By Doris Loayza
Doris Loayza holds a Masters in Latin American & Caribbean Studies degree at New York University, focusing on Andean culture and Quechua language.
1. To wrap or bind in bandages; swathe
2. To wrap (a baby) in swaddling clothes
3. To restrain or restrict
Growing up in Llamellín, a remote village in the Konchukos region of Ancash, I’ve always been fascinated by child-rearing in the Andes, in particular the ritual of swaddling (wrapping) babies. I have vivid memories of my mother Flormira (Llullmi in Quechua) swaddling my younger siblings with the traditional “wachuku” (cloth belt).
So when I had the opportunity to return to my hometown in Summer 2012 to do research for my studies on Andean culture at New York University, I decided to explore this topic.
Memories from my childhood
Like most women in the Andes, my mother worked continuously from dawn to dust, cooking, cleaning, working in the “chacra” (field), and raising several children. There was very little time for leisure. But a few times each day, she would take a short break to swaddle her babies. These encounters were crucial bonding moments between mother and child. I recall those moments like they were yesterday, my mother swaddling my youngest siblings, while singing sweet “huayno” melodies.
I flew to Perú in June and spent the first few days with my family in Lima, where they now live. This gave me the opportunity to ask my mother (now age 73) about my memories, and to hear her stories and beliefs, which I always loved. Over bowls of delicious “sopa de habas” (fava bean soup) and “calabaza api” (pumpkin pudding) my mother had prepared, we talked in Quechua:
“Mom, why did you swaddle your babies?”
She told me that newborns needed to remain swaddled in order to sleep well inside the home for several days because they were fragile, and needed to get stronger before being exposed to the outside world.
This answer made sense to me. We continued.
“How do you know when it’s time to stop swaddling a baby?”
She explained that it was a matter of observing the baby, that every mom would recognize the signals. When babies began to free their hands from the wrap, it meant they were strong enough to begin exploring their bodies, movements, and the world surrounds them.
Hearing my mother’s answer reminded me how much I still admired the ability of people in Andean culture to observe nature and read its signals. Having moved to the city (first Lima, and later New York), I am worried about losing the connection to nature that my ancestors had.
Return to Llamellin
After visiting my mother, I made the long trip back to Llamellín. I was eager to talk with other women who had remained there, both younger and older mothers.
After taking the sleeper-bus from Lima to Huaraz, I transferred to an old bus for the grueling 8-hour ride through the Callejón de Huaylas. We climbed through the steep mountains of Konchukos, passing the incredible Chavín temple, before arriving in Llamellín. I stayed for two weeks in the house where I grew up.
I ended up interviewing a total of 12 women, from ages 20 to 69. All the women had given birth and raised their children in Llamellín, and had maintained the practice of swaddling their babies. All but one of the conversations took place in Quechua in their homes, most of them on small farms outside of the town.
I had four basic questions in mind. I decided to use semi-structured interviewing because it was exploratory research, and I wanted to be able to find a variety of interpretations and answers.
1. Why did the women swaddle their babies? What were the benefits?
There was consensus among all the mothers, both younger and older. First, they told me that swaddling helped their babies to get stronger. For example:
Reyna (age 60): “Wambrakunata wachukuwan incharqa, riqranta ure bajarpuntsi” “Kallpan kanampa” (“I used to swaddle my children, with their arms straight by their sides. I do it in order my baby grew stronger”).
Leucrecia (age 65): “Wachukruqa kallpan yurinampa, nircha” (Swaddling the babies gives them strength).
Second, all the mothers mentioned that swaddling helps the baby to sleep well and avoid the reflex that often afflicts newborns, in which their arms and legs pop up and jerk spasmodically. They were referring to the moro reflex in the newborns.
Reyna (age 60) “Inchaskiptiqa tranquilo punukunpis…. mana makin mantsakatsinampa.” (“When the babies are swaddled, they sleep restfully…they don’t wake up suddenly”).
They added that, before swaddling, they would typically bathe their babies using herbs to refresh them from the heat after being wrapped in the fabric, or exposed to the sun.
Lucrecia (age 65): “Unay yerba santa, alfafa, freskukunallawan wishllaj raprankunawan, kupa kupaskir armatsiyarqa” (“I gave them baths, adding herbs like alfalfa and “yerba santa” that help to keep the baby fresh”).
