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A Consumer's Guide to Buying a Safe Carrier
If you're reading this, you're aware of how important it is to keep your baby close -- it’s essential for their emotional, social, physical, and intellectual development, and using a baby carrier to facilitate this makes your life a whole lot easier, too. Now that you’ve decided to buy one, you face the potentially challenging task of which one(s) to buy. No one can make that decision for you, but we can help you figure out which ones are safely constructed and which you should avoid.
Where to buy:
- Major retail chains like Babies R Us, Target, and Walmart carry a small selection of big-label brands. [more]
- These may not fit all users, and store staff are rarely able to help the user choose the best carrier for their needs.
- Carriers sold must conform to applicable safety standards, and inexpensive models may be available, although they will not always be the best option for the money.
- Brick and mortar boutique and specialty baby stores have a wider selection of niche carriers [more]
- Often salespeople have been trained in baby carrier use and safety or have used the carriers themselves.
- Carriers generally comply to applicable safety standards, but some boutique stores also feature local sewn-at-home carriers, which may not be correctly constructed.
- Online specialty stores will be similar to B&M stores. However, you'll want to read their descriptions carefully, and may wish to email the staff to narrow down your carrier selection.
- Budget-conscious options include freestanding websites by sew-at-home manufacturers, auction sites like eBay, craft showcases like Etsy and Hyenacart, and resale shops. [more]
- The buyer must be particularly cautious with these, since at-home manufacturers may not follow or be aware of safety standards, and counterfeit or substandard carriers are often found on eBay.
- Resale shops may not be aware of product recalls; check the CPSC for recalls before purchasing.
- Before buying from any source, consider looking for reviews of the brand(s) you're considering online.
What you need to know about the laws governing baby carriers:
- All baby carriers are considered “durable infant products” (DIPs). This means that they must meet the criteria for DIPs in the CPSIA (Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act). [more] These include a permanently-attached tag (which must include some form of model name or batch number, date of manufacture, and contact information for the manufacturer); an attached postpaid product registration card (with an option to register online); and the product itself must not include any parts that contain lead or phthalates (although most fabrics are exempt from testing, non-fabric parts like snaps, buckles, and rings must be tested to comply).
- While some children’s products do have a small batch exemption, baby carriers are not exempt because they are durable infant products. [more]
If a business tries to tell you they don’t have to comply with the CPSIA because they’re small, that is a huge red flag. If you purchase a carrier and it does not include a tracking label and/or registration card, you may wish to let them know they are not in compliance, since this is a violation of federal law. It would be wise to return the carrier and get a full refund, because non-compliant businesses are likely not following other safety guidelines.
- By early 2018, all baby carriers will be covered by a mandatory ASTM testing standard -- one for soft-structured carriers and mei tais (which was mandatory in September, 2014), and another for wraps, ring slings, and pouches (which will be mandatory in early 2018). [ more]
These testing standards do not have a small batch exemption, so all baby carriers will be legally required to be tested. Again, once the standards become mandatory, it will be illegal for any size business to sell a baby carrier that has not been tested, so that will be another question to ask of the manufacturer.
Types of baby carriers and what to look for:
With all baby carriers, thorough use and care instructions should be included. Printed directions are required, and video may also be included for greater clarity. [more]
The most commonly-available carriers in large retail chains are front packs. Front packs like the Bjorn, Snuggli, and many Infantino carriers, have an ASTM standard to which they are required to conform. [more]
If the product packaging states it is compliant with the standard (number F2236-13a), you can be assured it has been tested and has passed the appropriate standard. However, the standard assumes that you will read and follow all product instructions, so don’t try to use the carrier without reading the directions and being sure you fully understand them.
Soft-structured carriers consist of a rectangular body, stiff or formed waistband, and backpack-like straps with buckles for attachment. They are among the easiest to use, but it can take some trial and error to find the one that best fits your body type.
Those sold in large retail and boutique stores will generally be safe for purchase.
