It’s that sweet time at the end of a long day… it’s bed time. She’s had her dinner. She’s had her bath. She’s lathered in coconut oil and zipped up in her warmest PJ’s. The only next step is to tie her into her basket.
Until about 6 weeks ago, Baby O slept in a traditional Native American sleeping basket called a pusuk. Missus Scooter’s brother in-law is from the Mono Indian tribe and his entire family uses the baskets. Missus Scooter is the youngest of eight children, with a 21 year spread between the oldest and youngest siblings. Missus Scooter’s sister and brother-in-law have been married for 36 years and her entire family has adopted the tradition of swaddling up their babies and tucking them into their cradleboards. It was a foregone conclusion that our baby would also sleep in a pusuk.
A pusuk is the first cradle, or a basket, for a Western Mono baby. Pusuks have been used for hundreds of years by Native Americans to carry and protect their babies, as well as cradles for sleeping. They vary in size, shape, design and color depending on the materials available. Typical materials used are redbud, sourberry sticks and chapparel, all native plants to the California Sierra Foothills. Pusuk’s are typically 28 inches long. There is also a larger cradleboard called a hoop basket, typically 35 inches long, which a baby moves into when he/she outgrows the pusuk.
The pusuk is a flat woven surface with leather loops on each side. A soft tie is used to secure the baby through the leather loops. A plush, breathable pad is placed on top of the woven surface.
Before tying a baby in, you swaddle or wrap a blanket around the baby.
Missus Scooter’s great niece sleeping in her basket
I had the opportunity to see Missus Scooter’s niece use a pasuk with her daughter, who was born 3 years ago. Every time I would see that sweet little baby swaddled up in her little cocoon, there was no denying she was at her calmest. The family explained that the babies love their baskets; they felt safe and secure and it was the family’s secret for a long night’s sleep. Having not grown up with this tradition, I wasn’t skeptical… I was curious. But I was not entirely comfortable I understood how it worked and that I would be able to do it right.
Our first step was finding someone to make a pusuk for us while I was still pregnant. Making a pasuk is a sacred ritual and a tradition that is typically passed down from the elder women in a family. Missus Scooter’s brother-in-law’s mother still makes the baskets and has passed it down to her daughters and granddaughters, however it is unfortunately a dying artform and very rare to find someone who knows how to make a cradleboard. We reached out to Missus Scooter’s niece, who learned from her grandmother, but having a toddler and a newborn, she knew she did not have the time to make one for us. A pusuk takes approximately 100 hours to construct, not to mention gathering and preparing the materials from the land can take upwards of three months ahead of time. We asked another one of her granddaughters, a woman that Missus Scooter grew up with. She was willing to make us a basket and had the time to do so. We were very excited!
We got our pusuk the day Baby O was born. We did not use it that night because she slept on my chest the whole night. It’s where I wanted her and I didn’t really sleep; I sort of laid there thinking oh-my-god-I-have-a-baby! However, the next evening we decided to try the basket. I was a little nervous to use it, not having any experience with it, but Missus Scooter grew up with this tradition so she was ready to go. The first time we tied her in it probably took 5 minutes (that’s a long time)! We placed the pusuk in our bed in between us. We laid down and stared at each other over our sleeping daughter. She was so secure and calm (like in the womb) and she slept wonderfully. I knew we had made the right decision.
Eventually, we moved the pusuk to one side of our king size bed so that Missus Scooter and I could actually sleep next to each other again, then we moved her basket into the bassinet next to our bed. In her early days, she would nap in her pusuk on the couch. It is extremely easy to move her when she is in her pusuk. Often we would tie her into her basket in the living room and then carry her to the bedroom to sleep. After several months, we moved her to her crib in her room. She was still sleeping in her pusuk in her crib.
Baby O has always been a great sleeper, and I think there are varying factors for this: being born with a propensity to sleep well, being born over 8 pounds, no digestive issues, incorporating a dream feed into our nightly ritual, and last but CERTAINLY not least her basket! Baby O was one of those babies who needed swaddling and did so well with it. As she got older and bigger, I know she would have busted out of a regular swaddle, but being in a pusuk was like swaddling on steroids. There was no busting out of the pusuk and she was happy as a clam.
When Baby O was about 6 months, she gave subtle clues she was ready to move out of her basket. She would fuss when it was time to tie her in and she wouldn’t sleep as long in it. We started our transition with naps and a regular swaddle only. Eventually we moved to night sleeping sans pusuk. Her transition was pretty good, all things considered, but I think that was because we followed her cues and didn’t try to force her out of the pusuk before she was ready. Because she transitioned out relatively early, we did not need to get a hoop basket made for her.
Baby O sleeps out of her basket now and does very well. However, there have been several times recently when we’ve brought it back. Traveling is always hard. The environment, smells, routines are all different and her sleep can really suffer. We traveled to Missus Scooter’s family for Thanksgiving and didn’t bring her basket. Rookie move. She slept awful the first night and all three of us were confused and cranky. Missus Scooter’s sister loaned us her son’s pusuk and the minute we tied her in the next night she thanked us by closing her eyes and sleeping very soundly. It was special to think this is where other members of the family slept. We have also pulled out the cradleboard when she’s been sick or is having unexplained/random sleep issues. Each time it’s like a reset for her and I have to think she reverts back to her early days when she was swaddled up tight and secure. Luckily, switching between the pusuk and no pusuk is easy for Baby O.
Each time I look at Baby O’s pusuk, I smile a little. It was a blessing to us for so many nights of her early life and it has gotten us through some very rough times. It is such a traditional piece in a beautiful Indian culture and now it is a historical part of Baby O’s life, one I feel very lucky to have experienced.
Have you ever heard of a pusuk or sleeping basket? Have you incorporated any cultural traditions into raising your little one?