Written by Adele Jarrett-Kerr, edited by Laura Westerman. Published 13 March 2019
Parents have been carrying babies in slings, wraps and soft carriers, in front, back and hip positions, across cultures and centuries. Today’s parents continue to ‘wear’ babies for reasons including comfort and bonding. Babywearing also allows parents to keep their hands completely free with their baby close by.
The huge array of options on the market, including twin baby carriers, suit virtually all tastes, shapes, sizes and lifestyles. But baby carriers generally fit each wearer differently. While a friend might gush about how simple their stretchy wrap is, you might find the same product hot, uncomfortable and difficult to use.
There are a number of things to keep in mind when deciding on a baby carrier. Each carrier or sling has a weight range and varies greatly in comfort. The choice will depend on what you plan to use it for, how often you will use it and who the wearer is.
Let's dive in…
The 4 types of baby carriers
1. Stretchy wraps
Often recommended for newborns, they consist of a long piece of jersey-style fabric (around four to five metres long) wrapped around you and tied to hold your baby in the optimum position for their hips, comfort and airway – upright and facing in with their legs in an 'M' shape.
The versatility of wraps means that one size tends to fit all (although stretchiness can vary) and newborn twins can even be carried in a single wrap.
With practice, many parents quickly learn to tie them, but they can be quite fiddly to start with. One of the great things about stretchy wraps is that you can leave them on and pop your baby in and out as necessary when on the move.
- Can be used with newborns, but some parents prefer to use them when their baby is around one month old
- Can be used with premature babies, but make sure you consult a healthcare professional for advice first
- Comfortable to wear
- Extremely versatile with a variety of different carry positions and can be pre-tied
- Easy to fold and store
- Can be tricky to tie and slow to put on
- Difficult to nurse in, but can be used as a cover when breastfeeding
- Only comfy with a baby up to a certain weight
- Not ideal in hot weather – wear lighter clothing to compensate
2. Woven wraps
A woven wrap is a long piece of woven fabric, wrapped and tied around the body to create a secure and comfortable pocket for your baby.
Wraps are more versatile than slings as they allow for front, back and hip carries with different styles of tying – this also means that you can distribute the weight evenly between both shoulders.
When not in use, they make a useful blanket for babies. As they are sturdier than stretchy wraps, they can be worn from the newborn stage into toddlerhood and beyond, and they also allow for breastfeeding on the go.
They cannot be pre-tied like a stretchy wrap though. It’s worth getting an in-person demonstration at a sling library (see below) or in-store if you want to give a woven wrap a try.
- Comfy and versatile to use
- Suitable for newborns
- Baby can be carried on your front, back or hip
- Can’t be pre-tied
- Tricky to master
- Can be a little uncomfortable in hot weather, depending on length and material
3. Soft-structured carriers (SSCs) and Mei Tais (Meh Dais)
A popular choice for heavier babies turning to see more of the world at around four months old. They can be used from the newborn stage (sometimes only with an insert), although you may find them bulky with a small baby.
Soft-structured carriers consist of a flexible back panel for your baby, two over-the-shoulder straps for you, and buckles or clips to hold everything in place. They are often quick and easy to use without much practice – ideal for the enthusiastic baby who frequently wants to get up and down.
Mei Tai baby carriers are very similar, but are, essentially, a rectangular piece of fabric with four straps (instead of two) that you tie to create a pouch for your little one. They are versatile and usually a bit cheaper than SSCs, but are best used with a baby who is six months or older as they don't offer much head or neck support.
- Can be taken on and off with no fuss (Mei Tais are slightly more time-consuming)
- Easy to use and adjust
- Padded straps provide extra support and comfort (no padding on Mei Tais)
- Great for shared babywearing
- Ideal for heavier and older children
- Some will allow you to adopt different carrying positions (front, back and hip), but specially-designed, ergonomic front-facing baby carriers are better to use if you think you’ll adopt a front carry position most of the time
- More expensive than wraps
- Shoulder straps and buckles can dig into skin, especially if you’ve got an older baby in tow
- Can feel bulky to use and store
4. Ring slings and sling pouches
These are made of a wide piece of fabric worn across your body and over one shoulder. A ring sling is adjusted by pulling the material through a ring, sometimes two.
