How to Choose the Best Baby Carrier

Buying Advice
By Juliet Spurrier, MD and Lindsay Ellis - Sunday March 31, 2013
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Wearing your baby in a carrier can be a joy for both baby and Mom.
After three months of extensive testing on the 15 top rated baby carriers, we learned quite a few things about what's important, and which product features really matter in day-to-day use. With their popularity increasing,competing products have taken on many varieties and styles, giving the modern parent a myriad of choices to consider. After trying each one out ourselves, we had a pretty good idea regarding what qualities make up a really good carrier.

In this article, we'll try try to share the lessons we learned, with a goal of helping you choose the very best carrier for you and your baby.

Babyís Safety
To begin, baby has to be safe! To this end, you'll see that we rated each product on a 0-10 scale for "Baby's Safety" where we considered factors such as how secure was baby in the carrier, does the carrier provide proper head and neck support to infants, the ergonomics of baby's support (especially as that relates to risk of hip dysplasia), and eco-health considerations such as whether an organic fabric was available as an option.

But, baby's safety isn't just about the carrier you use, it is also about how you use it. Used improperly, there are real risks: suffocation, hip dysplasia, or dropping baby. To that end, we've put together a separate article with best-practice guidelines for safe baby wearing we encourage you to read:
Lastly for safety, a carrier should contain baby in a close, well supported manner. We liked carriers that had sturdy, wide front panels, and seats that came up nice and high on babyís back like the top scoring Beco Baby Gemini. The feeling that baby could either slip out or fail to maintain a position close enough to the parent's body to really be secure should both be both deal breakers for you. In all situations, please refer to your userís manual for extremely important safety information pertaining to each individual carrier.

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The black strap behind the buckle on the ERGObaby Original is a safety feature we appreciate and can still be managed with one hand.
Credit: Lindsay Ellis
We also considered eco-health in our scoring. Your baby is probably going to be snuggled right up to the carrier material, even teething on it at times, so itís an important consideration. Many of the carriers we tested were made of 100% organic cotton, or they at least offer that option. Itís usually just a few dollars more, and we think itís a smart investment.

Babyís Comfort
Wearing your baby should keep baby happy and make your life easier. But, if baby isnít comfortable, neither of these things will happen. Babies need to feel secure in order to feel comfortable and safe. Carriers that hold baby really close to your body are ideal. Babyís head and back should be supported properly as well. Soft structured carriers like the ERGObaby Original, Beco Baby Gemini and the Boba G3 do a really good job at this as there is nothing (i.e. fabric) between you and baby. Wrap style carriers like the Moby Original and the Baby Kítan also keep baby in a close, womb-like swaddle.

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Ultimate comfort. We love that you can tuck baby's head under the soft material of the K'tan for extra snuggles or if they fall asleep.
Credit: Lindsay Ellis
A wider seat is also more comfortable, especially as baby gets bigger. It distributes their weight so theyíre not just dangling by the crotch. That is one competitive shortcoming of the much loved BabyBjorn Original and others in its line.

Look for a carrier that is made from material that is ultra-soft; baby will often have areas of skin exposed to it. Most of the carriers we tested fit this criteria pretty well. Also think about the breathability of the material. Wraps like the Moby Wrap Original can tend to feel a little more confining and hot. Many carrier lines have a sport or ďmeshĒ option (see ERGObaby Performance or BabyBjorn Air) which can indeed keep you and baby cooler, but we found they just didnít offer the same amount of support.

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Only a few of the carriers we reviewed, such as the Beco Baby Gemini, performed well with all four of the carrying positions shown above
Credit: Beco Baby

The different ways baby can be positioned can offer more comfort as well. The higher end products can be quite the investment financially so we highly recommend choosing one that offers several different carry positions, and offer strong performance throughout baby's development from newborn through toddler. As illustrated above, the Beco Baby Gemini can accomodate 4 different positions, and in our tests, proved a strong performer on each. The most common carry positions are riding on the front of the parent, facing either in (front carry facing in) or out (front carry facing out), or riding piggy-back on parentís back (back carry). Riding on a parent's side (hip carry) is another popular option but we didnít really care for that position as it usually ties up one of your hands.

The most comfortable baby wearing position will change as baby grows. Young infants in their "fourth trimester" (0-3 months) feel comfort tightly swaddled or snuggled up closely to their parents in front carry facing in position. Around 4 months of age, babies typically become more social and tend to prefer the front carry facing out position which allows them to begin exploring and interacting with the world around them. And, as an older infant becomes more active and progresses through the toddler years, riding in the back carry position offers the chance to continue to take in their surroundings in a comfortable way for both parent and child. Again, the soft structured carriers are probably the best at this, and of the ones we tested, the Beco Baby Gemini offered the most positions.

Parentís Comfort
Most carriers can handle a newborn baby pretty well. Itís once your baby reaches that 15 pound mark that you might start to feel the strain a carrier can put on your shoulders, neck and back. Shoulder strain is by far the biggest complaint of baby wearers, so we really paid close attention to that during our tests. A carrier with wide, well padded straps and a waist belt is typically the best bet. A good waist belt can make all the difference as it can support the majority of babyís weight so your shoulders donít have to. When it comes to shoulder padding, the more the better is a good motto to have. A couple of carriers like the BabyBjorn Miracle and the Stokke My Carrier also offer added lumbar support but unfortunately just werenít as versatile as our top-scorers.

