Using an infant carrier may take some getting used to, but they're a great way to keep your baby close.
Babies love and need to be held, and carriers are a great, hands-free way to keep your baby close and cozy, whether you're on the go or doing odd jobs around the house. And each step you take may help jiggle your baby to sleep. In a sense, you wear your baby, which may make him feel secure and ease any fussiness. Some carriers even allow easy and discreet nursing. If you like using a carrier (and your baby likes it, too--and that's important), you may even be able to postpone buying a stroller for a few months, until your baby can sit up.
There are two basic types of soft infant carriers. A strap-on model holds a baby in an upright position; an infant faces in and an older baby faces out or in. The carrier consists of a padded fabric pouch with leg holes attached to an adult shoulder and waist belt, which supports the baby. A sling--also called a wrap--is your other option. It consists of a length of fabric you wear over one shoulder and around your waist. With a marsupial feel to it, a sling forms a comfy, portable nest for an infant. Some slings can also be worn on your hip.
Most strap-on carriers and slings specify a maximum weight limit, but you'll probably find your baby will be too heavy to carry comfortably before he reaches the limit. "Both slings and soft infant carriers can pull your body weight forward, which isn't a natural carrying position," says Anne Coffman, a physical therapist from New Berlin, Wis., a member of the American Physical Therapy Association, and mother of two. You may want to graduate to a backpack carrier, which provides more structural support, by the time your baby can sit up, or around the 20-pound mark. Carrying a load on your back puts less stress on your body. "Make the change before it gets uncomfortable," says Coffman. "If you wait too long, you're asking for muscle strain."
Strap-on carriers are designed for babies weighing 7 or 8 pounds to 26 pounds, depending on the brand, but there are exceptions. Weego (www.weego.com) makes the Weego Baby Carrier, which can be used for full-term babies who weigh as little as 6 pounds, and the Weego Preemie, for babies who weigh as little as 3½ pounds. Expecting twins? The same company also makes a strap-on carrier for two; both babies are carried together on your front, which sounds ambitious, but perhaps no more than navigating the supermarket or the mall with a double pram or stroller.
Strap-on models with leg openings big enough for a child to slip through have been subject to recalls. Some models now come with a seat insert for newborns to guard against that. Other models have straps or other ways to narrow the openings so they fit snugly around the legs. All the carriers in our tests passed the leg openings test, which suggests this issue has been addressed by manufacturers. In any event, adjust leg openings to the smallest size that is comfortable for your child.
Pros: If both you and your spouse want to get in on the action, you can find one you both like. "The Baby Björn [a popular brand of strap-on carriers] is great because my husband wasn't comfortable wearing a sling," says Andrea Bledsoe from Fishers, Ind., the mother of a 6 month old. If you both want to use a strap-on carrier frequently, consider getting two--his and hers. To wear a strap-on successfully, you have to adjust the straps; so if you have two, you won't have to continually adjust the carrier when you trade back and forth.
Cons: Some infants don't like being carried in the upright position (and if they get upset, they're literally in your face about it). Some dislike any carrier that feels too confining around the head, which is necessary in the beginning months. Also, if your baby falls asleep in a strap-on carrier, you may feel stuck. "I couldn't get my baby out of the carrier and lay him down without waking him," says Jennifer Dulles Jansky from Broomfield, Colo., the mother of two. Most models have addressed that problem by modifying their design to include a side exit feature, which is a handy feature.
Made of fabric (sometimes pleated or padded), some slings form an over-the-shoulder hammock for holding a young baby across your front in a semi-reclined position, as you'd naturally carry your baby and, like a strap-on carrier, frees your arms. Many claim they can be adjusted to tote a toddler up to 35 pounds. You can transport your child lying down or upright, facing in or out. Some slings can also be worn with your baby on your back or hip.
Pros: Like a strap-on carrier, a sling allows you to get around easily in spaces where a stroller can't go, such as an escalator at a shopping mall. You'll also fit better in cramped elevators. You may be surprised where you end up needing it. "I use a sling for grocery store trips because placing my daughter's car seat carrier on top of the shopping cart just didn't work," says Regina Haas from Dallas, Texas, the mother of a 9-month-old. "I'm only 5-foot-1, and I could barely see to steer the cart," she says.
Cons: Just as some babies don't like being carried upright in a strap-on, others don't feel comfortable being carried in a sling in a reclining position.
Also, carrying your baby's weight diagonally in front may be uncomfortable, especially if you're petite and your baby is large. And one more thing: Extra-special care is needed with slings, since they generally aren't secure enough for activity more rigorous than leisurely walking. If you want to pick up the pace, a strap-on carrier or a stroller is your best bet. Finally, our testers determined that some slings, such as The Ultimate Baby Wrap, have a steep learning curve for putting it on and using it properly. Don't buy a sling if you suspect that you won't have the patience for it.
