Last week I was asked whether I would consider getting my baby’s ears pierced. Without a moment’s hesitation, I replied that no, I wouldn’t even consider it. My main reasons were that I want her to be able to choose whether or not she has pierced ears, and also that I couldn’t bear the thought of putting her through unnecessary pain.
It got me thinking about how different cultures ‘decorate’ their babies. I do occasionally adorn my daughter in jewellery: an amber teething necklace and a tiny gold bangle that I wore as a baby. While I don’t consider the ability to wear earrings to be worth the pain of piercing my daughter’s ears, I’m sure many people do.
In fact, some people would view piercing an infant’s ears as extremely important, and not simply for aesthetics. Karnavedha is a Hindu traditional ear-piercing ceremony that occurs either in the third or fifth year, or on the 12th or 13th day after birth, depending on which part of India the child is from. While some parents do pierce their baby’s ears for purely aesthetic reasons, others believe it helps ward off evil. Acupuncturists in India also suggest that piercing the earlobes has a therapeutic value.
In Thailand, infant jewellery has a very practical purpose: mothers adorn their babies with expandable anklets bearing tiny tinkling bells. This custom means parents can hear their children at all times and keep them safe. But the sound of the bells is also traditionally said to ward off bad spirits and protect the child from harm.
In the traditional Himba tribes of Namibia, jewellery is an important part of tribal identity. Newborn babies wear beaded necklaces and anklets, while older children are given bracelets crafted from copper and decorated with shells.
Jewellery for infants actually has a long history throughout European cultures, as well. In medieval times, economic and social concerns were invariably intertwined in attitudes towards jewellery. Everybody wore it: men, women, children, royalty, merchants, and even members of lower social circles, who owned simpler, inexpensive items. The type and quality of jewellery worn by an infant was a good indication of the wealth and social standing of its parents.
Noble children and those from wealthy families were adorned with brooches, chaplets (a circular wreath or garland for the head) and girdles (a decorative belt), which were similar to those worn by adults, but smaller. Sumptuary laws, which were enacted to restrain luxury or extravagance, and therefore maintain the social hierarchy, often restricted the amount and quality of jewellery worn by children.
In 14th century Italy, infant jewellery served three purposes: crosses or pieces of coral were hung around the necks of newborn babies as dummies (see our article on the history of the pacifier), but also for decoration and religious protection.
It seems that modern Western children are among the least adorned in history. Perhaps infant jewellery is trending towards fashion and identity rather than spiritual, social, and economic functions?
After all, jewellery in Australia is not a reliable indicator of wealth or social standing given the availability of costume jewellery. Cheap replicas are often indistinguishable from the real thing, at least before close inspection, and one can find jewellery to suit the smallest of budgets.
I think my baby is pretty cute whether she’s wearing her amber teething necklace or not, and I don’t really believe the promise that it will assist with reducing the pain of teething. I’ve heard many other mothers say likewise, and yet our children still wear them! Deep down, I think we’re willing to try anything that promises to make our babies happy.
And what about that tiny gold bangle my daughter sometimes wears? Well, it’s certainly no indication of the wealth of her parents (if only it were!), and I spend too much energy worrying that it will slip off and get lost. But I do love the idea that I too wore that same bangle once, and that, hopefully, so will my grandchildren and great grandchildren: yes, just like the tribal pieces worn by Himba babies, and the brooches of noble medieval children, that little bangle is a reminder of a shared identity.