It’s mid-afternoon, and my baby is sleeping peacefully—on me. His head rests gently on my shoulder, his feet dangle loosely at my hips, and I can feel him breathing regularly against my back. A carrier with a red, floral print holds him in place; my hands are free, and I am moving about easily, confident that my son is happy and secure.
The term “babywearing” was coined recently by pediatrician William Sears to describe wearing babies in soft, fabric carriers (a practice often associated with attachment parenting, or being in close contact with babies throughout the day and night), but it’s probably as old as human history. Our ancestors carried their babies out of necessity, and babywearing is still a regular part of childrearing in countries as diverse as Sweden, Zambia, Korea, Germany, Guatemala, China and Japan.
In our culture, however, babies are often held at a distance by objects such as strollers, cribs and bouncers. But an increasing number of parents like me are choosing to keep their babies close, for reasons as varied as the carriers themselves.
The initial appeal of babywearing is its practicality, especially in a city like New York. Uneven sidewalks, slow-moving pedestrians, subway stairs—all are more easily navigated with a carrier than a stroller.
“The number one source of interest in babywearing in the New York area is the convenience,” says Lisa Brundage, a Brooklyn-based parent and volunteer leader of meetings for Slings in the City, the New York chapter of the national babywearing association Nine In, Nine Out. Mothers who babywear can leave the house more easily, nurse discreetly in public and tend to older children with two free hands.
Not everyone thinks babywearing is so practical, of course. I remember an acquaintance once remarking to me that after a while, it became disconcerting to her that her baby was right there with her, everywhere she went. Plenty of parents may not be familiar with the option, either. It’s only within the last decade that baby carriers have become widely available on the internet and in local stores.
Felina Rakowski-Gallagher, owner of the Manhattan nursing store The Upper Breast Side, says she has seen slings—a product she calls “the third hand” in childrearing—“explode” in variety since she opened her store seven years ago. Among her patrons are several pediatricians from a nearby practice who use slings with their own children.
After founding Slings in the City, Bianca Fehn sensed enough interest in babywearing to open Metro Minis, a new store on the Upper East Side dedicated to babywearing and offering a range of slings, wraps, and other carriers. Fehn says she wanted to create a space where “people can hang out, touch the fabric, try it on with their baby or a fake baby, and see if it works for them.” So far, her shop has attracted a wide array of customers, from established babywearers to curious neighborhood moms.
Beyond the convenience, babywearing supports the physical and emotional health of parent and baby according to medical experts.
“All babies and, I believe, all parents benefit from babywearing,” says Dr. Maria Blois, a Texas-based physician whose experience wearing her own four children led to her book, “Babywearing: The Benefits and Beauty of This Ancient Tradition.” In the book, she shares her findings that frequently carried babies generally cry less, sleep longer and enjoy better digestion than babies who are not carried.
According to Blois, exposure to the mother’s movements promotes a baby’s sense of balance, and supporting the head with a soft, fabric carrier rather than a hard, unyielding surface aids the development of neck muscles. There is even evidence that carrying the baby with legs splayed (the abductus position) promotes the healthy development of the hip joints, which are not fully formed at birth. For older babies, research suggests that being carried at voice and eye level encourages eye contact and speech development and may even increase IQ.
Mothers who wear their babies benefit too; in particular, they are at less risk for postpartum depression, according to Dr. Sears. This may be because babywearing stimulates prolactin and oxytocin, the so-called mothering hormones, which alleviate stress levels. But it may also be because the carried baby is simply less fussy.
For many parents, babywearing continues to make sense through the first year of a child’s life and beyond. (Carriers are typically designed to carry children up to 40 pounds or so.) “Certainly, babies do get heavy,” Blois admits, “but as long as you’re still holding them, baby carriers just give your arms a boost.” She adds that children usually outgrow the need to be carried before they outgrow the carriers themselves.
In order to be safe and comfortable for both the parent and baby, babywearing must be done correctly. Dr. Evan Johnson, administrative director of the Spine Center at NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital and an experienced babywearer himself, advises that a well-fitting, adjustable carrier should draw the baby in closely to the adult’s center of gravity and distribute the baby’s weight symmetrically across the back and around the pelvis. He also recommends bringing the baby when trying on carriers to ensure the best fit (see sidebar for more tips on safe babywearing).
Volunteers with Slings in the City lead free monthly meetings throughout the city for parents and caregivers to try on carriers, get advice on proper wearing or simply mingle. “One concern I hear a lot is that it is going to be too physically exhausting to babywear,” says Brundage, “but it is a matter of finding the right carrier and getting it on right.”
It is also a matter of matching the carrier to the baby at each stage of development. I began wearing my son in a wrap, a long piece of knit fabric that held him snugly against me. But in addition to wraps, there are simple pouches, whose one-shoulder design creates a pocket to support the baby; slings, which are adjustable at the shoulder but otherwise resemble pouches; and mei tais, which combine a soft fabric panel with long straps. There are even more structured, backpack-style carriers with simple, buckle adjustments.
In our home, the Ergo, a buckle carrier, comes in handy for my husband. My preference is the Kozy Carrier, a well-known mei tai that happens to be produced by a friend, Kelley Mason.
“There are so many babywearing products now,” observes Alexandra MacDonnell, the babywearing consultant at Boing Boing, a Park Slope maternity and nursing store. On Tuesday afternoons, she advises local parents as they select and learn to use the right baby carrier for their lifestyle. Her enthusiasm for slings in particular has earned her the nickname of “The Sling Lady” among neighborhood parents.
Blois says she has seen caregivers “from all walks of life” embrace babywearing. From mothers and fathers to extended family members and sitters, “anyone can learn to wear a baby, and any baby can benefit from being worn.” I know there will come a time when my son is only too ready to explore the world by himself. In the meantime, I will enjoy our precious time together in the city.
Safety Tips for All Types of Carriers
Always keep baby’s face exposed to fresh air; do not cover with fabric
Avoid chin-to-chest posture, which obstructs baby’s airway
Wear baby snug above your center of gravity to prevent back strain
Wear baby in kitchen with caution, avoiding hot stoves and sharp objects
Use caution when drinking hot beverages
Allow extra space for baby when rounding corners, doorways, and other tight fits
Monitor baby’s temperature; often a light, breathable layer of clothing is sufficient to keep baby warm while being worn
Practice with another adult over a well-padded area while getting started
Practice with a well-fed, well-rested, dry baby for best results!
Be patient and try new positions while learning; baby will be content in your arms but may need a few sessions to get used to being worn
WearYourBaby.com (good for novices)
TheBabywearer.com (for experts)
Tummy 2 Tummy (instructional DVD)
Metro Minis 821 Park Avenue (at 75th Street), 212-313-9600 metrominis.com
Boing Boing 204 Sixth Avenue (at Union Street), Brooklyn, 718-398-0251