They’re a popular choice for breastfeeding newborns, although babies can be breastfed in most carriers with practice.
You might find that the concentration of your baby’s weight on one shoulder causes strain, however they’re brilliant for quick ups and downs and offer babies a clear view in hip-carrying positions.
Since they consist of a smaller piece of material, two can be worn to carry twins simultaneously and can be rolled up to fit in a bag. Cradle carrying is not recommended as it could compress your baby’s airway.
- Suitable for newborns
- Easy to put on and use
- Good for breastfeeding
- Only suitable for front carrying
- Many wearers prefer to use them for short periods – weight is concentrated on one shoulder so can become uncomfortable over time
- Not ideal if you have shoulder or back pain
- Not suitable for wearing with heavier or older children
"Using a sling was great for early days. I got loads of hands-free time and she got loads of snuggles and was extremely content."
How to choose the right baby carrier for you
Working out which is the best baby carrier for you can be daunting, especially if more than one adult will be using it. There are a number of things to keep in mind when deciding between products.
1. Consider age range and weight
Each carrier, sling or wrap varies greatly when it comes to positioning and comfort, both for you and your baby.
The choice will depend on what you plan to use it for (typical scenarios include day trips, holidays, shopping in town and when moving around the house), how often you will use it, who will be using it, the age and size of your child and how long you’ll need it for.
Baby carriers can typically be used as soon as your child is born, but they must meet the minimum weight. Make sure you check the weight requirements on all products before purchase as these can vary. Slings are typically more snug and comfortable for younger and smaller babies, while carriers with a back carrying option can accommodate more weight.
Age: Best from newborn to around nine months, but can be used with toddlers
Weight: Up to around 35 lbs (11-15 kg)
Age: Newborn to toddler (around three or four years of age)
Weight: Up to around 50 lbs (22kg), although some parents can feel the strain at less than that
Age: Newborn (but you may need an insert to pad out the space depending on which carrier you use) to around four years old
Weight: Up to around 55 lbs (24kg)
Age: Newborn (but best used from six months plus) to four years of age
Weight: Up to around 45 lbs (20kg)
Ring slings or sling pouches
Age range: Newborn to earlier toddlerhood (approximately three years old)
Weight: Up to around 35 lbs (15kg)
2. What about twins and older children?
If you’re having twins, you will have the choice between a wrap, soft-structured carrier and a ring sling.
You’ll of course want to consider how easy the product is to use – some parents might find that a ring sling is tricky when handling two babies, or that their chosen baby carrier just isn’t sturdy or secure enough.
Some may also prefer a structured tandem carrier, which will allow you to carry one baby at the front and one at the back when the twins are sitting up and therefore able to safely go into a back carry.
While there are suggested limits for different types of twin carriers, age and weight ranges will often depend on how much weight you feel you can easily carry.
Types of twin baby carriers
- Individual soft-structured carriers
- Ring slings
- Soft-structured tandem carriers
3. How much do baby carriers cost?
Stretchy wraps can be bagged for as little as £15 and some collector’s item baby carriers can go for hundreds. How much you are willing to spend really does depend on how much you are going to use it, which type suits you best and what you are going to use it for.
Some parents opt for a baby carrier instead of a buggy or pushchair (at least for the first few months), bypassing the carrycot stage, and they are useful for holidays, days out and everyday home use.
If you are only going to use it for the first few months of your child’s life then a stretchy wrap or sling will be sufficient – if you’re in Scotland, The Baby Box comes with a free baby wrap – but if you are planning on using it for a number of years, the sling or carrier you choose really is worth investing in.
The higher priced soft-structured carriers are a nifty piece of kit and are easy to adapt between wearers following a few tweaks to the straps.
Beware of knock-offs when buying baby carriers as they aren’t safety tested to industry standards and likely won’t hold their resale value. Some brands are sold with certificates to prove that they’re genuine.
