parents learned strategies for carrying babies in extreme temperatures, and back-to-basics skills such as cloth diapering and sewing their own slings. Moms — and some dads — learned how to do yoga, belly dance and defend themselves from an attacker while keeping their babies close.
They also talked about how to extend the principles of attachment parenting into the school years and how to spread the word about babywearing.
Over the past decade, many of Sears’s ideas have influenced mainstream parenting habits, and baby carriers, made by companies such as Baby Bjorn and Ergobaby, have became a rapidly growing part of the $2.8 billion industry for products catering to babies and preschoolers.
From a handful of baby-carrier vendors 20 years ago, hundreds now exist, including dozens that sell their products at big-box baby stores, said Vesta Garcia, executive director of the Baby Carrier Industry Alliance.
Local parenting groups have sprung up to teach parents how to wrap a wiggling baby safely with six yards of fabric or an Asian-style Mei Tai with shoulder and waist straps.
Babywearing International was started in 2007 to promote the practice. The organization accredits “babywearing educators” and has 15 local chapters, including the Beltway Babywearers and another group in central Virginia.
Ann Marie Rodgerson, a Fairfax mother and president of the board of directors for Babywearing International, said she was drawn to the movement four years ago for practical reasons. Her second baby cried every time she was put down, but Rodgerson needed her hands free to care for her 3-year-old. She bought a baby carrier and continued to use it even as her kids grew. On Saturday morning, she directed the conference with her 45-pound 4-year-old strapped to her back.
But many in the community are more ideologically driven, Rodgerson said. Some are environmental activists who eschew plastic baby gear. Others, she said, are responding to the way they were raised, by busy working moms.
“Some people are saying, ‘Maybe I want to go back to the old-fashioned way, to be a little more natural and let my kid lead,’ ” Rodgerson said.
The child-centric parenting philosophy has divided some parents. Some opponents argue that it’s a throwback to the 1950s, encouraging mothers to stay at home and sacrifice every need for their children.
“Attachment parenting puts a lot of pressure on women, especially when it’s framed as the only right way to parent,” said Miriam Liss, a psychology professor at the University of Mary Washington.
“What’s good for children is having a warm relationship with their parents. You can do that if you cary them in a sling or push them in a stroller,” she said.
The conference offered some sessions that encouraged the role of fathers.
Kyle Morse, Rebecca’s husband, taught a class for men, showing off a series of wraps in muted colors that are “easy for a dude to put on.”
He talked about shoulder exercises that men can do to help their flexibility.
“The man doesn’t have a womb, but he has a heartbeat and some warmth and some movement” that can help create the same intimacy and comfort for the baby, he said as he began wrapping Zephyr around his chest. He crossed the fabric behind him, pulling one end over each shoulder, then across again underneath the baby’s bottom to pull and tie behind his waist.
As soon as the baby was snugly against his chest, he squirmed to be let down. Morse identified the source of his distress: His mother, who had left the room, was back, and he was wiggling to see her.
Within a few minutes, he had picked up Zephyr and was trying again.
“One thing we say in my family,” Kyle explained: “Mom carries the baby for nine months, then it’s Dad’s turn.”