- If you are buying a boutique brand or one made by an at-home seamstress, look for good sewing practices and materials.
- Strong attachment points where the fabric body meets the webbing.
- Fabrics used should include heavy twill, canvas, duck, denim, or upholstery fabrics, not quilting or craft fabrics. Thinner fabric can be used as a decorative layer, but there should still be multiple strong layers in the body, straps, and waistband.
- Inquire where the buckles and webbing were purchased. If the latter are from chain sewing or hobby stores like JoAnn Fabrics, Hancocks, or Michaels, do not purchase the carrier, as those parts are not weight-tested for babywearing applications and may come apart during use.
- If you decide to buy a second-hand SSC or one from an auction site, be aware that counterfeits of major brands are often sold under the brand name.
Ergo is particularly plagued by counterfeits, especially on eBay. You can generally tell by the price -- if it’s listed at $40 or below, it’s very likely not to be genuine. These fakes are not tested and have been known to break during use. If money is tight, you can check with Ergo to see whether the carrier is real or a fake.
Mei tais (pronounced "may tie") have a rectangular or hourglass-shaped body, with four straps that tie together; or two straps that tie with a buckle waist. They are simple to use and can be shared by partners of differing body types and sizes.
Mei tais should be constructed similarly to SSCs. Look for:
- While they usually lack the formed waistband, the materials used should still be sturdy and strong.
- Do not purchase a mei tai made entirely from thinner cottons; a decorative layer is fine, but again, the body and straps should be made of sturdy, thick fabric.
- The straps may be made as a wide, single layer of fabric (usually referred to as “wrap straps”), or as a narrower multiple-layer. Neither should use thin cottons; the fabrics listed above are the safest for mei tais.
- Again, look for strong, secure attachment seams. If the stitching attaching the straps is visible, there should be multiple lines of stitching. Sometimes the sewer will use an X-box, but other shapes are acceptable, as long as the straps aren’t just top stitched down.
- Straps should be sunk into the body of the carrier a *minimum* of ½”. If you can’t feel the straps in the body of the carrier, consider returning it, since the stitching can pop during use and cause a fall.
The ASTM standard for SSCs and Mei Tais is mandatory. Look for manufacturers who state their compliance and avoid those who say they have not tested their products, since it is illegal to sell them without compliance. (There is no such thing as "BCIA compliant" or variants thereof; the BCIA is a valuable organization, but does no testing or certification itself. Compliance goes through testing labs and the CPSC alone.)
Wraparound carriers (usually referred to as wraps) can be made from a variety of fabric types and in different lengths, ranging between 2.7 to 5.7 meters long. Multiple carrying positions are possible with each length. The fabric is wrapped around the body in various configurations to form the carrier; thorough understanding of the instructions is vital.
- Stretchy wraps are the most commonly-available wraps, and are made from a cotton or cotton/Lycra knit.
- Easy to put on, as they can be tied before putting the baby in, and baby can be removed without untying the carrier.
- Stretchy wraps are wonderful for small babies, but should not be used for back carries.
- Generally become less supportive when the baby reaches 15-20lbs.
- Woven wraps are made from purpose-woven cotton or cotton blends, without stretch.
- "Woven wraps" can be a confusing term, since anything that’s not knit is woven (except for non-woven synthetics, but carriers aren’t made from those).
- Supportive over a large range of weights, from newborn to preschooler, and can be used for back carries with proper instruction.
- Made from many different fibers and weaves.
- Hybrid wraps are usually knits with far less stretch than typical stretch wraps.
- Can be used for back carries once the user is educated on how to do so safely.
- Useful for a larger weight range than stretch wraps, and are often cooler than woven wraps.
What to look for:
- Woven wraps purchased from major online retailers and boutique stores will generally be thicker than off-the-bolt fabrics, and they have a lower thread count. [more]In baby wraps, a low thread count is a good thing, because it allows the fabric to conform to the wearer’s body. This is more comfortable than a tightly-woven fabric, which can cause pressure points and discomfort.
