Last week, I made the case for wearing and carrying your babies, highlighting the considerable evidence of benefit of the practice. Today, I’m going to discuss what to look for when you carry a baby. I’ll also explain what not to do, as well as give a brief rundown of the unresolved topics. Some people might balk at the idea of “learning” how to carry or wear a baby. After all, we’ve been carrying and wearing small, defenseless pudgy humans for millions of years without a blog or a book telling us how to do it. What’s changed to make us suddenly need it?
Not much has changed, actually. Back in the days before widely disseminated, publicly available child-rearing information, we had mothers, aunts, grannies, cousins, plus their male counterparts, to help us out. They’d learned from someone else, they’d done it themselves, and now they were there to show and tell the next batch of parents how to do things. They were the blogs and the books and the experts. It was a culture of baby wearing, too. It permeated the environment. There were no strollers; this is just what was done. You weren’t “expected” to wear your kid. There just wasn’t any other option, and so you knew how to do it.
Today, in the States and most other Western countries, it’s a stroller culture. I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with strollers, mind you. It’s just that millions of adults become parents without ever knowing that baby wearing is even an option. That needs to change.
Although it’s been years since I’ve handled my own infants, and my grown-up kids haven’t produced any of their own for me to tinker with, I know a little something about the subject. I have fairly extensive baby-wrangling experience. While it’s years removed from the present, I still find this an interesting topic because it’s yet another example of how we moderns can learn from the past.
First, let’s start with some “universal truths.” Baby-wearing-and-carrying methodology can be a hotly contested area of study, but I think everyone can agree with the following.
Generally, the higher up on your body the baby is, the easier it’ll be on your back. If you’ve ever done a front squat, you’ll know how much torso strength supporting a weight in front of your body requires. You also know that allowing your elbows to sag and the bar to droop down makes staying upright hard, and it renders the rep nearly impossible to complete. Think of the baby as a barbell. Don’t let the baby droop down.
The closer your baby is to you, the easier it’ll be on your body. Same concept as above applies: keeping a weight close to you makes it lighter.
Supporting the baby’s head. A newborn baby is a weird cartilaginous thing, all bendy and floppy. Babies don’t have the strength to support the disproportionately large head lolling around on top of their scrawny bodies. Whether you’re carrying or wearing the baby, make sure to support the head.
Avoiding excessive chin tucking. The head can go too far forward, too. If that happens and the chin rests firmly against the chest, a baby’s oxygen supply may get cut off. Make sure you can slip a couple fingers between the chin and chest (kinda like checking for a dog collar’s tightness).
Keeping it tight. As mentioned above, maintaining a snug-fitting carrier will keep the baby closer to you and reduce strain on your body, but it will also keep the baby from slumping. A nice way to check if the carrier is snug enough is to press on the kid’s back. If the kid moves toward you, the carrier isn’t snug enough.
Maintaining line of sight. Make sure you can always see your baby. If the baby’s in the front, you shouldn’t have to brush aside any fabric to see him. If the baby’s on a back carrier, you should be able to look over your shoulder and see him. On that note, don’t cover your baby’s head in fabric.
Keeping a supported back. Don’t let a baby slump forward into C-shaped hyperflexion and don’t let the spine drift into hyper extension of the lower. Keep things supported (babies will naturally gravitate toward a slight C-shape).
Frog stance. A baby’s knees should be above his butt, at around 90-100 degree flexion, with legs spread. Like a frog, or, like the bottom of a squat. The butt and upper hamstrings should be supported, because a little baby can’t be expected to keep his legs up on his own.
Dangling, straight legs. Babies aren’t meant to hang ramrod straight. The only reason a worn baby’s legs would be straight is if he were only held up by his crotch without any butt or hamstring support. According to the International Hip Dysplasia Institute, babies with dangling, straight legs are at risk of developing hip dysplasia.
Intense exercise. I don’t care if you saw some guy doing kipping pullups while wearing his kid in a Baby Bjorn and it looked really sweet. Don’t perform intense exercise while wearing your baby. Don’t sprint, don’t run, don’t play on a trampoline.
