Saturday, June 12, 2010

Babywearing for the unitiated

I wrote this email as a response to a friend who asked me for some advice about babywearing. I am by no means an expert, but I do think this is a pretty good intro for someone who is coming into babywearing with no idea what to expect or buy. I will preface this by saying two things: 1. Everyone is different. I am sharing my experiences and preferences, but, as they say on the interwebs, your mileage may vary. 2. I am writing this assuming that you already want to wear your baby, so if you are looking for something that answers, "Why should I wear my baby?" you won't find that here. A quick google search will turn up a wealth of information on that topic.

There are basically three kinds of slings: ring slings, pouch slings, and bag slings. The slings that were recalled were bag slings. They are a bad design, and I doubt anyone in the babywearing community would have recommended one to you, even before the recall. They don't mimic the "in-arms" position, but rather, they hang the baby unnaturally down by your hip like a messenger bag. In that position, it is easy for a baby to curl down and cut off his airway, or to suffocate in the folds of extra fabric (made even worse by the unnecessary padding). A good sling should hold the baby in pretty much exactly the same position you would be holding the baby in if the sling wasn't there. All the sling does is secure them into that natural position, so you can have your arms free for other things, and distribute the weight down your back into your legs, rather than putting all the strain on your arms and shoulders.

As for the other two styles of slings, it really comes down to personal preference. I use a ring sling. Jeremy's grandmother made it for me using a very simple pattern, available here: Free Maya Wrap Pattern. If you don't want to make your own, I highly recommend Maya Wrap's Ring Slings. They have a nice weave to them, so they distribute the weight really well.

Both ring slings and pouch slings are quick and easy to use, and can be used in cradle or upright carries for infants, or hip carries for toddlers. Both can be used for back carries with older babies, too, but I have never tried. My friend puts her 5 month old on her back with her pouch all the time, though, so I've seen it done. The drawback of both slings is that they put the weight on only one shoulder, so it will start to hurt sooner than a two-shoulder carrier. I like the ring sling because it is adjustable, so Jer and I can both use it. People who use pouch slings like that they don't have to adjust them, so it's quicker to put them on.

Valerie never liked the ring sling in the cradle position, but she never really liked being held in that position, either. She loved the upright "tummy to tummy" position, though. Here's a picture of her at 2 1/2 months old in the ring sling:
Valerie Jeanne 196

Edited to add: Dorothy likes being upright, too. Here she is in the ring sling at 6 weeks old:

I use the ring sling in a hip carry, now, as my "quickie" carry, say when I'm trying to wrangle several bags and a toddler into the house after a shopping trip. I don't seem to have any pictures of this, because it tends to start to hurt my shoulder after a little while, so we don't use it for extended times, but it's so useful for quickie trips, it's still one of my stand-by carriers. Here's a good picture of a toddler (not mine) in a hip carry: Link.

The next category of carriers is wraps. There are two main types of wraps: stretchy and non-stretchy. Stretchy wraps are awesome for newborns. Once you have tied the baby on, the weight literally disappears, because it hugs your body and theirs so well. Stretchy wraps are good up to about 15 pounds or so, after which the baby's weight starts to pull too much on the fabric, and you find yourself readjusting the wrap every ten minutes. Two good brands of stretchy wraps are Moby Wrap and Sleepy Wrap. Or, you can quite easily make your own by buying 5-6 yards of jersey knit cotton, and cutting it in half or thirds lengthwise to get two or three wraps. Dye the extras different colors, or give them away. (Edited to add: I bought a Moby with baby #2, and I actually like my homemade stretchy wrap more. So brand name doesn't necessarily mean better!) Directions here.

