Hikes and Tykes — Tree City Babywearing

by Laura Cowan

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Back when the Internet was black and white, I was a green parenting blogger reviewing cloth diapers and baby carriers and being insufferably crunchy (e.g. I had learned how to pronounce quinoa). The upshot of this is that I have tested an astonishing array of cloth baby carriers, which are like backpacks on your front with little squirmy humans in them. I met a lot of cool people along the way, too. Babywearing can be a lot of fun, and like being able to ask after quinoa without a Whole Foods clerk correcting your pronunciation, there can be an entire lifestyle and community attached. A busy mom can chase a toddler while babywearing an infant sibling — even breastfeed on the go or gain exclusive access to hippie-only drum circles and airport lounges. I don’t know. I was so sleep-deprived my daughter’s entire infancy that’s how I remember it, but breastfeeding on the go is definitely a sifu-level mommy manifestation skill I never mastered. Let’s back up.

If you’re from Ann Arbor or Ypsilanti, babywearing is delightfully ubiquitous, and so I’ll assume you’re on board with the idea of combining backpacks and babies. Come along on a fantastic hike around our babywearing culture in this mecca for babywearing folks and activities. Babywearing, or carrying babies in slings on your body instead of in strollers, has had a resurgence in popularity in the last decade, as attachment parenting has gone mainstream. According to Allison Valerio of Ann Arbor Babywearers, which meets in Ypsilanti, the last four years in particular has seen an explosion of new babywearing gear on the market, aimed at parents looking for more choices for baby gear even up into toddler-sized baby slings. 

The Gear

First, the gear. I’ll admit, this is the hard part. If you like the bottom line, just go to green parenting shop The Little Seedling on the west side of town, where store manager Marie Friesen or any other of the lovely moms on staff can help advise you on how to keep this simple. The easiest of babywearing gear really is what I described: essentially a buckle- or snap-on backpack you strap to your front, back, or hip, and insert baby facing you. Simple. Well, simplish. Make sure baby’s knees aren’t squished. Ideally, baby faces you so she can be comforted by seeing mom or dad’s face, and legs are best supported from the knee pit up to hip at a 90-degree angle, leaving the feet free to kick you in the spleen. Most popular brand: The Ergobaby. (Dads pair with Fridababy Fridaballs kid-proof boxers for aforementioned problem.)

If you want a baby carrier that is extra adjustable to switch between parents or if, like me, you have broad shoulders, there is a carrier similar to the backpack style that ties like an apron, called a mei tai carrier. Bonus: these often come in beautiful designs and make you look hipster fresh so even the guy doing your pour-over coffee will pay attention to you while you wait. Forever. Is pour-over coffee immersive live theater? I have made it through a decade of modern parenting now, and I still have so many questions. Upside: Mei tais can be very comfortable. Downside: not a mai tai. No umbrella drinks involved. Fave brand: Babyhawk. 

Third option is the ring sling. These are great for cuddling newborns like a little pea in a pod because they look like hammocks you hang from one shoulder. They adjust like a belt via a big ring to gather the fabric, and they’re also super adjustable. You can even wear one over each shoulder for twins, or strap a ring sling on your front, and a different style of carrier on your back for a toddler tandem. Downside: you have a kid like mine who is always alert and climbing out of things. If you’ve got a crib climber, this is not the carrier for you (see YouTube hammock prank videos for an idea of how that plays out). Sexiest silk prints: Sakura Bloom. You will want to wear these like Maria wore the curtains in The Sound of Music. They’re so pretty. They even cover up your stained yoga pants underneath. Ring slings are often made by stay-at-home-mom brands, too, so you can support working mamas buying this style while doing everything perfectly because modern parenting. 

