In this article, we'll try to share the lessons we learned, with a goal of helping you choose the very best carrier for you and your baby.
Why Purchase a Baby Carrier?
Baby wearing is a great practice for keeping baby happy and to help build a stronger bond between you and your baby. Infants love the snug hold of being carried on your chest, and toddlers often love to be carried on your back. Carriers allow you to keep your baby close and content while leaving your hands free to perform other tasks.
Types of Baby Carriers
Although baby wearing has been around for centuries, today's technology and understanding have presented more choices than ever before. Today's carriers are evolved designs, modern-takes on the historic wraps, papooses, backpacks, and slings used in the past. There are five basic types of carriers: wraps, slings, mei-tais, soft-structured carriers, and frame backpacks. Below is a brief description of these five styles of carriers.
- Wrap — A long piece of fabric that wraps around you and your baby.
- Sling — A single piece of fabric that goes over one shoulder and forms a pouch to hold your baby in front of you or on your hip. We did not include any slings in our baby carrier review due to concerns about the risks of suffocation and hip dysplasia, particularly for newborns.
- Mei-Tai — A sort of hybrid between a wrap and a soft-structured carrier. A mei-tai has four straps attached to the main body of the carrier that can be tied in various ways to secure your baby.
- Soft-Structured Carrier — Similar to a backpack with padded straps and buckles, connected to the main body of the carrier.
- Baby Backpack — A carrier with a metal frame that is made for wearing your older baby or toddler on your back for long periods of time. For more information on baby backpacks, check out our Best Baby Backpack Review.
Wearing Baby Safely
In addition, we have an article titled Best Practice Tips for Baby Wearing that we encourage you to read for further information on safe babywearing.
If you are considering using a sling-type carrier, we also encourage you to take 3 minutes out of your day to watch this Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) video urging parents to use extra caution when using an infant sling:
Carry Positions and Holds
Not only are there several types of carriers, but most carriers offer a few different carry positions and/or holds. Versatility in carry positions is an important factor when selecting a carrier because as your baby grows, the most comfortable position to wear your baby will change. 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.
Some soft structured carriers like the Lillebaby COMPLETE All Seasons and the Beco Baby Gemini offer all four positions while others like the Boba 4G only offer two (front carry facing in, and front carry facing out). In addition to carry positions, many carriers, particularly the wraps, are capable of different types of "holds". The wrap-style carriers are a little different than the soft structured carriers in the types of carry positions they offer, and the techniques for accomplishing them. For example with the Baby K'tan, you can use the Kangaroo hold or the Hug hold, both while in using the front carry facing in position.
How to Choose the Best
What we see in the market today is a lot of quality choices, and many offer compelling and innovative designs. Yet, those choices leave many parents even more perplexed than ever about which carrier to buy.
Our testing experience left us feeling that two factors are more important than any other: simplicity and longevity. Why? The last thing we need as sleep-deprived parents is another complicated piece of baby gear that sits in the corner unused. A baby carrier that is simple yet comfortable is a winning combination for us. One of the Editors' Choice Award winners, the Tula Ergonomic Baby, is so intuitively designed that we didn't even need to read the instruction manual to figure out how to properly use it.
The "holy grail" of baby carriers is a product that can work from newborn to toddler, by allowing you to seamlessly shift baby carry positions and retain comfort in each stage. A carrier which works great in the first few months, may not perform well as your baby reaches 1 year and older. Until recently, that holy grail was a fantasy.
The fact is that when baby is a young infant (birth to 4 months), they weigh a wonderfully light (7 to 15 pounds). During those first months, a front carry position is ideal, with baby facing inward toward the parent, and combined with ample neck support. This is the BabyBjorn Original sweet spot and a big part of why this quality carrier has been a best seller for many years. The Baby K'tan also shines in this age range. It won Top Pick for use with young infants and we wholeheartedly recommend the product; it is simple, fast & easy to put on and off, and comfortable for both parent and newborn. But, once baby gets older and heavier, the virtues of competing designs, both from Baby K'tan and competitors, become more than evident. For example, in the 6-12 months age range when baby grows to over 20 lbs on average, many parents feel the BabyBjorn starts to become uncomfortable for extended wearing, and may cause neck/shoulder or back pain.
