Sling the Sling or Sling the Baby?

It seems I can’t open a paper or my laptop at the moment without seeing another report of another baby sling being withdrawn in the U.S.
Before I get into this, you should know that far more knowledgeable people than I have written about baby carrying, so this will be a whistle-stop tour. Look at the further reading links at the end if you want more info.

Why do people “wear” their babies? Is it bad for the child? Bad for the parents’ back? Is it dangerous? Is it just a celebrity following silly fad?

Origins of Babywearing

Let’s jump on that last comment first. Someone once told me they thought using slings was just “in fashion” at the moment because of so many celebrity Mums doing it, and these hippy-mamas would get over it soon enough.

Really? Humans have been carrying their babies with them since some early parent figured out they could make a sling with a leftover length of animal hide. This would have been around the time that the australopithecine was moving to being early Homo Erectus1,2. Some reckon it was one of the earliest inventions, alongside clothing – heaven knows it would have been a safe way for a mother to keep her child close to her, away from dangers, while gathering food and nursing the baby as she went. A baby’s survival was based on its mother being able to carry it long distances and around this time in history they lost that ability to cling on (not least because they were trying to cling on to a hairless, nearly vertical Mama), so a sling would have been a sure-fire hit in the Hominin Dragons Den. (Actually, to be more accurate, they were probably made of vegetal matter and were the first nonlithic tools that were invented).

vintage pram

The pram was first invented in 1733 – a basket on wheels pulled by a goat or pony gave way to the “baby carriage” more familiar today (which was made popular by Queen Victoria buying 5 of them in 1840). What did we do before then?

Well, for a while the art of baby carrying while working seems to have been lost – at the beginning of the 18th Century, the baby was:
…tightly swaddled onto a board. It’s head was wrapped in compressed,….pinned to a cap and further braced by a tight neck stay…While the half strangled baby hung from a nail, it’s minder could get on with other tasks.”

(Or, in America and Sweden especially, hung on a tree – “Rockabye baby in the tree top…”).

Rembrandt's Beggars at The Door of a House. 1648
Rembrandt’s Beggars at The Door of a House. 1648

Some of Rembrandt’s pictures show babies tied to their mothers’ backs; evidence that baby carrying was taking place in Europe in the Middle Ages. In Wales and Scotland, pieces of fabric or shawls are rumoured to have been used to tie the baby to the mother (in case you’re interested, in Wales this was called a Siol Fagu)

Every country in the world seems to have had its own style of baby carrier:

  • Mexican people use the Rebozo, a square of woven cloth tied over one shoulder with baby usually on the back.
  • Guatemalans use a similar style sling called a Parraje.
  • Peruvians have a Manta, which sits over both shoulders like a cape, and baby sits high on mother’s back.
  • Aboriginal mothers used to keep their babies in carriers made of bark, similar to the cradleboards used by Native Americans but without the cloth covering.
  • In North, Alaskan and Canadian people use a carrier called the Amauti which is a very thick arctic jacket, which has a baby ‘pocket’ in the back.
  • A mother in Papua New Guinea will use a Bilum, a net bag secured at her forehead with her baby hanging behind her (they have very strong necks!).
  • Indonesian mothers use a Selendang, which is a long ornate wrap.
  • In other Asian countries, mothers use a variety of carriers including Mei-tai/Hmong/ Bei (China), Onbuhimo (Japan), Podaegi (Korea)
  • Ethiopian mothers use a blanket with top straps, similar to the sling used in Japan.
  • African mothers use a ‘Khanga’ which is a short-ish piece of cloth tied around the torso, so baby sits low on the back. Maori women carry their babies in a cloth inside their cloaks, or in a flax Pikau (backpack).

I have heard that, in England, coat pockets used to be adapted so a baby could be popped in them. However, in richer households, there were plenty of servants to carry babies around until carriages and prams were invented. In those countries which seldom wore slings from once prams became so popular, it seems babywearing had a revival in 1960s, with some now-familiar names starting up in the 1970s (Babybjorn, Didymos, and the modern ring sling invented by Rayner Gardner in the early eighties.

I think I’ve made my point: clearly not a new fad then!!

Childcare books on Slings

Janey Lee Grace, author of Imperfectly Natural Baby and Toddler, is (as the title of her book may suggest) a big fan of slings: “I loved carrying my baby for long periods of time… I could breastfeed while on the phone, cook, work, walk around the supermarket and play with my toddler….It’s a fantastic bonding experience and I would absolutely recommend carrying your baby as much as you can12.

