Babies love and need to be held, and baby carriers can be a great, hands-free way to keep your baby close and cozy, whether you're on the go or doing odd jobs around the house. But we don't recommend that you consider a sling because that style has its risks.
With a soft baby carrier, you wear your baby in a sense, which may make him feel secure and ease any fussiness. Some carriers even allow you to position your baby to discreetly breast-feed. If you like using a carrier (and if your baby likes it, too--and that's important), you may even be able to postpone buying a stroller for a few months, until your baby can sit up. Of course, you'll still need an infant car seat any time your baby rides in a car.
There are three major types of soft baby carriers: front strap-on models, slings or wraps, and hip carriers. Most soft baby carriers specify a minimum and maximum weight limit. You'll probably find that your baby will be too heavy to carry comfortably before he reaches the upper limit. "Slings and other front-mount soft baby carriers can pull your body weight forward, which isn't a natural carrying position," said Anne Coffman, a physical therapist from New Berlin, Wis., and a member of the American Physical Therapy Association. By the time your baby can sit up, or about the 20-pound mark, you may want to graduate to a backpack carrier, which provides more structural support than a strap-on carrier or sling. Carrying a load on your back puts less stress on your body. "Make the change before it gets uncomfortable," Coffman said. "If you wait too long, you're asking for muscle strain."
Strap-on and hip carriers
Strap-on carriers are designed for babies weighing 7 or 8 pounds to 25 to 32 pounds, depending on the brand. Some strap-on carriers can be used from infancy (minimum is about 8 pounds) in the inward-facing position, then outward facing for children with full head control up to 25 pounds. Some can be used for full-term babies who weigh as little as 6 pounds, and the Weego Preemie, for babies who weigh as little as 3 pounds. Expecting twins? At least one company makes a strap-on carrier for two; both babies are carried together on your front, which sounds ambitious, but perhaps no more than navigating the supermarket or the mall with a double pram or stroller. Weego says its carrier can be used until the twins are about 5 or 6 months old, but they may grow too heavy for you before then. (We have not tested these products.)
It's important to make sure that all strap supports are secure before putting your baby into any carrier. Front strap-on models with leg openings big enough for a child to slip through have also been recalled. Some models now come with a seat insert for newborns to guard against that. Other models have straps or other ways to narrow the openings so they fit snugly around the legs. In any event, adjust leg openings to the smallest size that is comfortable for your child.
Hip carriers, unless they have a headrest, are generally designed for babies who can hold their head up unassisted and weigh at least 15 pounds or are at least 4 to 5 months old. Their upper weight limit tends to be higher than front strap-on carriers'--35 to 40 pounds--depending on the brand, but to avoid back and neck strain, you should probably stop using one before then, if your baby will let you. Hitching a ride on mom's hip can be a tough habit to break. Also, some hip carriers have been subject to recalls because the shoulder strap could detach from the hammock, posing a fall hazard to a baby.
Over the last 20 years, there have been at least 14 deaths associated with sling-type carriers, and dozens of injuries. They include skull fractures, head injuries, and contusions and abrasions. Most occurred when the child fell out of the sling. Moreover, recalls of sling carriers in recent years have prompted ASTM International, a voluntary standards-setting organization, to start the development of a safety standard for sling carriers. (Currently, there is no standard.) Concerns raised by manufacturers, who requested the review, included not only the fractures and bruises but also the risk of smothering. The Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) has documented a risk of death from "positional asphyxia" or suffocation, particularly in infants younger than 4 months. There are two scenarios: When the infant assumes a position with the head bent forward, chin touching the upper chest, and the body forming a C-shape, and/or when the infant is completely contained by the carrier, with head turned so his face is pressed against the caregiver's body. Both can cause airway blockage and suffocation.
Consumer Reports no longer recommends the use of slings due to the large number of recalls of these products, some associated with death or serious injury, and to the lack of an adequate safety standard for slings. Soft front carriers and backpack carriers are covered by safety standards that we think are adequate, making these safer carrier categories to consider.
