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Choosing a Baby Carrier: Position Matters!!

Newborn Eleanor in a woven wrap

As a Volunteer Babywearing Educator for my local chapter (BWI of the Triangle) of  Babywearing International (and yes, I am a babywearing geek and super excited to have a title confirming it!), I have the opportunity to talk to lots of parents looking to find the perfect carrier for them.  While I don’t think there’s a perfect answer to “what is the best carrier,” I do think there are some general guidelines that can help you find the perfect fit.  So here’s the first of a series of posts that will explore some things to keep in mind as you select a carrier (future posts will examine selecting a carrier that fits the wearer, choosing carriers for different ages and stages, and so on).  And while you’re waiting around for the next installment, browse my ever expanding babywearing guidefor more information!

Toddler Callum in a wrap conversion mei tai

One of the first things I tell new wearers in my “Babywearing 101” spiel is that you want a carrier to do what your arms do.  Think about how you hold a baby and how a baby positions her body.  Babies naturally draw up their legs (newborns sometimes all the way into the “froggy leg” position) in order to “cling” to our bodies (not unlike the way our primate cousin’s babies do!).  An older child will actually pull her knees up and use them to grip; in fact, Callum can pretty much ride on my hip or back without using his arms to hold on at all.  To further facilitate carrying a baby, we hold them close to our body and high on our body – just as with any heavy load, the closer the weight is to our center of gravity, the easier it is for us to carry.  We use our hands to support baby’s bum; our arms or body provide support out to baby’s knees.  And of course, we hold our babies close enough to kiss!

Those same rules apply to what a good carrier should do:A carrier should support baby all the way to her knees.

  • A carrier should position baby so that her weight is on her bum, not her crotch.
  • A carrier should hold baby so that her knees assume a spread “W” shaped position that puts them slightly higher than the bum, allowing for proper hip positioning.
  • A carrier should allow baby’s spine to curve naturally while preventing baby from slumping into a chin to chest position.
  • A carrier should position baby high and tight on the wearer, keeping baby’s weight close to the wearer’s center of gravity – close enough to kiss!

If you are interested in further reading about the importance of a supportive carrier to hip development, here’s a good explanation along with some excellent diagrams from the International Hip Dysplasia Institute.   I’ve also written previously about alternatives to carriers such as the Baby Bjorn which do not follow the above rules.

The ideal position for babies of all sizes (in my opinion at least!) is an upright, tummy to tummy position (unless baby is nursing).  Most babies actually prefer the upright position over a cradle hold, and even brand new newborns can be worn this way in any carrier (including ring slings which many instinctively try to cradle young babies in).  An upright position is kinder to babies prone to spitting or reflux.  And most importantly, an upright position makes it easier to keep baby from slumping into a chin to chest position.  As you can see in my picture of newborn Eleanor above, babies should be facing slightly upwards if they fall asleep in the carrier to avoid the chin to chest slump.  A carrier that fits baby and wearer properly will hold baby snug enough to maintain this position without needing to keep a hand on baby (in the picture, I’m taking a break from patting her bum and not supporting her ;-)).  Some mei tais and soft structured/buckle carriers come with headrests or sleep hoods that help support a sleeping baby’s head (although properly positioned in a carrier without a sleep hood, a sleeping baby can still be supported).

If the cradle carry is something you strongly want to do, remember that baby should never be horizontal in a carrier.  Rather cradle carry is more like a reclined seated position with baby high on your chest.  Baby should always be facing up and slightly out (unless nursing of course!) and the fabric of the carrier should never be over baby’s face.  Most importantly, baby’s chin should never rest on her chest.  For good instructions and further safety tips on doing a cradle carry in a ring sling as well as information on nursing in a sling, see Jan Andrea’s information at Sleeping Baby Productions.  Getting help from an experienced babywearer is also a good idea.   A properly done cradle carry – and any other newborn position – will allow you to easily see baby’s face and monitor her breathing.

As baby grows, you may find you need to change the carrier or carry you use to continue to provide knee to knee support (you also want to avoid using a carrier that is too large for baby and doesn’t allow the legs to swing freely at the knee).  Wraps and ring slings do vary some in width but, in general, you can get a knee to knee carry for any size child (if you are wearing a large toddler, you may find this easier with a wide wrap or toddler width sling).  Mei tais and soft structured/buckle carriers are more size specific – what works for a 2 month old probably isn’t going to comfortably accommodate a 2 year old.  The mei tai I’m wearing Callum in above is actually “preschool” sized and designed specifically to give knee to knee coverage for a growing toddler.  Just as we change the car seats and strollers we use as our babies grow, we may need to change the carriers we use to continue to get a safe and supportive fit.  You can read more about newborn carriers and toddler carriers in my babywearing guide.

A baby carrier is a tool, one designed to take the place of a caregiver’s hands, allowing baby to be held close while the caregiver completes other tasks.  Like any tool, carriers come with safety considerations.  Ensuring a proper position in a carrier not only keeps baby safe – it also keeps baby and wearer comfortable and happy!  Next time, I’ll discuss things to consider as far as the comfort of the wearer.  In the meantime…wear happily!

Do you have questions about babywearing you’d like us to address?  Let us know!



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Published in Babywearing