Here's Valerie in the stretchy wrap at three months old:

Edited to add: Here's Dorothy in the stretchy wrap at 5 days old:

The downside of wraps is that you have to learn how to tie them. It kind of looks like complicated origami at first, but it doesn't take that long to get the hang of it. Even once you get it, though, it still takes a little bit longer than a sling, but the trade-off is in comfort. Stretchy wraps are much more forgiving than non-stretchy wraps, because the fabric gives a little, and you can tie the wrap on yourself first, and then slip the baby in after it's all tied. Non-stretchy wraps don't have the same "give", so you have to tie them with a little more accuracy, but even a big baby stays securely where you tied them. Once Valerie outgrew her stretchy wrap, I'd had a few months to figure out the tying thing, and I knew I liked the way wraps fit, so I got myself a non-stretchy wrap. I got it at a consignment sale, but I'm pretty sure it's a homemade wrap, since there are no tags on it. It's a cotton gauze fabric, which is one of the lightest wraps you can get, but also one of the least forgiving. Woven wraps, like Didymos and Storchenwiege, are supposed to be more comfortable, because there is a little more give to the fabric, but they are woven especially for babywearing, and even secondhand, sell for a lot of money (usually over $100). Someday, I'll get me one, and until then, my gauze wrap is still my most comfortable wrap for wearing a toddler for long periods of time. Her tolerance for having to stay in one place usually runs out before it starts to hurt my shoulders, and she is over 25 pounds.

The other bonus to wraps is that there are so many different ways of wearing them, you can really play around and find the best carry for the two of you. The carry I use with Valerie is comfortable for hours, and it doesn't put any pressure on my belly, which will be nice during pregnancy. Here is Valerie, at 11 months old, in a back carry with the wrap:

Front carry:

Oh, and if she falls asleep in the wrap, I can pull the fabric up over her head and make a nice little hood for her. No pics of that, but it's a handy feature of wraps.

Next up are asian-inspired carriers, usually called mei tai's. I have a mei tai by Parents of Invention, and I've tried other people's mei tais and they are much more comfortable than mine. Mine is just a poor design, I think. Still, it gets a lot of use, because it is more comfortable than the ring sling, and quicker than the wrap. I have heard very good things about BabyHawk and Kozy mei tais. A lot of people get their mei tais from etsy, too, and are usually very happy with them. I think there is less margin of error for making mei tais, because it seems like homemade ones stand up really well to the "well-known" brands. I just lucked out and got a brand that tried to improve on the pattern, I think, rather than just trusting tradition. Anyhow, I really do like my mei tai. It does back carries, hip carries, and front carries, and it uses both shoulders for most carries, so it's more comfortable than the ring sling. The straps are padded, too, which is nice, so you don't get pressure points like you can with a poorly tied wrap. I also love that it has a pocket, where I can shove my cell phone and some cash, so it ends up being my carrier of choice for times when I won't have a purse or stroller along.

Here's Valerie in a mei tai hip carry:

Front carry:

Back carry:

Finally, there's the BMW of baby carriers: soft-structured carriers (SSCs). Baby Bjorns (and their close cousin, Snuglis) are sometimes lumped in with SSCs, but I don't think they really should be. They are just about the worst baby carriers on the market. Instead of pulling the baby into you and using your body to carry the weight, they dangle the kid from their crotch, putting all the weight on your shoulders, and potentially leading to poor hip development. When a baby is being worn properly, their knees should be higher than their hips. This is the position that a baby naturally takes when you pick them up, and it's best for their hip development to have their knees up and their legs spread apart. A lot of people go for Baby Bjorns because of the feature of being able to carry their baby in front, but facing out. It seems like a good idea at first, but it's actually not a great babywearing position. First, the way a baby's body fits into a parent's body naturally is front-to-front. When the baby is facing out, it puts extra pressure on your shoulders, because the baby is pulling away from you, rather than into you. Second, it's not good for their hip development. Third, babies get very easily overstimulated, and when they are facing out, there is no escape from the overwhelming outside world. If your baby is old enough to want to face out, it's time to try a back carry position of some kind, because then he can see everything you can see, but still tuck his head down and shut out the world if he gets overstimulated. Besides, for a parent, back carries are far more comfortable than front facing out carries. Okay, end of Baby Bjorn rant. Back to SSCs.

Soft-structured carriers are basically mei tais with adjustable, buckling straps. So, you have all the benefits of many positions and a comfortable carry, but you don't have to spend the extra time tying the straps every time. The straps are padded and comfortable, and there are usually pockets (or you can buy pouches or detachable backpack accessories). They also tend to be ergonomically designed to fit comfortably like a well-designed backpack. We just bought an Ergo (which, along with Beco is one of the top 2 names in SSCs), so my experience with SSCs is extremely limited. I think I'm really going to like it, though. You can use it for back carries, front carries, and hip carries, and it has a sleeping hood to pull up over a sleeping baby (one thing that I miss when I'm using my mei tai). It's very comfortable, and Jeremy and I have both used it with no problems, although I don't like the way it feels over my pregnant belly, and may have to hold off on using it until after the baby arrives. You can also use it with a newborn if you buy an insert for it, but we obviously haven't tried that yet. Here are some pictures of the Ergo in action (not mine): Ergo's Photo Gallery.

