Babies adore warm soft surfaces, a gentle rocking motion and being held closely. This is why babies often soothe more quickly when they are picked up and why cuddling your baby is so important to forming a close relationship with them – see our article ‘Bonding with your new baby’. It’s not surprising therefore, that baby slings (also referred to as baby-wearing) have become a progressively popular choice for many mothers and fathers who want to keep their babies close to them to support bonding, whilst also being able to keep their hands free and carry on with their daily chores and tasks.
There is an extensive range of baby slings available on the market and it can be quite daunting deciding which one to choose. This article has been written to provide you with practical information and guidance as well as, recognised safety tips for their safe use.
What is a baby sling?
A baby sling enables you to keep your baby close to you so they feel safe and secure, whilst also offering your baby support and comfort. Baby slings tend to be made in a soft cloth fabric which you wrap around your chest. There are various ways that you can wear your sling, which allows it to respond to your baby’s changing needs as they grow and develop.
Busting those baby sling myths!
There are a number of misconceptions related to the use of baby slings, which we will address in this next section. These concerns relate to the following:
- Babies carried in slings don’t receive sufficient oxygen
- Placing your baby in a sling leads to postural deformities
- Carrying your baby around will spoil them
- Wearing a baby sling can damage your back
- Wearing a baby sling interferes with every day tasks
- Babies get much colder in slings.
Will my baby be able to breathe?
If you use a sling that keeps your baby supported in an upright position close to your body, with their chin up, then your baby’s airway will remain clear and they won’t have any problems breathing. Concerns relate to those baby slings that hold your baby in a curved position (C-shaped); particularly where this type of sling is used with newborn babies. This is because young babies cannot support the weight of their own head. Their head can flop forwards so their chin rests against their chest and then there is a danger that their airway becomes blocked. Similarly, if the fabric of the sling closes over a newborn baby’s face, there is the potential for them to suffocate. There have been some tragic infant fatalities associated with the use of certain types of sling.
Could my baby’s posture be damaged?
There is currently no research evidence to support this concern. In fact, being carried with a rounded back is perfectly natural for a newborn baby. The neonate’s spine is initially rounded; straightening out gradually during their first year, and only gains its characteristic S-shape once your baby starts to walk and is upright. It is important however, that while being carried in their sling, your baby is well-supported and held firmly against your body. If your baby has been born with congenital dysplasia of the hips – also called ‘clicky’ or ‘unstable’ hips, being carried in a sling can help the condition to improve. This is because your baby will be sitting in a position that ensures their hips remain abducted (rather like a frog’s legs!) so that the top of the baby’s femur (hip bone) is held in a central position in their hip socket. Also see our feature ‘Your newborn baby’s first check.
Surely I will spoil my baby if I carry them around all day?
Young babies cannot be spoilt! Feeling loved, safe and secure is a basic need of every small baby and important during their first year. Where parents are close to their offspring, they are more likely to be intuitive to their baby’s needs and quicker to respond to them. This is integral to babies’ social development, the prevention of stress, and their future transition into self-confident children.
Won’t I damage my back?
During pregnancy, expectant mothers will use the muscles of their back to help compensate for the extra baby weight they are carrying in front. The same applies post birth, where the muscles of the mother’s (and father’s!) back will strengthen as they get used to carrying their growing baby.
When considering which sling to buy, it is important to opt for a style that spreads the weight of your baby across your back and hips. As your baby develops, you may choose to switch from carrying your baby on your front to carrying them on your back.
If you do have a long term back problem, it is important that any additional strain placed on your back is kept to an absolute minimum. Therefore, you should always carry your baby close to your body. This minimises the impact on your centre of gravity and helps prevent any over-compensation which might lead to poor posture.
I won’t be able to do anything if I carry my baby around with me!
Carrying your young baby around while you complete everyday tasks will keep your baby calm and contented. It also means that you don’t need to ‘drop everything’ to run between your baby and your chores. Caring for any older children, doing your weekly grocery shop and negotiating public transport (without a pram!) is also much easier when you have both hands free!
My baby could get too hot or too cold?