Getting comfortable with bad form. Just like beginners to weight lifting can get away with poor form when they’re just lifting the bar, you can get away with inefficient carrying and wearing methods when your babies are just ten or fifteen pounds. Once that kid starts to hit the 20, 25 pound range, though, you will pay the price for improper form. You might stop carrying altogether when all you really need is a different carrier or a better method, and then your kid will suffer.
Using a wrap, sling, or carrier without knowing how. Some of the carriers are simple, but others take some instruction and know-how. This is your baby’s life we’re talking about; don’t create your own method of wrapping a baby without knowing what you’re doing. Don’t wing it.
Failing to heed “What’s Good.” Do that stuff. Seriously.
Not everyone can agree on everything.
Inward Facing versus Outward Facing
I’ve heard it said that worn or carried babies should be facing outward so that they can see what you’re seeing and get sensory stimulation from the outside world. After all, one of the downsides of exclusive stroller living is that the kid never gets to see much of the world. Facing your child outward would seem to take care of this issue pretty conclusively.
I’ve also heard that outward facing babies get too much stimulation, that for a budding sensory system the sights of the scary new world might be excessive and even damaging. Think of the principle of acute vs. chronic stress. For a tiny baby with a couple weeks or months under his belt, the simple (to us) act of looking around is an incredibly stimulating event. Almost everything they see – a traffic light, a dog, a tree, a passerby, a store sign, a fence – is entirely novel. They don’t even have a way to intellectually process what they’re seeing. They just see these amazing bright colorful images. It’s a bit of a stress, in a way, because it’s so new, and I can see the argument for limiting visual stimulation.
There’s also the fact that the natural position of a baby is the frog stance, where the knees are in 90-100 degrees flexion (so knees above butt) and the legs are somewhat spread apart (whatever’s comfortable). An inward facing baby can draw his legs up against the parent and straddle her. If the kid is outward facing in a carrier, reaching that froggy squat stance could be tough without the parent’s body to brace against. His legs may just dangle and his butt and hips won’t get any support.
Since an outward facing baby’s limbs will be further away from the parent than the limbs of an inward facing baby, the former position may be harder on the parent’s lower back.
I think a great compromise is to wear the baby on your back facing forward. That way, the baby gets plenty of opportunities to take in the outside world while reserving the ability to bury his face in your shoulder if it gets to be a bit much. The legs are supported, the froggy-style simulated squat is promoted, and the back is an arguably easier way to support weight (consider that a person’s back squat ability is generally greater than their front squat ability). Plus, Esther Gokhale, my go-to source for all things healthy posture-related, prefers the back carriers. Most evidence I’ve seen suggests that traditional cultures tended to favor wearing babies on the back, probably because it allowed the parent to keep up with work, though it definitely varies.
The bag sling is exactly what it sounds like: a sling slung over the shoulder with a compartment in the bottom for the baby. They appear to be the simplest method of wearing a baby – you essentially just sling it over your shoulder and drop the kid in – but several safety concerns have been raised. To summarize from that link:
1. Bag slings are “triangular,” with a flat bottom and two sides that converge. This effectively closes the baby in, possibly restricting air flow, and if a baby turns his head to either side, his face will be pressed up against the fabric.
2. The further the baby sinks into the depths of the bag, the more the top closes. This could prevent the parent from keeping a watchful eye on the baby.
3. If the top of the bag is closed, air flow will be disrupted. The baby may overheat or asphyxiate unless the bag is outfitted with mesh.
4. The design of a bag often promotes the chin-to-chest position that we want to avoid.
Some bag slings have even been subject to recall notices following infant deaths. Of course, plenty of parents have used bag slings without an issue. If you use one, just be extra careful and don’t let the little one sag too low.
As I said, Carrie and I never did the sling or baby carrier thing. We were the carriers. So I can’t give you my honest opinion on what works and what doesn’t when it comes to carriers, slings, and other things, because I don’t know for sure. What I can do is give a basic rundown and then direct you to dedicated online resources that should help you make the choice.
That will have to wait til next time, though, because this post is already lengthy. Until then, take care and be sure to leave a comment. Did I miss any tips, make any mistakes? Let us all know!