Finally, there is the wrap carrier. This one is not for the sleep-deprived. It’s essentially an enormous ribbon of fabric you can tie any number of ways around your shoulders and waist to hold baby. Upside? Great flexibility, because this wrap can mimic most of the other styles and is machine washable. You’ve been spit up on, yes? Have you had un-washable baby gear spit up on that instantly takes on the smell of powdered milk and toe fungus? I have a very high-quality, very expensive car seat the cupholder of which my genius toddler jammed a perfectly spherical BPA-free baby snack holder into and then threw up on it. I couldn’t pry it out with a butter knife. Doesn’t matter one whit that the removable seat cover is washable. Those shriveled Panda Puffs are still locked in their extended animation homeostasis pod to this day, but so help me I will not throw out that best-on-the-market car seat, so I rest my case. Though, most baby carriers are washable to some degree now except the heavy duty hiking kind, so you’ll probably be fine as long as you let your buckle carrier air dry and don’t need it right away. (Some mamas live in them.) 

These days, the issue of these stretchy wraps sagging has also been fixed by some brands bolstering their fabrics. Plus, the most popular wrap called the Moby is easily found in mainstream baby stores, so you don’t have to hike to Ann Arbor’s boutiques to find one. This makes it a quick baby registry item. I did find, however, that wrap carriers were tricky to get on and off on the go. It’s a great carrier for around the house or the mom who has ninja wrapping skills. I don’t know why this is pitched as the mainstream carrier. Because it’s the cheapest? It’s kind of complicated. You need IKEA-style directions to figure it out, and a patient baby. Once you’ve got it, though, very easy to replicate. 

Okay, the real downside? These things are expensive. There is an Internet meme to the effect of: “should I die before I wake, someone please tell my husband what the baby carriers are actually worth.” Baby slings often run in the $40-200 range apiece, though there’s a lot of variability on that. So, that brings us to the good part. Ann Arbor babywearing being a community around here means you can try before you buy and meet moms who have gone before to show you the ropes. No money wasted. And if you really do replace a stroller with a baby carrier instead of doing double duty, it’s on the cheaper side compared to a nicer all-terrain stroller that lets you go off-pavement like these do. 

The Community

I make no warranty for the people you will possibly meet while babywearing, all-season competitive parenting being what it is these days, but I hear the folks at Ann Arbor Babywearers are pretty cool. I can vouch for their representative, the aforementioned Allison Valerio, who met me for an interview and demonstration of some of the latest styles of carriers. Valerio told me something really important for this conversation, too. Ann Arbor Babywearers is a group of like-minded parents where you can not only get some tips on how to get started with babywearing and meet other parents — you can check out carriers from a library to try for free. There are also Canton Babywearers, and Livingston County, so wherever you move in the area, you can find this handy support network for play and try-before-you-buy awesomeness. You can borrow a carrier to try for several weeks, and then drop it off at The Little Seedling or the group meetings. 

Valerio tells us her favorite thing about Ann Arbor Babywearers: “I feel like I’m helping people. This group helps instill confidence when you’re [dealing with] that vulnerable exhaustion of being a new parent.” Indeed. Though the hallucinations are pretty cool, and I’m not sure I’d trade them. 

The best thing about babywearing outside the people? “Especially after a second child, you can get stuff done and chase a toddler around.” 

The Little Seedling’s store manager Marie Friesen seconds this: 

My stretchy wrap really came in handy with my colicky baby. Whenever she started to fuss, my husband would say “wrap her up!” and she would pass out in minutes. We have ring slings (Sakura Bloom, Moby, Beco, Lillebaby) that can be used from newborn through toddler stage. Some people aren’t a fan of them because they sling across one shoulder and can restrict your movement of the arm it is over. Also, I feel like they have the biggest learning curve, which can deter some parents. I love the ring sling for errands because it is a quicker way to get baby on you and very packable. It is also very handy in the toddler stage when the child wants up for two minutes for a cuddle then needs to go play seconds later.