GETTING THE HANG OF IT
You may feel a little awkward the first few times you use any type of infant carrier. You have to figure out how to put it on or wrap it around yourself and your baby (if you're using a sling). You have to adjust the straps or fabric so the carrier will fit your body comfortably. For maximum comfort with a sling, a baby should ride above your waist and below your bust line. Make fit adjustments before putting your baby in the carrier or sling. Mastering the adjustment of rings and folds so everything fits correctly takes time, even with clear, printed directions. But getting it right is critical to keeping your baby safe, since improper use can put your child at risk of injury. If your back or neck hurts from carrying most of a baby's weight on one side, give that shoulder a break and put the sling on with the strap on the other shoulder.
Last--and this is the fun part--you have to get your baby inside the carrier without provoking a fuss, then learn to trust the carrier and get used to the initially uneasy feeling of having your baby suspended. Our advice is to read the directions carefully, then practice. Some manufacturers recommend that you rehearse with a teddy bear or doll until all steps become natural. That's not a bad idea.
Learning how to move with a sling or strap-on carrier can take practice. You can't lean over too much, and your back, shoulders, and legs must adjust to the added weight. You'll also have to be mindful of your extra dimensions when you go through doorways and around corners so your baby won't bump into anything. Although many carriers are designed to adjust and "grow" with your baby, some parents complain of lower back pain with front carriers once their baby reaches about 20 pounds. A simple rule is to stop using a carrier when you sense you're approaching your own physical limits. You'll know.
Decide if you're the type who'll use a soft carrier. "From the beginning, I knew that having my baby strapped to me was something that I'd be comfortable with and would prefer," says Regina Haas, who owns a strap-on Baby Björn for taking long walks because she says it's so sturdy. If you're not sure you'll use a strap-on carrier or sling, wait until after your baby is born before you buy one. If, for example, your baby constantly wants to be held, a soft infant carrier may be just the ticket for relieving your tired arms.
Better yet, borrow one first. Try on a friend's carrier to see if it is comfortable for you and how your baby fares in one.
By the same token, don't buy one secondhand. Strap-on carriers and slings have been subject to recalls, so buy new to ensure that you're carrying your baby safely. As recently as 2004, the Baby Björn Carrier Active, for example, was recalled because the back support buckle could detach from the shoulder straps, which could allow a baby to fall. That defect has since been addressed, but carriers sold from September 2003 to Aug. 15, 2004, could still be in circulation. We tested a newer version of the Baby Carrier Active and it rated Excellent overall in our ratings. . To play it even safer, make sure any new carrier you're considering hasn't been subject to a recall. For the latest recall information, check the Consumer Product Safety Commission Web site at www.cpsc.gov. Send in the registration card so you will be alerted to any recalls.
Try on the floor model with your baby, if possible. But take another adult along to help, especially if you're not familiar with carriers and slings. Not all carriers and slings fit all builds. In our tests, the straps on the Baby Björn Active couldn't be tightened enough to accommodate the narrow shoulders and slim build of one of our testers, nor could the carrier fit a tester with a large frame. (It is still our top-rated soft infant carrier, however.) The Kelty K.I.D.S. Kangaroo and the Playtex Hip Hammock had straps that couldn't be adjusted to fit a large build. (Nonetheless, the Hip Hammock is our top-rated sling.) Doing a test-run in the store will give you a quick take on sizing and the features each carrier or sling offers.
Consider a framed carrier. This is an option when your baby can sit up unassisted (about 6 months and 16 pounds). These carriers are basically backpacks with a fabric baby seat and structured frame and generally can be used for children up to about 3 years old or 40 pounds.
Know you can return it. Some babies need time to adjust to an infant carrier; others never come around. Because your baby's verdict is unpredictable, keep your receipt and the packaging the carrier came in, and know the retailer's return policy. If you or your baby doesn't like the sling or strap-on carrier you select, take it back.
Decide if you need a carrier cover. If you want to use your strap-on carrier outside in cooler months, consider getting a carrier cover, which slips over most brands of strap-on soft infant carriers so you don't have to stuff your bundled-up baby into a carrier or zip your coat around him. Infant carrier covers are made of high-tech materials like Thinsulate and/or polyester/nylon fleece blends. At the high end, you'll find faux mink and ultrasuede, imitation Persian lamb's wool, and denim paired with chenille. Popular brands include Baby Björn (www.babybjorn.com), Brookspond (www.brookspond.com), and Kiddopotamus (www.kiddopotamus.com). They retail from $20 to $145.
The major brands of strap-on soft-carrier makers are, in alphabetical order, Baby Björn (www.babybjorn.com), Chicco (www.chiccousa.com), Evenflo Snugli (www.evenflo.com), Infantino (www.infantino.com), Kelty K.I.D.S. (www.keltykids.com), Kidsline Body Glove carrier (www.kidslineinc.com), Kolcraft Jeep carriers (www.kolcraft.com), Maclaren (www.maclarenbaby.com), Safety 1st (www.safety1st.com), and Weego (www.weego.com). Prices range from $15 for a very basic carrier to $120 for carriers with enhanced shoulder and back support.
