Interview with Koyuki Smith :: Babywearing Expert and Childbirth Educator

Koyuki Smith is a babywearing expert, childbirth educator and doula.  She lives in Harlem with her husband and two home-schooled sons. I discovered her on Pinterest almost 3 years ago via a story she was doing as part of the Sling Diaries for Sakura Bloom. I read her blog and enjoyed her stories so much, I sent her an email and we’ve kept in touch ever since.

You’re pretty dynamic as a birth professional! You teach childbirth education, you’re a doula, cloth diaper educator and elimination communication teacher. Babywearing obviously fits into the spectrum, but what inspired you to pursue advanced training in babywearing?

About seven years ago, before there WAS a significant professional babywearing world, I started working at Metro Minis, which was the first babywearing store in New York City – one of the first few in the country, actually – and the seed of what would later become the Center for Babywearing Studies (CBWS).

In order to make sure that we were providing proper instruction to our customers, Metro Minis brought Ulrike Hower of Die Trageschule in Dresden, Germany to New York to train the entire staff. The store then later sent two of us, Joanna McNeilly, who went on to found CBWS, and me, to Dresden for further training.

A couple years after that, I also trained with the Babywearing Institute to understand different perspectives and approaches within the community.

Many couples take childbirth preparation classes, if they’re lucky their class will cover babywearing, but if it doesn’t, where should they go to learn?

While a childbirth or newborn care class might briefly introduce babywearing, it’s unlikely to give parents enough information to really navigate the topic with ease. My Intro to Babywearing classes often run about an hour and a half, with extra time to try on carriers.

Expecting and new parents can find babywearing classes at stores that specialize in babywearing, and at many places that offer other baby-and-birth-related classes. They can also choose to hire a babywearing consultant to come to their home for private consultations.

Alternately, rather than looking for a class, some parents might prefer to attend babywearing support groups, just as some parents prefer to seek breastfeeding support from La Leche League meetings and not in classes or consultations. You can find local babywearing support groups at Babywearing International.

How can parents determine if the person they hire to teach them is a qualified babywearing educator?

Many educators will have information about their experience and qualifications on their websites or in their class descriptions. If not, parents can ask them about these things. Training and/or certification are good signs; if an educator doesn’t have that, I’d look for at least 5 years of professional experience in the babywearing field.

These organizations list educators who have trained and/or certified through their programs:

  1. Babywearing International
  2. Center For Babywearing Studies
  3. The Babywearing Institute
  4. Babywearing School

If an educator is not on one or more of these sites, that doesn’t by any means indicate that they aren’t qualified – for example, these lists won’t include folks who trained at overseas babywearing schools – but it’s still a good place to start.

Also, in my personal opinion, parents might find it best to avoid educators who take very hard-line stances on any particular topic aside from basic safety measures; uncompromising attitudes often show lack of experience, lack of perspective, and/or lack of nuanced thought processes about the real needs and real situations of real parents.

Wearing your baby seems so easy when you look on Instagram and Facebook, but I still see many parents struggle with confidence when it comes to wearing their babies, even after they’ve received instruction in using their carriers.

Is it a question of wear your baby more and the confidence will come, or could a change of carrier be the best choice?

This made me laugh because it’s SO TRUE…everything seems easy on Instagram! My current Instagram mystery is that so many people seem to have such pristine, fluffy white rugs. How do they do this?! I’ve given up on having a rug at all. They are clearly WAY better at life than I am…

Back to the subject at hand, I think many parents struggle with confidence in many areas of their lives as parents, though this struggle can really rise to the surface when it comes to babywearing. Unlike pushing a stroller, or changing a disposable diaper, or buckling a baby into a carseat, many American parents have relatively few reference points for babywearing in their cultural knowledge of baby care.

To go with the stroller example, by the time someone in America has a baby, they have spent their entire life seeing people pushing strollers in person, on TV shows, in pictures, and in movies, but how much babywearing have they seen? How many times have they seen someone put a baby into or take a baby out of a ring sling? How many times have they seen someone with an optimally adjusted buckle carrier?

