You'd think after being carried in someone's stomach for nine months, a baby would want a little alone time, but far from it! Human contact is not only reassuring, but also necessary for proper development. In fact, developmental experts say that nothing is more important for an infant than touch.

But you have a life to live. You can't just sit around holding the baby every minute of the day, even as much as you might want to.

Enter baby carriers.

Whatever its form, a baby carrier helps do the heavy lifting, so to speak, and allows you to keep your child close by. And a good hands-free option will even free you up to go about many of your everyday tasks.

When you're out and about, a stroller is certainly an option, but the carrier is a great choice to sustain the parent-child connection. It can be especially nice for dads, who didn't get the "benefit" of carrying their child inside them for nine months. And sometimes it's just easier than having to deal with a stroller.

Even when your child starts to walk, there will certainly be plenty of times they're going to look at you with those big eyes and issue some version of the command, "Up! Up!" A carrier will not only make this task easier (or, if you're petite, possible), it will distribute the weight better and keep you from killing your back.

your basic choices

For the early months, your choices are either a traditional front carrier or a sling, and that decision largely boils down to personal preference. Kids outgrow front carriers within the first year, and most will outgrow their slings, as well. Then you either move into the territory of hybrids and backpacks or start relying on your stroller more.

traditional front carriers
These popular carriers hold the baby in a seated position against your chest. Because they're designed for hands-free use, they allow you to keep your baby close while you clean the house, shop, or walk. They can be used just a few weeks after the baby is born with the baby positioned facing the parent.

slings
A sling is a fabric carrier that lets you carry your baby in front of you in a hammock position. Slings require a little more awareness but are a great choice for nursing mothers. They come in two styles: the more traditional kind, made of a single piece of fabric in sizes made to fit the parent, or the updated, one-size-fits-all sling with adjustable straps.

new hybrids and hip holders
The newer multi-position carriers cover that age when your child is too big for a sling or carrier, but not big enough for a backpack. Most parents do a lot of hip carrying, which not only ties up your hands, it's hard on your back. A hip carrier can make all the difference. You might find you even prefer it to a backpack. Some hip carriers evolve from a front carrier or sling, and some are made just for hip use.

backpacks
Backpacks are a second-stage carrying solution for when your child has outgrown the other carriers. Pediatricians don't recommend using them before one year, or until your child has developed adequate head and neck control. Most backpacks have support frames that distribute the weight properly and help ease the strain on parents' backs.


general guidance

Whether to choose a sling or traditional carrier is a personal preference, and one that's hard to predict. Traditional carriers are typically the pick of North American parents, while slings are more popular in Europe. Slings have, however, been gaining popularity in urban centers of the United States. Here are some of the factors to consider when making your choice.

  • Hands-free use. The big advantage of a carrier is that it lets you keep your baby close to you while keeping your hands free, so you can go about your day. It also allows you to do what you need to do (for the most part) knowing the baby is securely fastened; a sling always requires more awareness because there aren't safety straps to hold your baby in.
  • Nursing. For nursing mothers, the sling offers the easiest, quickest, and most discreet access.
  • Your comfort. Parents who prefer carriers often argue that unless a sling fits you just right, it can hit you at a level that's uncomfortable. Also, most carriers come with back support and shoulder support (more like a good backpack), making them easier for the parent to carry, especially as the baby grows.
  • Your baby's comfort. A sling allows your baby to lay at your waist in a comfortable sleeping position and even leverages the natural swing motion of your walking, plus the material wraps the baby with a similar nesting effect to swaddling.
  • Longevity. The sling can have a longer useful life than the front carrier because you can also use it to support your toddler in the hip-carrying position.

It still mostly comes down to personal preference and what you feel more comfortable carrying. Our recommendation? Try a friend's before you buy.

