Editor’s note: This article first appeared in Having a Baby Today, Issues 1 and 2, 2001.
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Of all the gadgets, gewgaws and clothing items I associate with parenting, none has been more fundamental to me than my sling. Humans have been tying babies on since knots were invented (before then we were hairier, and the kids could just hang on themselves!), and there are as many different ways to tie a baby on as there are ways to make a baby laugh.
There are many, many different kinds of slings, ranging from a simple strip of fabric tied at the hip or shoulder to highly constructed, formed baby carriers, front packs and backpacks. Everyone seems to have her own favorite … I love them all. It is clear from my experience that no one carrier is perfect for every family. But I do know that almost every family can find a carrier that works well for them. In this article, I will discuss the advantages and disadvantages of each kind of carrier, ways of making your own baby carrier and reviews of specific brands of “ready-made” carriers.
When Are Slings Useful?
Baby slings are useful any time you would be carrying your baby in your arms for an extended period of time. They can substitute for a stroller, bouncy seat, playpen, plastic carrier and (outside of the car) the infant car seats many parents use as a carrier. They are useful when you are up and moving or sitting and feeding. I’ve used slings for toddlers when we were walking farther than their legs were willing to go. I’ve used slings to make breastfeeding private.
I’ve used slings to give me an extra pair of hands to fold a stroller while getting on the bus. I’ve used a sling as a way of getting a sleeping baby into and out of a car seat without waking the baby up. I’ve used a sling, shifted around to my back, to hold baby while I was cooking dinner. I’ve used a sling to enable a busy toddler to safely visit his hospitalized mother—it kept him out of the reach of buttons, cords, IVs, etc.
Why a Sling? Why Not a Stroller?
All humans need touch. Babies, especially, need lots and lots of physical contact. If they can’t get it one way, they’ll get it another. If that doesn’t work, they cry. If that doesn’t work, they stop crying. Babies who don’t get enough touch may not grow as well or develop as quickly as babies who get lots and lots of touch. Slings simply provide a way to hold baby more without tiring out the arms. Strollers and bouncy seats aren’t innately bad, but you have to be aware when using them that you’re making a trade-off. I used a stroller when I was tired and knew there would be lots of time later in the day when I would have close contact with my daughter. I never really used a bouncy seat, swing or playpen. I just didn’t need them. I occasionally used the convertible infant car seat as a carrier when my daughter was already asleep, but only for a limited time.
How Do You Use a Sling?
Most slings can be used in similar ways. Any sling that is worn “sash style” from the shoulder to the opposite hip can be used in a variety of ways. In general, think about how you would hold a baby “in arms.” This can usually be duplicated with a sling. First, put your sling on. This usually involves putting one arm and your head through the sling, resting it on your shoulder and smoothing out the fabric. For a newborn, you can use a cradle hold or a “snuggle” hold.
The Snuggle Hold
Bring baby up to your shoulder as if you were going to pat for a burp. Hold the baby there with one hand supporting the baby’s back. If the sling is over your right shoulder, put baby on your left shoulder and hold baby with your left hand and use your opposite hand to pull the top edge of the front of the sling away from your body. Make sure baby’s feet are inside the sling, and slowly slide baby down your chest until baby is right where you would normally hold her. If the sling is adjustable, you should use your free hand (the one that is not holding the baby) to tighten the sling by pulling on the tail.
Do this until the sling holds your baby securely in position. If the sling is not adjustable, keep lowering baby until the sling supports all of her weight. For nonadjustable slings, I prefer to buy them fairly small for wearing a newborn. In the New Native and Maya Pouch, although I wear a 2xL T-shirt, the XL sizes are much too big for me. An L or even an M would be better. If your sling is not small enough to support the baby relatively high and upright on your chest, you may prefer the cradle hold.
The Cradle Hold
Bring baby up to your left shoulder(with the sling resting on the right shoulder, crossing to the left hip). Support baby with your left hand and arm—your hand will be cupping the back of baby’s head and your arm will be along baby’s back, with baby’s legs straddling your arm. Use your right hand to open the sling. Lean forward a little and lower baby across your body so that baby and your arm are in the sling. If baby is very tiny, you may want to pad the sling first with a rolled up towel. Let the baby’s weight be supported by the sling and gently withdraw your arm.
Holds for Older Babies
When baby is sitting up better and supporting her head fully, you may want to sit her in the sling cross-legged, facing sideways or outward.
For any baby big enough to sit on your hip (including toddlers and preschoolers) the sling can be used as a “substitute arm.” Simply pick your child up, help her get her feet into the sling and through, and sit her on your hip as usual, with the sling supporting her bottom and back. Tighten to fit comfortably.