Some mothers described (often using nature as metaphors, as customary in Quechua) how wrapping their babies helped develop straight and strong bones, benefits reported by Earle L. Lipton in his classic 1965 studies on swaddling.
Elista (age 63): “Inchantsi qayrurajtara wambrata” (“When swaddled, the babies stay as straight as wood”).
Reyna (age 60): “Mana kurkukash aywanampa” (“It prevents the baby from growing twisted”).
Ana Olortegui (age 49): “Tsay inchantsi kay shumaq shutu yachakanampa…” (“Swaddling helps the baby grows straight”).
Some of the moms talked about how swaddling helped their babies adapt to schedules so that the mothers could do their chores without worries.
Reyna (age 60): “Lichi hakaq tsay hora shamuqka, tak! tsay hora mitsikita qaykapakuskirqa, unas qaykapakaspitki ushaskipti, llullu waqamuq” (“I used to return home when my breast was full. As I was putting the animals in the corral, my baby would start to cry; my baby knew I was ready to breast feed him”).
Irene (age 62) also talked about leaving home without the newborn for a couple of hours. She said it was important that the baby have good company, prefering to use the cloth belt decorated with owl’s eyes, to help watch over the baby: “Unay inchaskir, punuskatsir mitsikur aywanantsi wambrata haqiskir, tukupa ñawin wachukuwan inchaskirqa wallkinampa mana mantsaqakujtsu.”
Some of the older mothers mentioned another benefit very important in the Andean world: swaddling helped them carry their babies on their back more comfortably.
2. Until what age did they swaddle their babies?
Regarding this question, the responses of the mothers were more divergent. Some mothers swaddled their babies until 3 months, others for up to 6 months. It depended on behavior of the babies.
Ana (age 60): “Inchasqa kapuntsi segun nuqatsi, nuqa katsirqa chusku, pisqa killatara, tsay shakshaqa kaynaw humanta hayamuptinqa manan incharganatsu” (“It’s case by case with each baby; I swaddled my babies until four, five months, when the baby started to lift his head up I stopped it”).
However, the moms said swaddling babies should begin immediately after birth. If not, they explained, the baby would begin to cry when swaddled. But if they were swaddled immediately after birth, they quickly got used to it. In fact, they might cry if they were not swaddled after a few hours.
Elista (age 63): “Kikinkunami ashin inchanapa, sutapaakuyan.” (“the babies waited to be swaddled, by stretching their arms and legs”).
3. What kind blanket did they use to swaddle their babies?
Most answered that the blanket and cloth diaper was taken from llullipakuna, the woolen skirts worn by the mother or grandmother – inside colored skirt made from wool. Specifically, they called it “inchana.” It helped to keep the baby warm in the highlands.
They told me that the patsa madrinan (the midwife) would often bring it with her as a gift for the newborn:
Ana (age 49) “une inchanakuna llullipa inchanaqa kaq” (“The old blankets were made from woolen skirts.”)
Reyna (age 60) “Incharqa llullipawan, bayetawan” (“For swaddling, I used wool blanket made from skirts.”)
4. What features are essentials for the cloth belt?
The cloth belt is a very important item in Andean culture. It is called “wachuku” in Quechua. Historically, it was worn throughout one’s lifetime, from birth to old age.
All the moms interviewed agreed that the best “wachuku” shared certain characteristics. First, the best wraps were thick and wide, and made from wool. Not surprisingly, more wraps today are machine-made synthetics. When ‘modernity’ arrived in the Andes the 1980s and 1990s, more mothers began using synthetics instead of natural fibers for their wraps, and plastic in place of cloth diapers. The grandmothers expressed their disapproval.
Another answer, but only from the older mothers, is that the wraps should have patterns with owls’ eyes to watch over their babies.
Irene (age 62): “Tukupa ñawin wallkinampa, mana mantsakunanpa” (“When we leave the baby, the owls’ eyes can make company and guard the baby”).
Elista (age 63):“Tukupa ñawin, wallki niyan.” (We believe that owl eye patterns are good company for newborns”).
Besides the owl eyes, there are other patterns commonly found in the cloth belt, including “utsupa murun” (hot pepper seeds), squares, and “mil rayas” (thousands lines), all with many colors.
I wanted to know if there were still any weavers in Llamellin making the traditional “wachukus.” Elista told me there were two, and referred me to Don Tiburcio, age 95. I found him at home, chachando (chewing) coca leaves in preparation for his work that day. While weaving, Don Tiburcio enthusiastically told me about his work. These days, it took him three days to complete a cloth belt. But in his youth, he could make one in a day and half. He charges 25 soles (10 dollars) for each.