Some mothers enjoy having one of each: a sling for nursing early on and a carrier for extra support during more active times.

features to look for

  • Size and adjustability. If more than one person will be sharing it, make sure you get a carrier that can easily adjust to fit either person. It's important that the sling or carrier fits well, and also that you don't have to spend a lot of time adjusting it.
  • Machine-washable. No matter what kind of carrier you choose, it's going to get dirty if you use it more than just occasionally. Easy washability is a lifesaver.
  • Storage pockets. In a traditional carrier or backpack, smart storage pockets might just save you from having to lug along a diaper bag, too.
  • Back support. This isn't such an issue with newborns, but every month your baby grows, and so does your load. Make sure you pick a carrier that will provide you the back support you need, and definitely test before you buy, especially with traditional carriers and backpacks.
  • Backpack features. When evaluating a backpack, consider what its headrest options are (for the inevitably sleeping toddler), whether it provides sun protection, and how easy it is to adjust for your child (not to mention mom and dad!). Bonus features are storage pouches, bottle packs, and loops for securing toys and pacifiers.
  • Collapsibility. If you're transitioning into a backpack, you'll want to consider one that works like a normal backpack but opens up to expose a cushioned seat for your toddler. If you're mountain hiking with your child, you'll want a traditional backpack, but a collapsible backpack is ideal for the parent who wants to encourage their toddler to walk.
  • Price. For a front carrier, you get what you pay for. For the most part, what you pay more for is the addition of lumbar support and better shoulder pads. If you're going to be a heavy user, pay a little more for the one that will serve you best.

stage considerations

When deciding what type of carrier to use, keep in mind your baby's development as well as your own body. Two important considerations are your child's weight and whether he can hold his head up; also take into account your own size, strength, and how much back support you need.

  • Slings and front carriers can both be used within the first couple of weeks, or as soon as you're ready to be out and about.
  • Front carriers can be used for infants as early as the first couple of weeks of life, as long as there is adequate head support and the baby is facing the parent. When your child is strong enough to hold his or her head up, you can turn them facing out to see the world while you walk.
  • Whether you choose a sling or front carrier, your child will likely outgrow it within the first year. The sling can enjoy extra life as a support for hip carrying; in other words, you can use the sling under your child's bottom to help distribute weight.
  • Backpacks can be used as soon as the child has developed adequate head and neck control. Many pediatricians don't recommend using a backpack before one year.
  • A hybrid hip carrier can bridge the gap between carriers and the backpack stage. For some parents, the hybrid does more than just bridge the gap: it's used as an everyday solution for hip carrying well into the toddler stage.

lifestyle considerations

Bells and whistles. Slings take a simpler, more natural approach, with just a single piece of fabric comprising the whole thing. But if you want more features, like pockets and clips, look for the next-generation, nylon slings or a more traditional carrier.

Multistage. Technically, the most transitional/multistage option is a sling: you can go from the newborn position to using the sling like a hybrid to help hold the baby on your hip.

Style. Some people think one-piece fabric slings have too much of a hippie, Earth Mother feel. If that's a problem for you, look for one of the more modern nylon slings that have an urban-gear kind of look. As for carriers, at least they come in black!

usage tips

  • Carriers shouldn't be used while driving, jogging, skating, or riding a bicycle.
  • Exercise caution when bending to pick something up while carrying a baby. Use your hand to hold baby in place, and bend at the knees rather than at the waist.
  • Don't cook with a baby on your front in a carrier.
  • Be careful when reaching for things that could fall on your baby.
  • Pay attention to age, weight, and stage requirements for different styles of carriers.
  • If you get a sarong-style sling, some coaching at the beginning can be very helpful in getting the fit right.

accessories

  • Carrier covers. These simple covers are like blankets that hook onto the carrier so they won't fall off when you're out and about.
  • Pacifier clips. Dropped binkies can be a sad fact of life, but these clips make sure they don't get left behind.
  • Hats and sun covers. If you're carrying your child in a carrier, there's a good chance you'll end up outdoors, so be sure to protect your child from the sun's harmful rays.
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