The Little Seedling business model is part of local babywearing culture, too. Owner Molly Ging encourages her employees, mostly moms, to bring their young children to work with them and wear them in-store, which opens up opportunities for women who would otherwise need to pay for daycare or stay home with their kids. Also, moms in the store can spot each other when parenting moments happen, creating a supportive family environment. 

Friesen tells us:

When I first started at The Little Seedling, I had a 7-month-old that would only nap if she was touching me. Babywearing really allowed for me to work, but also allowed for my child to nap. Obviously, our guests are our number-one priority, so babywearing allows us to help the guest while letting our kids get their needs met, too.

Parents often donate wraps to the Ann Arbor Babywearers, or contribute financially to keep the group running, which meets in the WIC lobby at Washtenaw County Human Services (555 Towner) the first and third Tuesday of the month. The cool thing about the location is it makes for easy connections with WIC. Valerio says they support moms learning to breastfeed in their baby carriers, plus connect them with other services they might need for their kids. There is also quite a lot of crossover in people between Ann Arbor Babywearers and a group called Hike it Baby, which brings up one final consideration. Physical limitations. 

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Friesen said The Little Seedling has blind people who come in for assistance in learning how to wear their babies, and that people with lower back pain often find the Lillebaby supportive because it features a lumbar support pad. I know with my back injury, I found the mei tai carriers and buckle carriers easiest, because they sit centered on your body and you can adjust the height. “Some people are trekking across mountains and ridges,” Friesen said, “and those people should really go with a more structured carrier, because those can carry personal belongings and other items needed for those treks.”

The Hikes

You can, of course, arrange your own outings with friends or on your own, but when you’re a mom, it’s really nice to have a parenting group nearby to invite you to events and get your kids out of the house. Hike it Baby is a national nonprofit organization dedicated to getting families with children from birth to school age outside and on the trails. The group was founded by a mom in Portland, Oregon, in 2013. Local branch founder Annie Fortunato started the Ann Arbor chapter in October 2014 with her then three-year-old son. 

“Ann Arbor is a transient city because of the University,” Fortunato said, “so there are constantly new people coming to town. These families are looking for new friends and new things to do…. You get to make new friends and hang out with your children!”

 

Fortunato tells us:

When Hike it Baby Ann Arbor was born, we were the forty-fifth branch. The organization has now grown to 350 branches all over the U.S., Canada, and even internationally in Japan, Italy, Germany, and Australia. What makes Hike it Baby a little different is that we are an inclusive organization. We welcome moms, dads, nannies, grannies, aunts, uncles, cousins, and friends on all of our hikes. Hike it Baby is free for 90 days. After that, if you’d like to continue to hike with us, it is $10 per year, which is completely tax deductible. This (fee) allows you to see the calendar for any city, all over the world.

A typical hike with Hike it Baby starts with a welcome circle. Members introduce themselves, their children, how old they are, and where in town they are from. Sometimes hikes are pretty low-key. 

“We have lots of toddlers,” Fortunato said, “and sometimes we only hike about 50 feet because they want to explore every puddle and inspect every bug.” Other times it’s just a few moms and dads with children in carriers and it’s faster paced. 

Occasionally, the group meets at a playground or park, or hosts summer picnics and other events. Fortunato said her entire social network is made up of Hike it Baby families. “Nature brings like-minded people together. I think if you are coming to Hike it Baby hikes, your parenting styles tend to be similar, your love for the outdoors is similar, you’re probably at least a little adventurous, and maybe a little unconventional.”

Favorite trails? 

I think Nichols Arboretum is my favorite, overall, because depending on what kind of trail I’m in the mood for, I can find it there: hills, river, flat, gravel trails, dirt trails, plant diversity, fall colors, spring flowers. If I’m up for a true hike, I head for Pinckney Rec Area’s Crooked Lake Trail. I’ve really grown to love Pittsfield Preserve, as well.