Baby in a wrap sling
Contrast that with Gina Ford “I never use one as I find it too big a strain on my back… very small babies are also include to go straight to sleep the minute you hold them close to your chest, which defeats the whole purpose of my routines13”. She goes on to give advice on choosing a sling, including “It should offer the choice of baby facing in or outwards, and have a seat with an adjustable height position”. Later in this article I will discuss why many sling experts agree that you should not face your baby out in a sling. I am totally confused by the seat with an adjustable height position. No idea what kind of sling she has in mind.

An article on the Dr Spock has this to say about slings:

The main drawback of slings is that using them is truly an art and a science and most parents need lessons, either from a sling distributor or a veteran parent, to make these carriers work correctly. Even then, it can take several weeks to figure out how to get the babies in and out of the slings gracefully (not to mention safely)14

Personally, it didn’t take me weeks to work out how to use my slings – not sure that I sling X gracefully, in fact I am not sure I do
very much gracefully! But it certainly didn’t take me much longer than it took me to figure out how to wrap the seatbelt around my car seat correctly and safely. And I still haven’t really figured out how to use my pram….

While it can be helpful to get the advice of a sling consultant or experienced parent, not everyone does, and many cope very well on their own. I reckon it took me two goes to be able to confidently wrap my baby in a sling.

They go on to say:

Additionally, bearing the weight of baby all on one shoulder can get uncomfortable for some parents, especially as their baby gets bigger. (Unlike front packs and backpacks, slings have no hip belts to distribute your baby’s weight, although switching the shoulder on which you wear the sling frequently can help alleviate muscle strain.)14

Clearly, they are taking about a ring sling. I have never used one, but I am reliably informed that, when used properly, they do not cause shoulder pain. Other slings, such as a Mei Tai, wrap, or semi-structured carrier (i.e. a Connecta or Ergo) do not rely on one shoulder and wrap around the waist in some way. There is some evidence that putting your baby in an ergonomically designed sling from newborn can help strengthen the muscles in the back, helping with general back pain. That said, the Dr Spock team clearly note the benefits of babywearing.

Many baby care experts do recommend slings. Miriam Stoppard puts it simply “I won’t hear a bad word said about carrying your baby around in a sling.” 15

Dangerous Slings?

The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) in the U.S. have now withdrawn two slings on the grounds of safety. Let’s start with the Infantino SlingRider. This was a sort of bag sling – three babies have died in America with these slings. These particular pouch slings are like handbags, the baby lies inside on their back. Many sling wearers have considered these types of slings dangerous for a considerable time – the baby’s chin can end up pressed against their chest, restricting their airway. The fabric can also cover the baby’s nose and mouth. The baby is also liable to turn toward the parent, pressing their face against them and again, stopping them breathing. One of the important problems is that it is difficult to see the baby once they are in the sling, so they cannot be checked easily.

The CPSC appeared to be relatively measured about the risks of slings “There are safe ways to use slings,” says Patty Davis of the CSPC. “They’ve been used safely for centuries”. Others, reporting on the story, were not “Don’t use slings at all,” Mays [of Consumerreports.org] recommended, “There are safer ways of carrying your baby than in a sling.” Really? Like how? In my arms? What if I fall? At least with a sling you can put your arms out to protect you and your child without dropping said offspring.

So, all the CPSC withdrawing this sling seemed reasonably sensible – these handbag-style slings were known to potentially cause problems. But then, on 2nd June 2010, the CPSC launched this headline: “Infant Death Prompts Recall of Ring Slings Made by Sprout Stuff Due to Suffocation Risk”. A ring sling? In 2007 a 10 day old baby died in Texas in this sling. It is not clear what happened, or why this particular ring sling has been singled out – millions of women around the world safely use this style of carrier.

So, could slings be dangerous? Well, everything is dangerous if not used properly. The Consumer Product Safety Commission reports that, in the three-year period from 2002 to 2004, 16 infants died in car seat carriers (outside the context of motor vehicle accidents), nine infants died in strollers and carriages, 97 died as a result of mattresses and cribs, 28 in bassinets and cradles, and 27 in playpens and play yards8. A child has died in one of every 2,000 Playskool Travel-lite portable cribs sold9. There have been 14 deaths when the baby has been in a sling in the last 20 years.

There is a good checklist here on how to carry your baby safely in a sling.

Not all Slings are created Equally – the importance of Frog Legs

I cannot write an article like this without a quick mention of why some slings are better for your baby and you than others.