Reyna (age 60) “Inchaskiptiqa tranquilo punukunpis…. mana makin mantsakatsinampa.” (When the babies are swaddled, they sleep restfully…they don’t wake up suddenly).
Opposition to swaddling
Even before my research in Llamellin, I had suspected that the “modern” medical community in Perú, funded by governments, pharmaceutical companies and other institutions, opposed the traditional practice of wrapping babies. The women I talked with seemed to confirm that.
Several mothers told me that the government-run health clinic in Llamellín, staffed by people from the cities, strongly discouraged them from wrapping babies. They said it could curtail their babies’ freedom and slow motor development.
Elista (age 63) said: “Kanan doctorakuna niyan: “imapata kay wambrata wachukuyanki nir aqakuna. Aqakush kay willka wambranta hospitalpa apaptin, waykapashqa wachukuntapis” (“When my granddaughter went to the clinic with her swaddled baby to meet with the doctor, the doctor got angry: ‘Why are your swaddling your baby?’And the doctor threw out the cloth belt.”
Tania (age 36), mother of three children and school teacher (and the only mother who responded to me in Spanish) told me that a psychologist told her that swaddling would inhibit the development of the baby: “Pero hay psicólogas que dicen que (el bebé) no desarrolla normalmente. Pero no es así, yo lo he comprobado” (“Psychologists say that swaddling doesn’t permit the baby to develop well. But it is not true, because I proved it with my children”).
However, I have yet to find any research supporting that conclusion. On the contrary, I found research concluding that swaddling helps babies to sleep and also keep the babies at a more stable temperature, notably as reported in the study by Lipton and others (1965).
I found other articles that confirmed what the Llamellina mothers told me:
“The reasons given for swaddling are varied, and include keeping the infant warm and protected in cold climates and at high altitudes, developing obedience, facilitating holding, and ensuring the baby’s physical safety.” (Harwood and Fend, 2002).
I’ve learned, however, that pediatricians in the USA are starting to endorse the practice of wrapping babies as a way to help them fall asleep (although with blankets). I even saw instructional videos for wrapping on YouTube (http://youtu.be/vMBn-hdA3e8)
A global tradition
As an adult, I now realize that swaddling babies was not a uniquely Quechua/Andean practice, but one practiced for thousands of years by cultures throughout Peru and elsewhere around the world.
I’ve had the opportunity to visit great museums in Peru and the USA, where I saw exhibits of mummies from various cultures where bodies were wrapped: from the Paracas and Incan cultures in Peru, to the ancient Egypt civilization. A realization came to mind: when babies are born, they are wrapped as a passage through their lifetimes. When humans pass away, the same principal applies. They are wrapped again in preparation for passage through the next stage of their journey.
Wrapping babies was prevalent until the 18th century, when European philosophers and doctors began to question this practice, arguing that it restricted the freedom of the babies. Of course, the practice continued in many rural cultures like China, including the Andes. It remains today in the rural Andes, but with globalization, ‘modern medicine’ and other changes, who knows for how much longer.
After doing this research on wrapping, my original opinions haven’t changed. I believe that this ancient tradition remains one of the wisest practices in the Andes for taking care of babies. The practice helps babies to sleep well, keeps them warm in cold weather. And it provides a very important opportunity for mothers and babies to bond.
Swaddling babies in the Andes is essential knowledge in the Quechua world, handed down for many generations, and should be respected.
Harwood, R. L., & Feng, X. (2002). Swaddling of infants. In N. J. Salkind (Ed.), The Macmillan psychology reference series: Child development (p. 399). New York: Macmillan Reference USA.
Lipton, Earle L., Steinschneider, Alfred, Richmond, Julius B. (1965). Swaddling, a Child Care Practice: Historical, Cultural, and Experimental Observations: Pediatrics, 35, S. 521-567.
Tronick, E. Z.; & Tomas, R. B.; and Daltabuit, M. (1994). The Quechua Manta Pouch: A Caretaking Practice of Buffering the Peruvian Infant Against the Multiple Stressors of High Altitude. Child Development. V65 n4 p1005-13.
Also there is a youtube link were you can watch a video made by Carlo Brescia on the topic (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c50syxtN9XI&t=4s)