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.
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 baby's 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 user's manual for extremely important safety information pertaining to each individual carrier.
Wearing your baby should keep baby happy and make your life easier. But, if baby isn't 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. Baby's 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 K'tan also keep baby in a close, womb-like swaddle.
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 "mesh" option (see ERGObaby Performance or BabyBjorn Air) which can indeed keep you and baby cooler, but we found they just didn't offer the same amount of support.
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 parent's back (back carry). Riding on a parent's side (hip carry) is another popular option but we didn't 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.
Most carriers can handle a newborn baby pretty well. It's 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 baby's weight so your shoulders don't 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 weren't as versatile as our top-scorers.
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 you've 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. It's 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.
Beco Baby Gemini, Baby K'tan and the Infantino Sash Mei Tai were all very simple and required minimal adjustments and no extra pieces.
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 "bib" to help keep it clean, but in our opinion that was just one extra piece to deal with. Most, like the Infantino Swift, weren't even that absorbent, which renders them pretty much useless as well.
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 we're not against having a couple of different carriers for different stages or occasions. In our opinion, the perfect combo would be the Baby K'tan 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.
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).
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.