Like strap-on carriers, many slings have been recalled. In March 2010, one million Infantino SlingRider and Wendy Bellissimo slings were recalled due to a risk of suffocation using the product (at least 3 deaths were reported). About 1,200 Ellaroo Ring Sling baby carriers, sold from June 2007 through February 2008, were recalled in 2008 because the aluminum rings on the sling carrier could bend or break, allowing the fabric to slip through the rings and creating a fall hazard for infants. In 2007, about 100,000 Infantino SlingRider baby carriers, sold from July 2006 through February 2007, were recalled because of a similar malfunction in a plastic slider. Don't buy or accept as a gift any secondhand carrier or sling because defective ones could still be in circulation.
Some slings can be simple to put on and wear. Others resemble a fabric version of origami, which leads us to believe that some of the incidents with sling carriers are due to improper wearing or assembly, or failure of rings or other hardware. It's uncertain how an ASTM International standard can help to make these products safer or error proof. For now, we think there are better ways to transport infants, including strollers, handheld baby carrier/car seats, and strap-on carriers. If you insist on using a sling, follow our safety strategies.]
There are parents who like soft baby carriers and there are those who mostly leave their carriers hanging on a hook in the closet. Because it's impossible to predict how you or your baby will react to one, it doesn't pay to register for a soft baby carrier or buy it ahead of time. Wait to buy until your baby is born. Ideally, you've gotten a little practice with a friend's carrier first. For the safety reasons we mentioned, we recommend a front or hip carrier over a sling, especially for the youngest infants who typically will be riding in the sling lying down. If you decide to buy a sling anyway, follow our safety strategies and make sure the fabric is machine washable.
If you decide to buy a front or hip carrier and your baby is amenable, look for a comfortable, machine washable carrier that can be fitted for your torso, with sturdy, adjustable straps that secure your baby snugly, one that evenly distributes her weight and supports her head. Check the carrier periodically for sharp edges, ripped seams, and missing, loose, or defective snaps, buckles, or rings.
With any type of carrier, follow the manufacturer's instructions carefully to make sure you use the carrier properly and be sure to send in the registration card so you can be notified in the event of a recall. Think about how much you'll use it before you buy one. That will help you determine what to spend, though price isn't necessarily an indicator of quality. A low-priced version may be fine if you plan to use the front or hip carrier or sling only occasionally. If you foresee long jaunts with your baby or expect to be using your carrier a lot around the house, consider a higher-end model, which may give you more support and be more comfortable. Don't use a soft baby carrier for activity more rigorous than leisurely walking. If you want to pick up the pace, a jogging stroller is your best bet.
Soft baby carrier certification
The Juvenile Products Manufacturers Association (JPMA) has certified 14 brands of soft baby carriers, including: Baby King Products, BabySwede LLC (BabyBjrn), Chicco USA, Clene LLC, Dorel Juvenile Group (Quinny, Safety 1st), Fisher-Price, Kelty Kids, Kids Line LLC, Kolcraft, Learning Curve, Maclaren, Munchkin, Scandinavian Child/Lillebaby, and The Ergo Baby Carrier.
Certified soft baby carriers are in compliance with the voluntary guidelines set by the standards developer ASTM International. Included in the guidelines are rules for leg openings created to minimize the risk of babies falling through those openings. Certified carriers must also pass dynamic and static load tests to verify the limits on the amount of weight the carrier can safely support. They also have warning statements on the product and in the instruction booklet stating, for example, that small children can fall through a leg opening and that the product should be used only if your baby's weight is in a specific range, such as 8 to 26 pounds.
Slings are NOT covered by an ASTM standard, and are not likely to be, any time soon. Accordingly, slings can not be JPMA certified. If a given manufacturer's soft infant carrier is JPMA certified, that does not mean that a sling made by the same manufacturer is certified.
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