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Shoulder strap comparison: ERGObaby Original is on the left while the lesser-padded ERGObaby Performance is on the right. Extra padding made a noticeable difference in comfort for us.
Credit: Lindsay Ellis
Variety of positions is as important for the parent as it is for the baby. None of the carriers we tested accommodated a toddler in a front carry position very well at all. Itís not necessarily a design flaw, itís more that the size of a child over a year starts to get a little awkward when hanging from your front side, not to mention that little grabbing hands and kicking feet are ready to create all kinds of mischief. If you want to use the carrier into toddlerhood, look for one with a high weight limit (around 35 pounds) that can be used in piggy back mode.

Ease-of-Use
With all kinds of straps, buckles, snaps, pouches and zippers, some of these products can be pretty complicated to use. For the most part, once youíve used one a few times it becomes more fluid, but they all most certainly have a bit of a learning curve to overcome. The carriers we tested were given their score partially on how easy they were to use. This meant from straight out of the box, to getting baby in place, and then adjusting and changing positions if needed. Itís even wise to consider how easy it would be to use interchangeably between parents. Some of the instruction manuals left a lot to be desired, the worst being the Stokke My Carrier.

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Struggling to get baby in the Stokke My Carrier for a back carry.
Credit: Lindsay Ellis
Some carriers had special attachments or inserts that were needed to accommodate different sizes of babies. In the end, simple is usually better. Our top three rated carriers, The Beco Baby Gemini, Baby Kítan and the Infantino Sash Mei Tai were all very simple and required minimal adjustments and no extra pieces.

Ease-of-Cleaning
These products are going to get drooled on, spit up on, thrown into diaper bags and strollers and more so they need to be fairly easy to clean. Obviously, being able to throw it in the washer and dryer is ideal, which many of the carriers can handle, and you can also consider spot cleaning. Some carriers like the Cybex 2.Go and the Britax Baby Carrier come with a removable ďbibĒ to help keep it clean, but in our opinion that was just one extra piece to deal with. Most, like the Infantino Swift, werenít even that absorbent, which renders them pretty much useless as well.

Conclusion
In conclusion we say go for a simple, yet supportive carrier. The carriers we tested that best fit the criteria above and were the most versatile were the soft structured carriers, our favorite being the Beco Baby Gemini. We think a carrier like this should suit you well into toddlerhood, but weíre not against having a couple of different carriers for different stages or occasions. In our opinion, the perfect combo would be the Baby Kítan for use with a newborn and then move on to a sturdier, more versatile carrier like the Beco as baby grows. We hope our rating and review process has helped narrow down the best option(s) for you and your family.

Baby Slings Not Recommended
As a final word of advice, we want to share our opinion on sling-type carriers.

Over the last 20 years, the Consumer Product Safety Commission has confirmed 14 infant suffocation deaths with sling type carriers.

Slings can pose two different types of suffocation hazards to babies. In the first few months of life, babies cannot control their heads because of weak neck muscles. The slingís fabric can press against an infantís nose and mouth, blocking the babyís breathing and rapidly suffocating a baby within a minute or two. Additionally, where a sling keeps the infant in a curled position bending the chin toward the chest, the airways can be restricted, limiting the oxygen supply. The baby will not be able to cry for help and can slowly suffocate. - CPSC Advisory on Baby Sling Safety

In addition, the leg position often used with newborns in sling-type carriers keeps the legs straight, rather than bent, which can contribute to hip dysplasia issues (see illustration below from the International Hip Dysplasia Institute). For these reasons, we strongly urge parents to avoid sling-type carriers until their baby is old enough for a hip-carry position in the sling (typically age > 4months).

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The International Hip Dysplasia institute diagram above shows how keeping baby's hips flexed at an angle, is healthier. Keeping legs straight for a sustained period of time in the first year is known to increase risk of hip dysplasia issues.
Credit: hipdysplasia.org

While we recognize that sling-type carriers have many fans, and have been used for centuries, we can't ignore the health and safety issues: between credible concerns about suffocation risk and hip dysplasia risk, we can't recommend them for use with newborns. That said, once baby is old enough for a hip-carry position both suffocation and hip dysplasia issues are mitigated and the sling-type carriers are good choices, competitive with others.
Juliet Spurrier, MD
About the Author
Dr. Juliet Baciocco Spurrier is a board certified pediatrician, mother of two, and founder of BabyGearLab. Juliet earned her Bachelor of Arts degrees in Anthropology and Italian Literature from the University of California at Berkeley and her Medical degree from Georgetown University School of Medicine in Washington DC. She completed her pediatric residency at the Doernbecher Children's Hospital at Oregon Health & Science University in Portland, OR, and subsequently practiced pediatrics in both the Pacific Northwest and Silicon Valley. Juliet serves as Mom-in-Chief at BabyGearLab, where she oversees all baby product review activity, assuring that each review delivers on our commitment to quality.

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