From this hip-sitting position, your child can be shifted behind your arm so that she’s sitting on the back of your hip. This is a more convenient position for cooking and cleaning. Simply grab the shoulder of the sling and give a firm hoist forward. This will tend to move your baby back.
What Is the Best Sling?
The best sling is the sling that fits your budget, lifestyle and needs. There are many slings and carriers available, plus it is easy to make your own. Do you need padding? Is it more important that the sling be compact and something you can wear without a baby in it, or is it more important that you have lots of padding and structure? Do you have back problems? Are you breastfeeding? Do you want something you can fold up and put in your diaper bag easily? How much can you afford to spend? Are you willing to pay extra for organic fabric? Can you sew?
For me, the best sling was actually one I made myself out of T-shirt fabric. It was simple to make, easy to wear and pretty enough that I didn’t mind having it on without a baby in it. It was designed like the Maya and New Native “tube” slings or pouches.
For another mom, the best sling for her was simply a twin-sized flat sheet, cut in half and hemmed. She would simply knot it at the shoulder and wear it rebozo-style. Cheap—sheets cost next to nothing at Goodwill—and completely adjustable.
But many moms would rather buy something new and/or ready-made. Perfectly understandable! There are several different categories of slings that I look at: tube slings, constructed slings, fabric slings and front pack/carriers.
Tube (Sometimes “Pouch”) Slings
If you want something simple, comfortable and compact, the tube sling is a great way to go. You trade adjustability for ease of use, but other than that, you can use it for almost anything you can use a “constructed” sling for. Make sure you buy it relatively small; even when my daughter was 28 pounds the XL size of the New Native was way too big. If it seems to hang down around your bellybutton or bangs your thighs, it’s probably too long. If you can get it on and just fit your baby in comfortably, it’s just right. Brands: New Native, Maya Pouch, Cozy Cradle/Womb with a View.
If you want something very adjustable, comfortable and versatile, the constructed sling is the way to go. Brands vary a lot. My two favorites of the ones I’ve tried are the Maya Wrap and Over the Shoulder Baby Holder, for opposite reasons. Maya Wrap is not padded but is very comfortable because the top and bottom edges can be adjusted separately, easily. The Over the Shoulder Baby Holder is extra-padded, and this means that even heavy babies can be carried without the mom getting sore quickly. It is not quite as adjustable or versatile as the Maya Wrap. Look at the Web sites for both slings before you pick. It may boil down to a style choice! Other brands include: NoJo, Nurture Parenting Products, Precious Pouches. One caution: The NoJo sling is a very widely available sling and is adequate for most parents. Petite or small-boned people will find that the NoJo is difficult to adjust small enough. Other brands come in a petite size, but NoJo is limited in colors and sizes to blue, blue, blue and medium-large.
Fabric slings vary widely. Mexican rebozos can be had for anywhere from $10 to $150, depending on quality and fabric content. The Baby Bundler is made from superb fabric and lots of it, with detailed instructions for a variety of wraps. I used this when my daughter was tiny and found it incredibly comfortable but also quite complicated and not terribly convenient. This may be the best sling of all for people with back problems because it spreads the weight evenly across the shoulders and back.
Front Packs and Hip Carriers
Front packs range from the ever-present Snuggli (which I don’t recommend, but others like) to the Baby Bjorn (which receives rave reviews.) Most front packs work only until baby weighs about 20 pounds. One exception is the complicated yet comfortable Baby Wrap. The Baby Wrap goes on like a towel, plus buckles, straps and zippers. But it has the advantage of putting no weight whatsoever on the shoulders. This is another good choice for parents with back trouble. The Baby Wrap worked even when my daughter was 4 years old and 40 pounds. The limiting factor was simply the tiring effect of carrying around 40 extra pounds, not any specific soreness. Hip carriers include the Cuddle Karrier and Sara’s Ride. These carriers only start being useful when baby is able to sit up on a hip, and they can often take up where a front pack left off. Backpacks are another option many parents like. I found the hand-me-down backpack I used with my daughter to be less comfortable than a sling and so have not spent much time reviewing newer models.
With any sling or carrier, take some time to read the manufacturer’s instructions. If you have a hard time getting the carrier to work comfortably, call the manufacturer. I’ve talked with many of them personally, and they’re nice, helpful people who really want to make your sling work for you. Some of the manufacturers will help you with technique even if your sling isn’t one they made. If the size is wrong, most manufacturers will help you get the right size.
When I look at my essential baby list, there are three things on it. A car seat, cloth diapering supplies and a baby sling. Everything else is extra—some of it helpful, but none of it “essential.” Slings were so important to me that when my daughter was crawling I made many tube slings, several to match nursing outfits. I used them like clothing, and they were pretty, not just functional. From all that early cuddling, my daughter is now an independent, confident child.