While babywearing is gaining popularity, it’s nowhere near as ingrained in our cultural imagination as stroller pushing. Thus, when a parent goes to use a baby carrier, they’re doing something that’s way less familiar to them than pushing a stroller, even if they had never once pushed a stroller before they had their own baby. So to babywear they are going to need a certain amount of extra confidence in their ability to learn this new skill together with their baby, more confidence than they might need to do something more culturally familiar.

How can they gain confidence and build their skills? I think the answer is twofold – experience and instruction. It’s true that skill comes with practice – but only if everything is going in a good direction in the first place. So the parent is probably going to benefit from instruction and support from an experienced educator – just so they can be sure they’ve got a carrier that really works for them and they’re using it in a way that really works for them. Once that’s in place, then the more they wear their baby, the more confident they will feel!

As to buying a different carrier, that may or may not be part of the solution. If the carrier the parent already owns is workable, it might be best to start there. On the other hand, if it’s clear that the carrier itself is the problem, then it’s probably time to wipe the slate clean and start fresh with a new one. Again, working with an experienced professional will help the parent make that call.

Many parents have told me their baby will fuss when they’re placing them in the carrier or that the baby doesn’t like to be worn.

Are there some infants who prefer not to be worn, or is there a babywearing adjustment period between baby and parent?

While it is true that there are some babies who truly prefer not to be worn, this is a tiny tiny minority of babies – tiny enough that you can safely begin with the assumption that your baby is not one of them.

Many young babies do cry when being placed in carriers, just as they might protest any other transition from one situation to another. This is normal, and nothing to worry about. Just adjust the carrier as well as you can, and then start moving, even if it’s just in circles around your living room or up and down your hall.

A brisk, purposeful walk is what we are going for here – walk like you’re late for something. Babies tend to like that sort of firm, organized, decisive movement. Some babies may even need you to walk outside for a moment – the fresh air and the ambient noise of the universe is often just the thing to help them settle down. (At Metro Minis, we often sent customers out of the store to walk to the corner and back while they were trying on carriers – it generally worked like a charm!)

Once your baby has calmed down, you can fine-tune your carrier’s adjustments so that it’s optimally comfortable and secure. Most babies will stop this behavior as they get a little older and more accustomed to being worn.

What baby carrier do you recommend for mothers of twins who want to wear both babies at the same time, and what is the longest you’ve seen a mother of twins carry both babies together?

I think it’s helpful to consider the possibility that a parent of twins (or two babies of different ages) may not actually spend an enormous amount of time tandem-wearing (wearing two babies at once) after the early newborn days. Instead, they often find themselves wearing one baby while caring for/playing with/strollering the other – or while another person wears the other baby. Thus, as a babywearing educator, one of my first steps, even with parents of twins, would be to help them find “regular” (single-baby) carriers that fit their body, lifestyle, and priorities.

That said it’s of course true that the parent will probably want or need to wear both babies at once with some frequency, especially in the early newborn days. With newborn twins, a stretchy wrap is probably the easiest way to wear both babies in one carrier. (Some examples of stretchy wrap brands are Moby, Solly Baby, and Wrapsody. A Baby K’tan brand carrier is also essentially a stretchy wrap.) As babies grow bigger, a stretchy wrap might not feel as secure because, true to its name, it will stretch with the babies’ weight. So a parent wanting to wear two bigger babies at the same time in one carrier, is most likely to find luck with a woven wrap.

There are also specialized buckle carriers made specifically for tandem wearing. The major drawback of these carriers is that many of them are relatively inflexible in terms of sizing, fit, and use, and, unlike stretchy and woven wraps, aren’t necessarily ideal for wearing just one baby as well as two. (It’s also worth noting that most tandem-specialized buckle carriers place one baby on the back; these are often labeled as being appropriate for 4 months and up, but many 4-month-olds are not yet able to sit unsupported, and are thus not yet developed enough to be worn safely on the back in this type of carrier. So, regardless of labeling, parents will want to pay special attention to whether their babies are developmentally suited to the carrier.)