- Wraps sold in discount venues can be made from appropriate-weight fabrics, but there are also a lot that should be avoided.
- Thin cotton prints are not safe or comfortable options. They are usually manufactured using lower-quality cotton, have a high thread count, and tend to wear out quickly. When they tear, they tear catastrophically and without warning.
- Cotton gauze can be used, but look for thicker gauze, not thin, bandage-like gauze. Discount gauze wraps are generally not as comfortable or long-lasting as those manufactured for babywearing.
- Cotton muslin is another to avoid. It’s not printed, but it is cheap; unfortunately, it’s made from very low-quality cotton and because of its high thread count, it’s uncomfortable to wear.
- Avoid synthetic fibers like polyester, since they tend to be more slippery and hot to wear.
- Fibers to look for are cotton (if it’s a medium weight, not lightweight), linen, some bamboo blends, wool blends, and silk blends. [more]
Many wraps will be listed as “cotton wovens” but as discussed above, that means pretty much any non-knit cotton fabric. Thin, printed cotton is also a cotton woven, but that doesn't mean it's appropriate. If you’re in doubt, ask the seller for specifics. If s/he can’t give you more information about the fabric’s weight or where it was purchased, it should be avoided.
- Wraps should be between 25-32” wide, and if not purpose-woven for babywearing, should be hemmed on both long edges, since woven fabrics can tear from stress on an unfinished edge.
Ring slings are made from a length of fabric, shorter than a woven wrap, and adjusted by a pair of rings sewn in to one end. While they are less versatile than a wrap, ring slings are quicker to put on. They can usually be shared by partners of different body types and sizes, and while sizing may be available, slings are fairly forgiving in terms of their lengths.
What to look for:
- Ring slings are best made from similar fabrics to wraps. [more]
- Avoid thin cottons in a single layer, muslin, printed batiks, slippery fabrics, most synthetics, and very stretchy fabrics.
- Double-layer slings made with cotton prints or thinner linens are acceptable, but because of the high thread count, greater care must be taken in adjusting the sling to get it comfortable.
- Single-layer gauze is NOT appropriate for a ring sling, since gauze does not hold a seam well and can tear out with use and washing.
- Conversely, the fabric should not be too thick -- upholstery, most canvas and duck, and most denims will be too thick for a ring sling.
- Lighter-weight twill and denim work nicely, as does linen in a medium weight, heavier silk (like dupioni), some brocades, and stretch twills/denims in a light weight.
- For water use (wading and showering, not swimming), polyester mesh can be used.
- There is a long discussion of appropriate sling fabrics available at http://crafts.sleepingbaby.net/fabric.html
- Stitching should be strong and secure. [more]
- Rings should be sewn in with a *minimum* of two lines of stitching, although 3-4 are better practice.
- The rings should be sewn in such that the “shoulder” of the sling (the part about 3-7” above the rings) will rest comfortably and spread out on the wearer’s shoulder, although what is comfortable in terms of “shoulder style” is highly subjective and varies from wearer to wearer.
- Generally speaking, though, a thin accordion fold is likely to be uncomfortable, and will also keep the wearer from spreading the fabric out over their back, which can lead to fit and safety issues.
- Ring slings should be a minimum of 25” wide up to as wide as 40-45”, although very wide slings can be difficult to use with small babies.
- Those that are narrower than 25” will be less safe with most babies, since the fabric will be too narrow to get a good “seat” for the baby, which is necessary for safe sling wearing.
- Both long edges should be hemmed; as with wraps, unhemmed woven fabrics can tear on an unhemmed edge.
- Avoid slings that are less than 65-70” long; a too-short sling may not give the wearer enough “tail” (the fabric that passes through the rings and hangs down in front of the wearer) for safe adjustments.
- Slings should not be longer than about 95” (a bit more than 2.5 yards) to avoid a fall hazard, and that length is appropriate for plus-sized wearers only.
- The average woman won’t need more than 80” for a safe length.
- Rings used in ring slings should be weight-tested for the purpose.
