Welcome to the wonderful world of slings! You may be new to carrying and a bit overwhelmed about the choices available. You may be just starting out with your carrier and not sure if it’s the best or most comfortable option and wonder what else there may be. Read on for more information about how to make babywearing work for you, your baby and your family.
New to slings?
Not sure where to start when it comes to using a sling? This is a common concern among parents who have become convinced of the benefits of carrying their baby but feel a bit all at sea about the huge variety of slings and the confusing jargon in the sling community.
- There are many positive effects of using a sling with a very young baby; there is much evidence to suggest that skin to skin contact between mother and newborn (especially premature) babies can confer great advantages on both. The baby gains assistance with their physiological regulation of breathing and heart rate, temperature control is improved, and the contact helps to establish breastfeeding and promote more rapid growth compared to babies who are not held as close for as long. Furthermore, the baby will feel more secure in his developing relationship with his caregiver, due to the time spent in close contact.
- The caregiver enjoys positive effects too; he/she may find themselves more able to bond with their baby, due to the increased release of oxytocin, and post-natal depression may be reduced. Being able to be “hands-free” can really make a difference to a family’s ability to get around with their new baby, keeping them active and engaging with normal life.
- There are also many positive effects for society; such as a reduced burden of mental health and greater fitness.
Firstly, make sure you choose a sling that allows you to carry safely.
This is especially important with young babies who are still small and in need of “fourth trimester” nurturing. In summary, a baby’s airway should be supported with the head well aligned with the spine, thereby avoiding curled-up into ball positions that could impair breathing.
The safest place for a baby is upright, facing his parent, just as they are when carried in arms. His head should be resting against his parent’s upper chest, close enough to kiss, and supported snugly all around to avoid any slumping. Babies naturally adopt a squat position with a slightly curved lower back (you can see this in action when you lay your baby down to change his nappy).
Ergonomic slings will respect this and carry a baby in a seated position, with his knees above his bottom. By bringing knees up, babies’ hips are rotated and do not need to be spread very wide to be resting comfortably, as the image shows. Narrow-based carriers (sold by high-street shops and online) are not unsafe, but they are less ideal and may not be as comfortable for a baby to rest in as one that has a wider seat and encourages the knees to be raised.
Such hip-healthy positioning also helps to stabilise a baby’s back and protects the airway, as it reduces the amount of backward head lolling and uncomfortable straightening of a baby’s curved spine.
Click the link to read more about safe positioning in a sling and click here for information about healthy hip positioning.
This baby has just had her stretchy wrap removed; the sling has held her in the natural "in- arms" position
Safe, anatomically correct and comfortable positioning in arms and in a carrier
Secondly, choose a sling that is comfortable
Many parents find their high-street carriers can be less comfortable than they hoped, especially as their baby grows, and may stop using a sling at all.
Good slings have been designed to mimic in-arms comfortable carrying as much as possible, and many people find they are able to enjoy long walks with their children, up to pre-school age, with such an ergonomic carrier.
Broad weight distribution across the parent’s body matters; a child who is able to snuggle in and shift their weight closer to their parent’s centre of gravity will feel a lot lighter than one who is held in a stiff pocket, or held lower down and facing out (thus pulling away from the parent).
This applies in front, hip and back carries equally. Positioning makes a great deal of difference to your child’s and your experience of the sling, and is the most important factor in how comfortable it is.
You can make your high street carrier more comfortable in a variety of ways, for example by ensuring your baby is higher up on your chest, held snugly, and using a scarf to redistribute the weight. Your baby should be held snugly enough not to swing free when you lean forwards.
Features like the type of shoulder strap (wide or narrow, those that cross over on the back versus those that are more like rucksack straps), the shape and sturdiness of the waistband, and the type of fabric used can also make a considerable difference. It is always worth trying before you buy, and there are many sling libraries around the country that can help you do this. The Sling Pages has a full list for you to check your local resources.
"Scarf hack" for narrow based carriers (from Fine and Fair)
A comfortable buckle carrier - carrying is for everyone!
Thirdly, think about what kind of sling may suit you and your family best
If you have a newborn or a baby under six months, most people will start with a stretchy wrap. This is usually a long piece of jersey style elastic fabric that is between 4 and 5 metres long, and can be wrapped around your body to create a snug pocket your baby can nestle into. Depending on the quality of the fabric, the stretchy wrap is usually used up to six months. It is often worth investing a little more for higher quality.
One size (usually) fits all, and it can be tied on and left on all day for convenience, popping baby in and out with ease without needing to take the sling off each time, many parents don’t realise this. It is possible to use the stretchy wrap as a breastfeeding aid, with care and attention to baby’s airway.
You can read more about stretchy wraps here, including how to use it well.
Close Caboo Carrier
This is a slightly more structured and less stretchy variant of a stretchy wrap, with a little less flexibility. It is put on, adjusted carefully, and then baby is popped into each of the cross passes on the front. The fabric can be tightened through the rings to achieve a snug fit. The Close Carrier can be used as a breastfeeding aid if required, with care and attention to baby’s airway, and most people will find it supportive up to three to four months.
Woven wraps are excellent choices if you want great comfort and longevity. They can be used from birth to toddlerhood and beyond. Woven wraps are long parallelogram shaped pieces of fabric, anything from 2 to 7m long.
They are woven in a particular way to provide gentle all-around pressure, supportive but still soft and mouldable. Most woven wraps are made of cotton, some may contain other fibres such as linen or hemp, for extra support, and come in many different colours and designs.