When a baby is in a sling with their tummy towards you, it is crucial that their legs are drawn up into a “frog-leg” position. Their bottom should be below their knees. This gives a nice wide him spread. If the legs dangle, all the weight of the baby is going through his/her perineum (and, sometimes for boys, through their testicles), placing a lot of pressure through the spine. Worst case scenario, if the baby’s spine is enduring this undue pressure it can adversely affect the development of the spinal curves and hips. Some popular semi-structured carriers let the baby’s legs dangle in this way, and are best avoided.

Similarly, if the baby is placed in a carrier facing outwards, their legs will dangle in this way – even if they are in a stretchy wrap. Be wary of doing this for the reasons above. Also, when the baby is facing you, or on your back, when the world starts to get overwhelming they can turn to your chest or back and switch off quickly. If they are facing outwards they can’t do this, and some experts believe this unnecessarily overloads them with sensory experiences they cannot easily escape from. Finally, facing out means the baby is not pressed close to you and, worse, their spine isn’t naturally in a slightly curved position and the ball of their hips can come out of the sockets, which (needless to say) is not good for them.

A sling or carrier should hug the baby to you and place him/her high on your body without changing your centre of gravity (do the kiss test – you should be able to kiss the top of their head, if you can’t they’re too low) – if you have back pain when wearing your baby one reason could be that the baby is hanging “off” you, rather than being pushed onto you. Hanging from you, the whole weight of the baby is on your back and shoulders, which will cause pain before too long. Carried properly, you can “wear” your baby until they are a toddler (or older!) – X is now 9 months and weighs over 21lbs, when I have him correctly positioned in a sling I can barely feel his weight. I know there is a sling out there which would mean he feels weightless – yes, they can be that good (but with a price tag to match!)

What’s so good about slings anyway?

“9 months in the womb, 9 months out” – there is a theory that all babies are born “prematurely”; in order for huge brains to be at a state small enough pass through the mother’s pelvis we have to be born earlier than any other mammal on the planet. Some people believe that we should consider the first 9 months, at least, of life as being an ongoing gestation (at 9 months most babies are at least beginning to be mobile, so can start to fend for themselves at about the level of most newborn mammals).

Babies want to be close to us, and “wearing” your baby enables you to pick up on his cues and moods, he will feel safe and secure – hearing the familiar sound of your heart beat.

Research has found the following benefits of baby wearing:

  • Babies who are carried in slings cry less
  • Carrying your baby can help ease colic
  • The position the baby is in when in a sling (with a nice curved spine and froggy legs) aids their physical development.
  • You can get on with life! Hands-free parenting: it’s so much easier to do chores, go shopping etc when you put the baby in a sling.
  • You can breastfeed discreetly in a sling, on the move too! I have never done this – seems to be to be advanced sling wearing as well as advanced breastfeeding, and I am no expert in either!
  • Amazingly, your periods are likely to come back much later if you wear your baby (assuming you are breastfeeding)! Something to do with the extra hormones produced when you carry your baby close to you.
  • Other fascinating facts include your boobs regulating your baby’s temperature! Yes, not just baby feeding machines (and, a lifetime ago, something of a thrill for your other half), your knockers are also central heating systems for baby carrying. This is especially good for premature babies, who also benefit from having their parent’s breathing close by to regulate their own – hence “Kangaroo Care” being a recommended approach for preemies11.

Conclusions

We have used our pram, twice now. Personally, I don’t like it – X was already almost 9 months before we used it and both of us were so used to him being in a sling I think it just felt odd to us. So, I am a firm convert of baby wearing. I know it is not for everyone, but I do find it hard to see the downside! I’m not doing a very good job of being objective on this article, am I? That said, I must admit that it is handy to have a friend with a pram who will let me pop extra bags etc in her basket – just as many husbands and boyfriends avail themselves of their partner’s handbag from time to time. But I cope, and the ease and convenience of being hands free makes up for the usefulness of somewhere to store my shopping when I have bought too much!

Personally, I find using a sling to be simple, safe, comfortable, easy, and allows me to cuddle my baby for long periods of time – what’s not to like?

As with any other piece of baby equipment, it is only safe if used properly. And there are hundreds of types of slings on the market, which is why I would suggest going to a store that sells a variety of slings and trying lots of them on with your baby (although these stores are like hens teeth!) or going to a “Sling Consultant” who can help you try on different ones. Both of these options ensure you are wearing your sling properly as well. Alternatively, you can hire slings to try from stores online, and there are millions of YouTube videos to help you with the carrying positions.

Be sensible, be safe, and wearing your baby could be one of the best things you ever did.

Sling the Sling or Sling the Baby?

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