The major brands of slings are, in alphabetical order, Ellaroo.com (www.ellaroo.com), Hotslings (www.hotslings.com), Infantino (www.infantino.com), JJ Cole Collections/Premaxx baby carrier (www.jjcoleusa.com), Maya Wrap (www.mayawrap.com), Moby Wrap (www.mobywrap.com), the NoJo Baby Sling by Dr. Sears (available at www.target.com and www.amazon.com), Parents of Invention (www.parentsofinvention.com), Playtex (www.playtexbaby.com), and Ultimate Baby Wrap. Other hot sites for slings are www.happyslings.com and www.theslingstation.com. Prices range from $30 to $65 for lightly padded slings in designer fabric.
Fabric. Slings and strap-on carriers are made of comfortable brushed cotton, stretchy T-shirt cotton interlock, corduroy, polyester and polyester blends, flannel-like materials, or meshy, moisture-resistant nylon, and come in fashionable colors and patterns. Carriers designed to be used in water may be made of neoprene--wet suit material. Slings and strap-on carriers should be completely washable.
Musical amenities. The latest models of strap-on carriers play music from the front pouch and serenade your baby with five nursery melodies (you'll find that feature in the Evenflo Snugli 4-in-1 Serenade Soft Carrier, www.evenflo.com).
Cup or bottle holders. Cup holders are now de rigueur in cars, and some strap-on carriers feature this extra so you or your baby can sip anywhere.
Fasteners. Carriers have a variety of buckles and fasteners for shoulder and waist straps and babies' seats. Snaps should be sturdy and require a lot of force to unfasten. Buckles that hold shoulder and waist straps should be easy to adjust and keep straps firmly fastened when the carrier is in use. Buckles and fasteners should be easy for an adult to use, but not so easy that a baby could undo them, and should fasten tightly, but not close in way that they could pinch your fingers. If they do, your baby could be pinched, too. And you might not properly secure the buckles when using the carrier for fear of being pinched, which isn't safe either. Several carriers we tested, the Infantino 6 in One Rider, the Infantino Smart Rider, the Kelty K.I.D.S. Kangaroo, and the Snugli Comfort Vent by Evenflo, rated somewhat lower because the buckles posed a pinching concern for panelists (some did get pinched).
Lumbar support. Well-made carriers may have a special padded waist strap that helps distribute a baby's weight from your shoulders to your hips and pelvic area. This is a definite comfort advantage. The latest models of strap-on carriers feature a massaging lumbar support pad that vibrates, which is nice but not necessary. When you're shopping, try on a floor model and fasten the belt/waist strap to see if it's long enough and neither too high nor too low when the carrier is in place. Padding should be firm, not mushy. Our tests show that two carriers, the Baby Björn Active and the Jeep 2-in-1, have especially good back support.
Shoulder straps. Shoulder-strap padding should be firm and wide so the straps won't dig in. Straps should be positioned so they won't slip off your shoulders or chafe your neck, and they should be adjustable while you're carrying your baby.
Side-vent insets. Babies can get sweaty in an infant carrier. To help keep them cool, some carriers have a panel of meshy material designed to promote air flow, or side insets that can be unzipped or unbuttoned to serve the same purpose. Look for either of those features if you'll be having a summer baby or you live in a warm climate.
Side entry. Some strap-on models, such as the Snugli Classic from Evenflo ($15), have a single side-entry buckle that allows you to remove your baby from the side instead of from the top. Like most carriers we tested, the Snugli Comfort Vent by Evenflo ($20) has dual side-entry buckles so you can get your baby out from either side. That exit strategy may be a good idea if you want to move your sleeping baby to a crib without waking him.
Pacifier and toy loops and storage pockets. These are handy for the essentials.
There are parents who like soft infant carriers and there are those who mostly leave their carriers hanging on a hook in the closet. Because it's impossible to predict how you or your baby will react to one, it doesn't pay to register for a soft infant carrier or buy it ahead of time. Wait to buy until your baby is born. Ideally, you've gotten a little practice with a friend's carrier. Still, bring your baby shopping with you and bring another adult along, to spot you as you try carriers out. Cross this product off your list if you plan to be active with your baby; for example, if you look forward to going on brisk walks in the park. If that's the case, a sling probably isn't the product for you.
If you decide to buy a carrier because you like the idea of keeping your baby close--and your baby is amenable--look for a comfortable, machine washable carrier that can be fitted for your torso, with sturdy, adjustable straps that secure your baby snugly, one that evenly distributes her weight and supports her head. Follow the manufacturer's instructions carefully to make sure you use the sling or carrier properly and be sure to send in the registration card so you can be notified in the event of a recall.
Check the carrier periodically for sharp edges, ripped seams, and missing, loose, or defective snaps, buckles, or rings. Think about how much you'll use it before you buy one. That will help you determine what to spend, though price isn't necessarily an indicator of quality. If you foresee long jaunts with your baby or expect to be using your carrier a lot around the house, consider a higher-end model, which may give you more support and be more comfortable. If you're uneasy about using your carrier--most parents are at first--load your baby into it over a soft surface, such as your bed or sofa.