It is very important that your baby is suitably dressed when being worn in a baby sling. During the summer months, your baby’s close proximity to your body means they are likely to get quite warm. The best way of checking your baby’s temperature is to feel the skin on their chest. If their skin feels hot and clammy, remove a layer of clothing; if there is noticeable perspiration on their face, the same principle applies – remove a layer. Similarly, if their skin feels cold, then you will need to add a layer of clothing. During the colder months, it’s not unnatural for parents who are new to using baby slings, to feel anxious about their baby becoming too cold. Newborn babies carried against the front of their parent’s body can be kept extra warm underneath their parent’s coats – just ensure that your baby’s head and chin are supported in an upright position so their airway remains clear. Extra layers should also be applied to the more exposed areas ie your baby’s legs and feet. Dressing your baby in a bonnet will also help to keep them ‘toasty’ warm on wintry days!
If you are considering using a baby carrier that is worn on parents’ backs; a style particularly popular with older babies, you will need to be just as vigilant. This style of carrier prevents your baby from being in close contact with you, so they are unable to benefit from your body heat. Coupled with the restrictive nature of this type of baby carrier, this means your baby can become cold very quickly. It is also more difficult for you to keep a close eye on them because they are behind you and not in constant view.
What are the potential hazards of baby slings?
The Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents (RoSPA) has responded to concerns about infant fatalities associated with certain types of baby sling by issuing safety guidance on their use. However, it is important to remember that not all slings are hazardous!
a). The style of sling used should keep your baby well-supported in an upright position against your body, so that your baby’s chin is maintained in an upright position, clear of their chest. This helps to ensure your baby’s airway does not become blocked
b). Where the style of sling encourages your baby to adopt a curved position below your chest/bust or at the level of your stomach, there is the danger that the baby’s head will flop forward and their airway could become blocked
c). If your baby is not supported in an upright position with their head upright, the cloth fabric of the sling could cover their nose and mouth and cause suffocation within a very short period of time
d). Choose a sling that offers good visibility so that you can see your baby’s face clearly and can keep an eye on them while they are being carried
The Consortium of UK Sling Manufacturers and Retailers have issued the following advice for keeping your baby close and safe while using a baby sling, using the acronym T.I.C.K.S
Tight (ie baby close to your body; not swaying in loose folds of sling fabric)
In view at all times (ie this relates to young babies carried in front slings)
Close enough to kiss (ie baby’s head close to their parent’s chin)
Keep chin off the chest (ie baby’s head should not be forcibly restricted by the sling)
Supported back (ie both the baby’s and parent’s!)
Choosing your baby sling
It is important that you choose your baby sling very carefully and follow the manufacturer’s instructions and safety notes for its use. You should not rush into buying the first sling that you look at – speak with friends and relatives who have used a baby sling to find out which types worked best for them and to get some handy tips.
Some manufacturers advise that their baby slings are washed before you begin using them so that the fabric of the sling is softened; this makes it easier to fasten them. You are likely to get a lot of use out of your baby sling; particularly if it can be fastened in a variety of different ways to adapt to the changing needs of your growing baby. You should therefore check your baby sling periodically for the inevitable wear and tear that is likely to be sustained.
When it comes to trying out your new sling for the very first time; then timing is everything! Babies are very receptive to their parents’ emotions so if you are feeling anxious or stressed whilst negotiating your new sling, you can be sure that your baby will pick up on these emotions. Trying to place your baby in a sling while they are stressed and fractious is a challenge in itself, so we advise that you wait until you have a contented baby – perhaps after they’ve had a nappy change, a feed and are feeling sleepy? It might also be helpful to have a second person present to lend a hand? Some parents find it helpful to also stand in front of a mirror to see how the sling looks once it’s in position. They can then make any adjustments as necessary, ensuring the fabric isn’t twisted, too loose or too tight, and making sure that the baby is upright and well-supported.
How quickly your baby settles into their sling is an individual thing. Some babies settle almost immediately whilst others can take a while longer. Parents who are advocates of using baby slings will often advise new users to go out for a stroll as soon as their baby is in the sling. Remember – babies find a rocking motion very soothing so are likely to settle much quicker once you’re on the move!
Finally, above all, take your time and don’t rush. Just like other aspects of baby care, using a sling is a skill that needs to be learnt. Both you and your baby are on a learning curve together and will grow in confidence with practice, so do keep persevering!