You will, however, be able to buy them second-hand and they are safe to use even when pre-used if you want to save a bit of money. But do check straps, buckles and other features work as intended before use.
4. Correct positioning and safety
Research tells us that the most important consideration in carrying babies in slings, wraps and carriers is the position of the legs, spine and head, especially if your baby is a newborn.
It’s vital that you know how to carry your baby comfortably and safely – always opt for the most sturdy, durable and adjustable model. Adjustability is key if there is more than one adult using the baby carrier so that it can be changed to suit the wearer’s size and height.
The carrier must allow babies to assume a ‘frog leg’ or 'M' sitting position (straddled around your body) when being carried upright, and the spine to have a natural curve. These are paramount to avoiding hip dysplasia and to ensure proper back support. The crotch piece on carriers should be wide enough so that the baby’s legs are at a 90 degree angle.
Head support and temperature
The headrest will need to support your baby’s head on all three sides to stop it from falling backwards or sideways, especially if your child is a newborn or too young to support their own head, and you will also need to monitor the baby’s temperature when carrying them to make sure they don’t overheat. Adding more layers on top is safer than overdressing your child.
When it comes to material, make sure you choose a product with non-toxic dyes (babies like to chew!) and breathable fabrics that won’t encourage any sort of rash on the skin.
The TICKS rule has been developed as a memorable checklist for safe babywearing:
- Tight – you baby should be fully secure in the carrier
- In view – their face should be visible
- Close enough to kiss – keep your baby high enough on your chest to be able to kiss the top of their head so that you can monitor their breathing and keep them upright
- Keep chin off the chest – so that the airways are clear and open
- Supported back – with a natural curve
Safety for the wearer
When it comes yourself, broad straps over each shoulder will offer shoulder and back support as they will help to evenly distribute the weight of your baby.
Carrying your child on your back, especially if they are older, may also be more comfortable if you are out and about for long periods of time.
If you do have back problems or your baby has hip, head or spine concerns, consult your doctor, but you might consider going for for a buggy or travel system instead.
Above all, try different baby carriers to see which one ticks all the safety boxes, get to know your carrier before you use it and practice different carrying positions with someone else if you’re lacking confidence.
Be sure to read the instructions and safety information supplied with your purchase. You could even practice with a teddy bear in front of a mirror before trying to carry your baby in it.
It is always advisable to check the latest safety research and positioning recommendations before purchasing. You can find out what’s safe for your child at the International Hip Dysplasia Institute website and Carrying Matters.
Are forward-facing baby carriers safe?
Many popular slings and carriers allow for a forward-facing, as well as inward-facing, position, but there is some controversy around whether or not the former is safe to use.
Front-facing baby carriers allow a baby to interact with their environment, which is good for development.
However, the forward-facing position forces a baby’s spine to lay flat and their legs to dangle, leaving them in a fixed position for a lengthy period of time, which can cause discomfort or distress. They may also tire quickly due to overstimulation.
If you decide to carry your baby facing outwards, it is only recommended you do so when they are at least six months old (when they can control their head and neck) and only for short periods of time – never while they are sleeping. Make sure that their spine, neck and hips are also properly supported and remember to follow the TICKS guidelines at all times.
To achieve the best of both worlds, opt for a hip carry, parent-facing position that will hold your baby off-centre and allow them to have a better vantage point.
Sling libraries and babywearing consultants
If you are new to baby carriers, it’s definitely worth heading to your local sling library to try a variety of slings, wraps and carriers. Most libraries allow you to borrow them for a week or two, so you can really get to know what you prefer.
Libraries are run by volunteers who are passionate about helping you carry your baby comfortably and safely whether with a new carrier or one you already own. You can also use Sling Pages to find your local library or a babywearing consultant. Some consultants make home visits for a fee.
- NCT sling libraries
- Baby Sling Safety
- Sling Smart
- Sheffield Sling Surgery
- The Lullaby Trust
- Carrying Matters
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