I have hiked with branches all over Michigan and two branches while vacationing in California. Every year, the national organization hosts four Hike it Baby 30 Challenges. We challenge members to hike 30 miles in 30 days, spend 30 minutes outside three times per week, or do another personal challenge of their own. For one challenge two years ago, my goal was to hike with all 10 Hike it Baby branches in Michigan. I made it to all but one. It was a fun adventure, and I met a ton of really great people. 

Every branch has its own flavor, but Hike it Baby has several values that hold true, no matter what branch you hike with: 

  • We leave no family behind.
  • We are a strong community.
  • We are free of judgment.
  • We are raising a generation to love the outdoors.
  • We respect nature.
  • We inspire wellness.

“My son has also made a ton of friends through Hike it Baby,” Fortunato said. “Most parents who bring their children on hikes feel like their kids need these hikes. You can’t bounce off of walls if there aren’t any walls.”

What makes Hike it Baby so special? 

I’ve seen kids take their first steps on the trails, seen babies grow up, seen friendships grow and connections made. I feel really lucky to experience these moments. I had my second son in October 2017, and I loved having an established community to welcome him to — instant aunts and uncles. It has been so refreshing to be able to text my Hike it Baby friends at 2 a.m., and they’re up with their newborns too…. Many families hang out together outside of Hike it Baby, going to zoos, vacations, etc.

So how do you get connected? Hike it Baby has a Facebook page with a detailed calendar app. “We host events all year round, unless the conditions are dangerous (severe wind chills, heat advisories, thunderstorms, etc.)…. During the spring and summer, we may have a dozen or so events every week.”

Here’s where we get to the heart of things: 

Hike it Baby is an amazing supportive community. Not just to get you and your children outside, but just knowing that we understand your struggle. Your toddler having a temper tantrum on the trail? We’ve been there. Need help clipping the buckle on your carrier? We got you. You forgot a snack for you preschooler? Here’s some extra raisins. Need help getting your kiddo in a back carry? We’re here to help! Have a slow toddler and a fast school-ager? We have eyes everywhere. 

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Some women are also worried about being alone on the trail. With Hike it Baby, you’re never alone. And truly, since I’ve had Hike it Baby, I’ve never felt alone. There are many stories of moms who suffered from postpartum depression and have started hiking with us and turned their lives around.

It’s easy to believe, and probably verified by some dismal statistics, that friend-making in your late twenties and beyond falls off some kind of proverbial cliff. I certainly found mom groups to be dicey places to meet friends sometimes, though I’ve also made lifelong besties and my kid has made gobs of friends through green parenting meet-ups and local kids’ activities. 

Fortunato said:

It can be really hard to step into established mom groups, but Hike it Baby is different. We aren’t a mom group. We are a community. We do our best to support you, however you need…. Hike it Baby is a movement. We are raising a generation of children to love the outdoors.

Ann Arbor/Ypsi is a unique place, made all the more special by green parenting communities and its babywearing culture — and these groups are only the beginning. I can kid all I want to about babies kicking you in the family heirlooms, but this truth remains. It seeps into your bones if you live around here long enough. Ann Arbor/Ypsi is family. I don’t need that to be machine washable to see the long-term value. Like that dreadful car seat, I can never wash this university-hippie culture out of me and I don’t care. This is Ann Arbor babywearing culture. Everything costs too much around here and we know how to say quinoa, but we’re pretty nice, too. 

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Laura K. Cowan is a green living editor and magical realist author living in Ann Arbor. She was the Green Transportation and Road Test Editor for green design blog Inhabitat. 

The Little Seedling is on the web at thelittleseedling.com or call (734) 418-2392. Information about Ann Arbor Babywearers is on Facebook or you can reach Allison Valerio at alivalerio@gmail.com

Annie Fortunato works at a local learning center and volunteers with Hike it Baby on the local and national level. More information about Hike it Baby can be found online at hikeitbaby.com.

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Posted on September 1, 2018 and filed under Children, Issue 70, Nature, Parenting, Programs.