More than just a way to transport baby from here to there, baby carriers can have surprising benefits for your infant. Find out why to consider wearing your baby and how to choose the right carrier for you.
Kate Spade handbags and Breitling watches are so yesterday. Baby carriers are the hottest accessories du jour! Providing a convenient, inexpensive way to transport your tot, baby carriers also encourage babies’ emotional and physical development. So before you refinance your home to buy that Bugaboo Frog stroller, take a moment to learn why more and more parents are learning to love wearing their babies.
Provides a Gentle Transition
Newborns do not arrive acclimated to the world; they need to adapt to new sights, sounds, and smells. Held close to a parent in a sling or front carrier, a newborn experiences the eye-to-eye contact critical to healthy bonding. He can hear the beating of his mother’s heart, feel the warmth of her skin, and breathe in her unique scent. Soothed by constant gentle motion, he also receives a steady stream of sensory stimuli that advances his neurological development.
“Newborns are not designed, physically or mentally, to be on their own. They are neurologically unfinished,” says Dr. Meredith Small, PhD, professor of Anthropology at Cornell University and author of Our Babies Ourselves: How Biology and Culture Shape The Way We Parent. “Anthropologists estimate that human babies are really born three months too early,” she says.
While strollers, playpens, and hand-held car seats are safe, they do not provide the close contact of a sling, backpack, or front carrier. Also, strollers place children at knee level, rather than eye level. According to Dr. Small, babies worn on a parent’s chest or back interact more with the people around them.
Fosters a Child’s Independence
For centuries, mothers around the world have worn their babies. Curiously, American and Northern European parents have not followed that tradition. Dr. Small reports that American children are held by their parents approximately half as much as children in cultures that routinely use baby slings and carriers.
The reasons for this discrepancy are complex. But Dr. Small says that the American emphasis on independence and self-reliance plays a significant role. Many parents fear that holding and carrying their babies will make them overly dependent. However, the opposite is true: Infants whose parents satisfy their natural need for closeness routinely develop into self-confident, independent individuals.
Crying is not a baby’s first attempt to communicate. Your child will first try to tell you what they want through a series of non-verbal cues. But these signals are not always easy to interpret.
Wearing your newborn in a sling or carrier can greatly improve your communication with her. With baby close you can more easily hear her stomach growl, feel her pass a bowel movement, or feel her body relax as she gets sleepy. This minimizes guesswork, giving you time to comfort, feed, or change your baby before she resorts to crying.
A 1986 study published in Pediatrics confirms that newborns carried in slings or body carriers cry less often and with less severity than those who are not. “Supplemental carrying modifies ‘normal’ crying by reducing the duration and altering the typical pattern of crying and fussing in the first three months of life,” the study states. “The relative lack of carrying in our society may predispose to crying and colic in normal infants.” Less crying means less stress for the entire family. Parents feel more confident when they are successful at interpreting and satisfying their baby’s needs.
Helps Dad Bond
True, men cannot breastfeed. But the special bond between a nursing mother and her child has less to do with the nutritional value of the milk than with the physical contact that comes naturally with this feeding method. Fathers can form a similar bond by habitually carrying their babies from a very early age in a sling or carrier. In a short period of time, a baby begins to associate a father’s smell, the sound of his voice, and the feel of his skin with protection and love.
Great for Toddlers
Slings, backpacks, and front carriers are not just for newborns and infants. Many toddlers find them very reassuring. Learning to walk is exhilarating, but it can also be scary for your baby. Beginning walkers may experience a bout of separation anxiety. (“If I can move away from Mommy, she can walk away from me, and maybe she won’t come back. Yikes!”).
Like younger babies, toddlers can become over stimulated. An otherwise outgoing baby may suddenly act clingy or agitated. Taking a short break in a sling or carrier can be just what he needs to settle down and regain the confidence to set out for more adventure.
It may seem easier to pop your toddler in a stroller than strap him in a carrier. That is, until you try to squeeze the stroller into a crowded elevator or through a jammed airport terminal. Backpacks and front carriers leave your hands free with the added benefit of keeping baby safely above the fray.
As a general rule, newborns and infants are best carried in a sling, wrap, or front carrier. Backpacks are better suited for slightly older and heavier children. Front carriers like the Baby Bjorn and the Snuggli hold babies against the wearer’s chest, their head resting just beneath the chin.
Over-the-shoulder straps are attached to a carrier that supports a newborn’s neck and shoulders. Some manufacturers have begun to add lower-back support. This is meant to accommodate heavier children and provide more months of use.
For the first four to six months of their lives, babies should be worn facing in toward the wearer’s chest. After that, babies can be turned around to look out at the world. Most of these chest carriers accommodate newborns to toddlers weighing between 22 and 26 pounds.