Edited to add: Baby #2 is 3 months old, now, and I can totally vouch for the Ergo. It switches easily between Jer and I, and it switches easily between the baby and the two-year-old. We bought an infant insert for the baby, which makes it extremely comfortable, and extremely warm.

Here is a picture of us at the zoo in November, with three-week-old Dorothy happily sleeping in the Ergo:

Here is a picture of us at the zoo in January, with Dorothy tucked snugly in the Ergo inside my coat. The only piece of winter clothing she is wearing is a hat!

I expect it might be too warm to wear a baby in the infant insert in the summer, but once the baby has good head control, you can ditch the insert, and it's no more warm than my other carriers without it. My only real complaint about the Ergo is that it's hard to do up the top buckle by yourself when using it for a front carry. With a little experimentation, however, I discovered that, as long as you loosen the shoulder straps when you take it off, the buckle is easier to reach because it's a little higher up your back, and all you have to do is attach the buckle before tightening the straps.

I think, if people want to get us things for the new baby, I will ask for accessories for the Ergo, like the infant insert and the detachable backpack. Once we do, I will probably get rid of our backpack carrier. I'm really not a fan of our backpack-style carrier. (Edited to add: I got both for Christmas. Anyone want to buy a backpack carrier?) It's a structured, framed backpack, like you would use for hiking. When I was pregnant, I was convinced that this would be the best thing in the entire world, and I had several people go in together and get me one as a shower gift. Ultimately, though, I really didn't like it. It added so much extra weight, and I didn't like the way it distributed it. It put so much of the weight right on my shoulders, and the baby was suspended away from my body, which made the weight seem even heavier. I'm really not a fan. I wouldn't even really call it "babywearing", because it doesn't provide any of the closeness and developmental benefits of the other styles of carriers. Really, it's more of a stroller that goes on your back so you can go off-roading. It has its uses, and some people absolutely love them, but every other carrier I own is more comfortable than it is, and it's been used maybe twice. I do have a picture, though:

Okay, so I realize I just completely flooded you with information, and you're probably more overwhelmed than when I started. Here's my advice/opinions:

For a brand newborn, the best carrier is a stretchy wrap. Mobys cost about $40 new, or $25-$30 used. The fabric for my homemade stretchy wrap cost about $25, and it made two wraps. You can decide later if you love wraps enough to get a non-stretchy one.

For quick and easy, you can't beat a ring sling or a pouch sling. If you and your husband want to both use it, go for a ring sling. Hotslings and Peanut Shell pouch slings are about $40 new (available at Target). Maya Wrap Lightly Padded Ring Slings are about $65 new, or $35-$45 used. Making your own can cost less than $20, and the only sewing involved is two straight lines a few inches long.

For versatility, I recommend mei tais or SSCs. If you can afford it, or if someone wants to buy you something nice, go for a SSC like a Beco or an Ergo.

In fact, this would be a great way of redirecting someone who wants to buy you a big, expensive travel system. In my experience, travel systems are a waste of money for babywearing parents. Instead, you can buy a Graco infant car seat new (you always want a car seat to be new, unless you are borrowing from someone you trust and know that it's never been in an accident) for about $100, then get any old Graco stroller for $20 at a yard sale. Almost all Graco strollers work with their car seats like a travel system, and you save over $100. Or, better yet, skip the whole infant bucket car seat altogether and get a convertible car seat from the start, since you're going to need to buy one within the next year anyhow. The more I fall in love with babywearing, the more I like the idea of "your car seat belongs in your car, your baby belongs on your body". Carting a baby along in a bucket car seat is just about the most awkward and unnatural way of carrying a baby there is, and has a much higher death rate than babywearing. Article. Just something to consider.

I hope that helps you with your decision-making!