Many women around the world use local woven cloths for many purposes as well as for child-carrying. These cloths and woven wraps feel very different from the fabrics you might find in a haberdashery shop; these are more likely to fray and tear.
Many people begin with a 4.6m wrap (known as a size 6) and learn a carry known as the Front Wrap Cross Carry. They can take a little practice but they allow a great degree of adjustability and weight distribution around the body. There are numerous ways to tie the same wrap, so they can be used on the front, hip or back at the appropriate ages. Your local sling and carrier consultant or sling library will be able to get you started! We run introduction to wrapping workshops at the Surgery and can also teach you one to one.
Upright breastfeeding is possible, if done safely with the appropriate attention paid to airway protection.
You can read more about woven wraps here.
This is a piece of woven fabric which has one end sewn securely into two strong rings. They are worn cuppring one shoulder with the child sitting in a pouch on the opposite side of the parent’s body, with the loose end of the fabric threaded through the rings in such a way that the tension holds the fabric firmly and the weight is distributed across the shoulder and back.
They have the advantage of being lightweight and (once the knack is gained), quick to put on and take off. They can be very useful for those who need to be able to carry their child on the hip, or need something that offers the child a good viewpoint in all directions.
Ring slings made of woven fabric and with no padded rails are usually the best option, and shoulder style (pleated or gathered) is a very personal choice. They can be used from birth to toddlerhood, and it can be easy to breastfeed in a ring sling, with the appropriate attention paid to airway and positioning.
Pouches are another kind of hip carrier which can be very simple, but need to be fitted to size; they can be a risk for babies under 3months if used badly.
The Scootababy is a buckled hip carrier with a waistband which can be used from approximately four months and up into toddlerhood.
Carrying aids and hip seats can make hip carrying easier but are not hands-free.
Meh Dai/Bei Dai (formerly known as Mei Tai) Carriers and variants (half buckles, onbuhimos, etc)
These are Asian inspired carriers made of soft fabric, and are popular with those who appreciate the mouldability and support of woven wraps but need something with more structure, or speed of use.
They consist of a fabric panel that has two straps at the base which are tied or buckled securely around the waist, and two straps from the top of the panel which can be wrapped around the parent and baby to ensure a snug and comfortable fit. Baby sits in the pouch created by the panel, and the long straps allow a great degree of adjustability to all shapes and sizes. They can be worn on the front, hip and back at the appropriate ages, and upright breastfeeding is often possible, if done safely with the relevant attention paid to airway protection.
Your local sling library should have a few of these to try out.
You can read more about meh dais and their variants here.
Full Buckle Carriers
If you’re not sure about tying fabric, a good option is a full buckle carrier, which has a buckle on the waistband, and the shoulder straps buckle into the panel at the sides. Baby is seated facing the parent, inside a supportive pouch that supports them widely across the base from one knee to the other.
Waistband types vary, from the minimal to the heavily padded, and people’s preferences vary enormously. Some shoulder straps cross over on the back when baby is on the front, others are fixed into a rucksack style. The shape of adult and baby together is very individual, as is the health of the adult’s back, so what suits one pairing will not suit another. More padding does not automatically mean “better” or more comfortable, and those with back pain will not always need heavily structured slings. Good posture and general back health are important – read more about this here.
Buckle carriers can be very quick and simple to use. Often, a little practice to get the straps and positioning optimally adjusted is well worth it. Most good full buckles fit well from three months upwards; some can be adapted for younger babies by rolling the panel or by using inserts to keep baby snug, high up and visible. Many carriers will last into early toddlerhood, and some beyond that, depending on design.
Many mums find that breastfeeding in the buckle carrier is possible, if done safely with the relevant attention paid to airway protection. Most can be used on the back once babies have grown.
Some buckle carriers will allow baby to face the world. This can be great, when done safely and responsively. It is recommended only from four months upwards, not for sleeping in to protect the airway, and only for short periods of time. This is due to the reduced opportunity baby has to see and interact with his parent and learn about the world based on his parent’s response to it – this is known as social referencing. There is also reduced hip and leg support from the narrow base which can be an issue in some circumstances, as well as less comfortable for child and parent. Carriers that provide hip healthy positions facing out are generally preferred. (read more about facing out here.)
You can read more about buckle carriers here.
Fourthly, be aware of the changing needs of your baby
As your baby grows, her own needs will change. She may want to sleep less and look around more. She may prefer hip carries, or even back carries, so she can see into the world into which she is being carried. As she gets heavier, the carrier you began with may begin to feel less supportive for you and for her; for many this marks a move towards “toddler-worthy” carriers. This may be different ways of tying your woven wrap, learning how to adjust the straps on your meh dai to ensure knee to knee support, or moving up to a bigger, toddler-sized (or even preschooler!) carrier when you need to. Your “baby” sized carrier will often last a lot longer than you think.
You will not spoil your baby or make him clingy by carrying him as he grows. Big kids need cuddles too – loving contact is vital to our emotional health and security, from cradle to grave. You can read more about carrying older children here, and your local sling library or consultant should be able to help you make the most of your carrier.
Fifthly, enjoy your sling and let the world see it!
Why not share your enjoyment with the parents you meet so they can discover slings too? We all carry our babies, some in arms, some in high street carriers, some in wraps, some in ring slings, some in meh dais, some in buckles. We all learn from each other; encouragement is always more productive than criticism!
Here is a lovely article from Ellie at Peekaboo Slings about the importance of no judgment; “We want to normalise babywearing and promote carrying your children close – put bluntly, we don’t care about the rest”.