As we know, most newborns need to be held essentially all the time. They need it, but it can be stressful not to mention physically taxing for parents to carry their babies in arms as often as they need to. Traditional societies have found ways to use a textile to variously attach babies to their parents so everyone’s needs are met: babies get the physical contact they need and parents get to be mobile and have one or possibly both arms free to do other important things like taking care of older children. I think it’s marvelous that the babywearing movement is normalizing this practice now in Western culture. And from there you have what I do; making choices in baby carriers available to parents who wish to carry their babies this way. (I think another time I’ll write an article on the current babywearing industry and the tensions and associations between it, the babywearing movement, and popular culture.) I think it’s really cool that so many choices exist for baby carriers thanks to some dedicated businesses and organizations who have worked hard to identify the needs of modern Western parents and make attractive baby carrier options. It used to be that you had two choices in babywearing. You could try to trust your own skills (or fear your lack thereof) in making something safe, or you could buy a very few types of carriers at big box stores. Now, wow, a little store Bringing Home Baby can carry dozens of babywearing products and help parents select something that suits them.
Many of the carriers that are widely available, that is, available in big box stores, are really only useful for a very short period of a baby’s development. Most of them are just t00 stretchy, not supportive, or just plain too small to accommodate a baby over about 15 pounds. Or to be comfortably worn by a parent with a baby over 15 pounds. Is it that parents who buy carriers, by and large, don’t plan on carrying their babies much past a few months of age? Casual observation doesn’t back this up. Parents everywhere are carrying their babies and small children regularly well into the preschool years. Yet mainstream baby carrier manufacturers, with a few notable exceptions like Ergo, make carriers that are just not useful even until babies can walk on their own.
Children don’t lose their need to be carried sometimes when they learn to walk. Little legs just don’t have a lot of stamina, and little hearts still need cuddling. Strollers are an option for some parents and children, but many kids like mine just want to be carried. Thank goodness my husband is on board with babywearing, too. Fortunately there are options.
As I said, many of the most widely available carriers are not really comfortable to be used with a baby past 15-20 lbs. Babies who are growing at the 50th percentile should hit 20 pounds somewhere between 9 and 12 months of age. That means that most babies are too big for things like stretchy wraps and most narrow-seat front pack carriers, the most commonly available carriers, well before the average age of walking (about 12 months). This is not to mention that many people find it uncomfortable to wear a baby over 20 lbs on the front of their bodies, which is really the only way these two types of carriers can be safely used. Yes, if you read the packaging, you’ll find them rated to 30-40lbs, but most parents just don’t find stretchy wraps or the narrow seat carriers comfortable with larger or older babies. This is based on my experience of 3.5 years of babywearing and 3 years of face to face baby carrier sales. Yes, some make it work, but as a rule most do not.
Fortunately, if you can get outside the (big) box with baby carriers, smaller makers and retailers are making options that can be used for larger children, and some are indeed making it onto the larger marketplace. Woven wraps, mei tais, ring slings, and some soft structured buckle carriers (SSC’s) can be used from birth to up to 45 lbs. Some of the European brands of SSC’s even make a somewhat larger bodied version specifically to accommodate toddlers. For toddlers, most people move to a back carry. I do not, and I’ll describe that later. All of the mentioned carriers can be used on the back or hip in ways that are more comfortable than wearing a 30 lb toddler on your chest like a newborn.
Woven Wraps – Woven wraps are very basic carriers. They’re basically a long piece of minimally stretchy fabric that’s anywhere from about 9 to about 18 feet long that’s hemmed all the way around. The hem is important. Often called the “rail”, the hem is a tool for properly and safely tightening the wrap around you and the baby. The lack of a hem, or a serged edge, is a signal that a wrap is not appropriate for back carries. Stretchy wraps, with the exception of the Wrapsody Bali Stretch, don’t have true hems. They are also minimally stretchy, with the stretch being diagonal to the length of the fabric and not with the length of the fabric. They can be made of nearly any material, but should have at least half natural fiber content. The wide variety of fiber blends available allows for fabrics with slightly different qualities in the fabric like slight or no stretch, whether the fabric is silky or will grip you, thickness, and softness both new and after use. Which you use is a matter of personal preference, as is length. You can do different types of carries with different lengths and some fabric qualities work better for different carries.
Soft Structured Carriers – On the other end of the babywearing technology spectrum is the SSC. These are the things that kind of look like a backpack with a big padded waistband, over the shoulder padded straps, and buckles. They can be worn on the front or the back. Some sale they can even be worn on the hip. Some can be modified to work with newborns, but are usually meant for babies starting about 12-15lbs. Most are rated to 35 or 45 lbs, and can actually be worn comfortably until then. The reason they seem to work so well for larger babies is that they put the babies’ weight primarily on parents’ hips rather than on the back or shoulders. Popular brands are Ergo, Boba, Tula, Kinderpack, and some other specialty brands like EmeiBaby. They all look very similar, but they’re not actually a one size fits all proposition. There are differences in how they fit and are configured. If you can, get a friend or a brick and mortar babywearing shop to help you try some on. None is very much better than others, but they each have their own features and adjustments that make them different. They are a great option for wearing toddlers, and some like Tula even make a larger bodied version for toddlers.
Mei Tai – Mei Tais are a lesser known type of carrier and are said to be inspired by Asian style babywearing practices. They’re in construction similar to an SSC, but they are tied on. There’s a square-ish body with shorter ties for your waist and longer ties that go over the shoulders. They can be used for newborns through toddlerhood and go on the front or the back. Mei tais are a great option for parents on a budget. They’re typically less expensive than SSC’s for starters. The fact that they are tied on each time make them easier than SSC’s for parents who are different sizes and want to share a carrier.
Ring Sings - I’m a ring sling babywearer. I love their economy; one carrier can be used easily from birth to toddlerhood. They also come in the most beautiful fabrics. They are one of the best options for newborns when used correctly, supporting a newborns’ spine more comfortably than most SSC’s (with the exception of EmeiBaby, which does ergonomically conform to and support newborn kyphosis). They can be used on the back for a toddler, but I like to use ring slings in the natural hip carry. This is the position many moms automatically pop their toddlers on their hips. I’ve written a longer article all about ring slings that can be found here.
So if you’re still with me, you can see from the pictures that I’ve been wearing my children until at least 18 months of age. That red ring sling is actually my go-to carrier. I don’t have a big baby carrier stash, not even as a baby carrier shop owner. I have two ring slings. One is a Sleeping Baby Productions linen sling that I love, and I have a Sakura Bloom Essential Silk that Baby K and I have been rocking since she reached 20lbs. I also use that sling for when my 33 lb. three and a half year old needs to be carried. I also have a couple of wraps I used when they were littler, and I’m working on an EmaiBaby wrap conversion using and Oscha wrap. I’d like to get K on my back.
What you don’t see in the pictures is actually why I use a ring sling so much. I’m disabled. I’ve got a genetic disorder that makes my joins fragile and am at 38 having major problems is degenerative changes in my joints. The result is that I use specialized crutches. It’s hard to carry a baby in your arms in crutches, so I wear my ring sling around the house, popping the baby in as I need to. Around the house I can get away with one crutch, and I put her on my other hip. It’s easier for me than even a stroller, and we get all the relational benefits of babywearing. I bet I’ll continue wearing K until she’s around 30 lbs. It’s totally possible.