While there are certainly tandem-wearers who rely on just one woven wrap, many parents who tandem-wear regularly past the early newborn stage prefer to use two separate carriers at once, rather than placing both babies in one carrier. You could use two ring slings, two buckle carriers, two mei tais, or a combination of two different types of carriers, like a woven wrap and a buckle carrier, or a ring sling and a mei tai…the possibilities are pretty endless.

As to how long you can tandem-wear, that will depend on how often you do it. If you tandem-wear a lot, you will be able to do it for longer, because your strength will grow as your babies do. Parents who tandem-wear frequently as an integral part of their lifestyle often continue to do so until the children no longer need/want to be worn regularly – usually between 3-4 years old. That’s not to say that it’s ever too late to start, there’s no limit to what a motivated parent can do with one or two well-adjusted carriers, regardless of the babies’ age or size!

While I feel that all expecting or new parents benefit immensely from working with a babywearing educator, this may be even truer with parents of twins. As my answers above demonstrate, there are many different options to comb through, and potentially a lot of different skills to polish up. So, a definite YES to a babywearing class, consultation, and/or support group meeting.

Also, my friend and colleague TwinMommy101, a wonderful babywearing educator and parenting consultant in Atlanta, has a website that is a great resource for tandem wearing and twin parenting: Gentle Parenting Twins. (She still wears her twin girls at 3 years, so she’s a real inspiration!)

For mothers who’ve had cesarean births, is there a particular carrier you recommend that’s more comfortable, and can mom start wearing her baby as soon as she’s ready?

All moms can definitely start wearing their babies as soon as they are ready! Some mothers who have had cesarean births have no special sensitivity after a week or two, and find that they can wear any carrier comfortably. Others, however, may find weight or pressure on their lower abdominal areas to be uncomfortable. For such mothers, most buckle carriers are out, thanks to the wide hip belts. Stretchy wraps, woven wraps, ring slings, and most mei tais would work well for these mothers, because they don’t impinge on sensitive areas. The Catbird Baby Pikkolo, which is a buckle carrier, would also be an excellent choice, because it does not rely on a hip belt.

I know you have two adorable little boys, how long did you wear them?

I wore my first until about 3 years, a little after I got pregnant with my second. I wore my second until about 3 and a half years. I had a stroller with my first; I alternated strollering and wearing from around 18 months. With my second, I never even owned a stroller! He was a worn baby all the way – even his babysitters wore him! He has always led a charmed life, seriously, I’m jealous.

Image of babywearing expert Koyuki Smith and her two sons

Could you share a bit about your new zine Baby Coffee?

Yes! It’s an 8-page print zine that will come out more or less monthly. Your readers can subscribe or purchase back issues at www.KoyukiSmithChildbirth.com/babycoffee, and they can also send me ideas or submissions at BabyCoffeeZine@gmail.com.

There will be two types of issues, two strands of thought:

1) One strand is a series that I call “The Basics.” Each issue will consist of what I find to be the most essential information about an important perinatal topic. I’ve already written the first three issues: Birth & Postpartum, Breastfeeding, and Newborn Care. (The Newborn Care issue will include information on babywearing!) I plan to add to the series in the coming year; I’m mulling over topics such as Twins/Multiples, Adoption, Infertility, and so on.

In addition to sending these issues to regular subscribers, I will distribute them to my childbirth/babywearing/doula clients, and I’m hoping that other perinatal professionals will do the same.

2) The second strand is more traditional zine material – selections of art, literature, scholarship, and commentary. The focus will not necessarily be exclusively on parent/baby matters, but because I will be selecting and arranging the material, it will inevitably be colored by my interests and points of view.

The reason that I am putting these two things together – perinatal information and more general-interest material – is that I believe that perinatal knowledge should be common knowledge, that perinatal information IS general interest information. After all, every human on this earth is born as a baby, has parents in one way or another, and develops and grows in one way or another.

So, in summary, I guess I’m trying to change the world! Honestly, I think that, at bottom, that’s the mission of all perinatal professionals. If we can change the perinatal experience and the cultural knowledge surrounding it, we can change the world.

Follow Koyuki on Instagram to keep up with her day to day adventures and visit her website for more information about her birth and babywearing support.

All photos courtesy of Koyuki Smith

 

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