Slings and Wraps
Slings or wraps are worn over the shoulder, toga style. The New Native and Maya Wrap are two popular brands. Slings and wraps cross the user’s chest and hang above the waist. Newborns and infants with no neck control should be placed on their backs in the folds of the fabric (as if they’re lying in a hammock).
Slings allow parents and their babies to share plenty of eye contact. Some mothers use slings to breastfeed discretely in public. Older babies who can sit up unassisted can be worn on mom’s hip, with the folds of the sling supporting their bottoms. Toddlers can be positioned piggyback-style.
Backpacks leave your arms and hands free and shift the weight to your back. This makes them a great choice for heavier babies and toddlers.
Unlike front packs and slings, however, backpacks do not provide substantial eye-to-eye or skin-to-skin contact. Instead, most backpacks are designed for active parents interested in longer day trips or hikes.
Since backpacks are relatively expensive, it pays to do some research. Although they can be purchased online, it is best to try one on at a store. Walk around carrying your baby for ten or fifteen minutes to see if it is comfortable and baby is amenable.
Choosing the Right Carrier
Backpacks, slings, and front carriers are available in a dizzying array of styles, colors, fabrics, and prices. Most importantly, the carrier should be comfortable and grow with your baby. Here are some other things to consider:
- Your Activity Level: If you and your family do a lot of hiking or long distance walks, a backpack may be a better choice than a sling or front carrier.
- Breastfeeding: Do you plan to use the carrier to facilitate breastfeeding? If so, consider a front pack or sling.
- Use: Are you buying a carrier to promote bonding with your baby or mainly for transportation? How many hours a day will you wear your baby? Will it be your main carrier or a supplement to a stroller?
- Your Partner: Babies benefit from being carried by both caregivers. Choose a pack that adjusts to your partner’s size and one that he or she will feel confident wearing.
- Your Size and Shape: Almost all front carriers and backpacks are adjustable. However, some slings and wraps are sewed together and do not have an adjustment ring. These styles are available in sizes small, medium, and large.
- Ease of Adjustment: You should be able to reach and adjust all snaps, buckles and adjustment straps while wearing the carrier. Choose a sling that allows you to tighten and loosen the adjustment ring with one hand. Also, make sure that the fabric slides through the ring without bunching up or getting caught.
- Padding/Back and Neck Support: Different carriers offer different amounts of padding for back and neck support. Some slings and wraps have shoulder pads while others have no padding at all. Backpacks designed for rugged, outdoor activities feature metal frames and thick back support, but tend to be heavier.
- Price: You may experience some sticker shock when shopping for a baby carrier. But keep in mind, most newborn strollers cost hundreds of dollars and need to be replaced as your baby grows (That Bugaboo Frog? $800!). Before deciding against a carrier based on price, visit the manufacturer’s website to check for discounts and gently used models.
Protecting Yourself from Injury
Women all over the world wear their babies for long stretches time. Their neck, back, and leg muscles strengthen gradually to accommodate the additional weight. But it is important to remember that wearing your baby comfortably may take time. Doing too much too soon can cause pain and injury and sabotage your best intentions.
“Your muscles need to be respected,” says Dr. Henry Goitz, MD, chief of sports medicine at the Medical College of Ohio. “You can’t expect to run a marathon after little or no exercise for nine months. So how do you expect yourself to carry eight, nine or ten pounds around all day?”
Many postpartum women experience hormone fluxuations that loosen their ligaments. In addition for those new mothers who had minimal exercise during pregnancy, muscle weakness and atrophy can be an issue.
Dr. Goitz recommends initially wearing baby for 10 to 15 minute increments, with an hour-long break in between. If you feel fine the next day, gradually increase the time by another 10 or 15minutes. Pain in the neck, shoulders or back, means you are overdoing it. Cut back a bit and consider adopting a simple stretching and strengthening routine. This does not require hours at the gym. Doing stomach crunches or sit-ups for 10 minutes a day, or attending a weekly Pilates class strengthens your abdominal muscles. A strong midsection is crucial to protecting your back from injury.
Stretching is vitally important, too. Again, a little can go a long way. Gentle neck and shoulder rolls and side-to-side bending increase circulation and oxygenate your muscles. Before and after wearing a carrier, take a minute to touch your toes, loosening your back and hamstring muscles.
Finally, be vigilant about your posture both in and out of the carrier. Walk with your head up, shoulders relaxed and held slightly back. Contracting your abdominal muscles will automatically relieve pressure on your lower back and cause you to stand up straighter. Try not to hunch or bend over for long periods of time and always bend your knees when picking up or reaching for things.
Give Yourself Time to Adapt
Like breastfeeding, baby wearing takes practice and patience. It can seem extremely awkward at first and you may be tempted to forego it altogether. At these times, try to remember the unique emotional, developmental and psychological advantages of slings, backpacks and front carriers. Soon, your baby will barely acknowledge your existence, no less want to be held and carried! Why not relish this special time together; it will be over before you know it.