Ergobaby Four Position 360 which offers that coveted "front carry facing out" position.
For most of the last 10 years, many parents have faced a common dilemma in the carrier market: get the BabyBjorn, which excels for the first 4 months, or the Ergobaby, widely considered better for later months and years. Neither choice covered the full spectrum perfectly.
More Choices Today, and Better Choices
Today, carrier makers have innovated with new designs that attempt to cover the full age/weight spectrum with comfort from newborn to toddler by accommodating a broader range of carry positions. A whole slew of new solutions, from the premium priced $180 BabyBjorn One to the impressive Beco Gemini, have designed carriers to answer this versatility challenge. The two Editors' Choice Award winners from our 2015 review, the Tula Ergonomic Baby and the Onya Baby Outback can also take you from the newborn stage all the way through toddler-hood with the use of their sleek infant inserts. It's a lot to take in and consider, so we've evaluated and weighed these many options for you. Read on to find out what you should be looking for in a carrier.
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:
- Security — How secure is baby in the carrier?
- Support — Does the carrier provide proper head and neck support, especially to small infants?
- Ergonomics — Is baby supported in an ergonomically correct way for hips and spine?
- Health — Material quality and availability of carrier in organic fabrics
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 including: 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: Best Practice Tips for Baby Wearing
Lastly for safety, a carrier should contain baby in a close, well supported manner. We like carriers that have sturdy, wide front panels, and seats that come up nice and high on baby's back like the top scoring Tula Ergonomic Baby. The feeling that baby could either slip out or fail to maintain a position close enough to your body that feels ultra-secure should both be deal breakers. 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 and up high enough for you to kiss the top of their head are ideal. Baby's head and back should be supported properly as well. Soft structured carriers like the Onya Baby Outback, the Tula Ergonomic Baby, and the Ergobaby Four Position 360 do a really good job at this, especially since there is nothing (i.e. fabric) between you and baby. Wrap style carriers like the Moby Wrap Original and the Baby K'tan also keep baby in a close, womb-like swaddle.
A wider seat is also more comfortable, especially as baby gets bigger. It distributes their weight so they're not just dangling by the crotch. That is one competitive shortcoming of the much loved BabyBjorn Original and others in its line.
It's important to 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 criterion 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, but the Moby Wrap Modern and the Boba Wrap are more breathable and can indeed keep you and baby cooler, but we found they just didn't offer the same amount of support.
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 enjoy 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 often the best at this.
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 waistband is typically the best bet. A good waistband 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. The Lillebaby COMPLETE All Seasons offers added lumbar support but unfortunately it still wasn't as comfortable as our top-scorers.
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. It's not necessarily a design flaw, it's 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 toddler-hood, look for one with a high weight limit, like the Tula Ergonomic Baby or Onya Baby Outback 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 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 also wise to consider how easy it would be to use interchangeably between parents.
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 four rated carriers, Tula Ergonomic Baby, Onya Baby Outback, Baby K'tan and the Infantino Sash Mei Tai were all very simple and required minimal adjustments.
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. 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 Infantino Swift Classic, come with a removable "bib" to help keep them clean, but in our opinion that was just one extra piece to deal with and it wasn't even that absorbent, which rendered it pretty much useless in the end.
In conclusion we say go for a simple, versatile, yet supportive carrier. The carriers we tested that best fit the criteria above and were the most versatile were the soft structured carriers, our favorites being the Tula Ergonomic Baby and the Onya Baby Outback. Based on our experience, a carrier like this should suit you well into toddler-hood, 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 Tula or Onya as baby grows. We hope our rating and review process has helped narrow down the best option(s) for you and your family.