- Those from www.slingrings.com are the industry standard and are ideal for baby slings.
- Some manufacturers use aluminum rings from other sources as well; provided they can produce testing results, they are adequate.
- Nylon rings (from SlingRings.com) are also manufactured and tested for ring slings. They are thicker than aluminum rings, but are as safe as aluminum, and may be preferred for air travel, since the sling need not be removed for the metal detectors.
- Heavy chrome rings can also be used, with the caveat that they must have a strong, *smooth* weld, with no sharp points or openings in the ring.
- 2” diameter rings are too small for the majority of fabrics, though, so chrome rings should be a minimum of 2.5”, and 3” is best for most fabrics.
- Their downside is their weight, being several times heavier than aluminum rings, and they retain heat and cold far longer than aluminum does.
- They also make it more difficult to wash the sling, since the rings will bang around in a washer or dryer and can cause damage to the drum.
- Thin metal rings, commonly referred to as “craft rings”, are NEVER safe for a sling.
- They are typically ⅛” thick, and can bend or break easily at the weld.
- DO NOT buy a sling made with craft rings. This is a giant red flag that the maker is not following accepted safety practices.
- Wooden rings are also completely unacceptable, since they can easily split along a seam. Any thin or bendable materials are also unsafe.
Pouches are a tube of fabric, generally sewn with a smile-shaped seam where the baby’s bum rests. They are highly portable, often small enough to fold into a diaper bag, but need to be correctly fitted to the wearer and usually cannot be shared between partners.
What to look for:
- Materials like those for ring slings. Thinner cottons should be avoided, since they will wear out along the seam faster than medium-weight fabrics.
- The seam should be sewn with a French or felled seam (where the fabric is stitched together, then folded over and stitched again), and edges should be hemmed.
- Full usage instructions should be included (as with all carriers), since it can be more challenging to properly position a newborn in a pouch.
- Sizing is also critical with a pouch sling.
- If it comes only in small/medium/large type gradations, it should be avoided, since a too-large pouch can lead to safety issues like positional asphyxia.
- Look for slings that have sizing increments of 1” to a maximum of 2”, and be sure that the seller can fit you correctly for a pouch.
The ASTM standard for wraps, ring slings, and pouches will be mandatory in early 2018. At that time, look for manufacturers who state their compliance and avoid those who say they have not tested their products, since it will be illegal to sell them at that point.
Other safety considerations:
- With any new carrier, you should be sure to understand how to wear the carrier before trying with your baby.
- Practice with a stuffed toy, doll, or even a bag of flour.
- It’s best to have another adult with you the first time you use it, and if you can find a volunteer or paid babywearing educator, so much the better.
- Many unsafe practices can be avoided with in-person help, and they can also let you know if the carrier is unsuited to your body type or needs.
- If you plan to use a carrier with a low-birthweight infant or one with special needs, consult your child’s physician.
- Although most doctors aren’t familiar with babywearing, they will be able to recommend positions to avoid or those to include.
- A trained educator can be of special assistance in these cases, since many have training in special-needs babies, and special-needs children often benefit even more from babywearing.
- Any baby product in which a baby can recline generates the potential risk of positional asphyxia.
- This is a position in which the infant’s airway is kinked, reducing or even cutting off airflow.
- This is true for car seats, strollers, bouncers, and baby carriers in certain positions.
- Be mindful of your baby’s breathing at all times, and if s/he makes grunting, snoring, or wheezing noises, reposition him or her so that the airway is straight and clear.
- The baby’s face should NEVER be covered so that you can’t see it and monitor his/her breathing.
- This is especially true while breastfeeding.
- Nursing infants should be returned to an upright position after feeding, even if they’ve fallen asleep, to avoid suffocation.
- Do not wear babies under closed jackets; keep a line of sight and a clear airway for safety.
Finally, be aware that babies are safest when they’re closest to their caregiver. No product can soothe a baby like their caregiver’s touch, and nothing keeps a baby safer than being with their caregiver.