After months and months of extensive testing of top-rated baby carriers, we've learned a few things about their functionality and which features matter for parents on the go. With babywearing rising in popularity, the number of competing products has grown giving the modern parent a myriad of styles and choices to consider. In this article, we'll share the lessons we learned so you can narrow your options down to a few carriers that will work best for your baby and your budget.
Why Purchase a Baby Carrier?
Babywearing is a great practice for keeping your baby happy and building a stronger bond. Carriers allow you to keep your baby close and content while leaving your hands free to perform other tasks. The ability to hold and bond with baby while still getting things done almost makes a great baby carrier a must-have piece of baby gear.
Types of Baby Carriers
Although babywearing has been around for centuries, today's technology and techniques present more choices than ever before. Today's carriers are evolved modern-takes on the historic wraps, papooses, backpacks, and slings used in the past. There are five basic types of carriers: wrap, sling, mei-tai, soft-structured carrier, and frame backpacks. Below is a brief description of each.
- Wrap — This style is a long piece of fabric that wraps around you and your baby tying the loose ends to create a snug and secure resting place for little ones. Wraps are usually easy to clean and comfortable, but harder to use and often hot to wear.
- Sling — A sling is 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. Slings usually adjust by pulling the loose end of the fabric through rings near your shoulder.
- Mei-Tai — This style is a hybrid between a wrap and a soft-structured carrier. A mei-tai has four straps attached to the main body of the carrier (that resembles a soft structured carrier body) and can be tied in various ways.
- Soft Structured Carrier (SSC) — A SSC has padded straps and a thick waistband connected to the main body. They are often adjustable with extra integrity to help support and disperse your baby's weight on your hips and shoulders.
- Baby Backpack — A backpack carrier is for wearing your older baby or toddler on your back for long periods of time. Since this type is not suitable for infants and younger babies, we discuss it separately in our Best Baby Backpack Review.
Wearing Baby Safely
It is important to follow safe use practices when wearing your baby at any age in any carrier. Very small infants are particularly susceptible to airway compromise while being held in a carrier as they have less head and neck control. The UK based School of Babywearing has a very handy babywearing safety acronym called T.I.C.K.S. shown below.
Also, we encourage you to read our Best Practice Tips for Baby Wearing for further information on safe babywearing. While babywearing can be very convenient and fulfilling, it isn't without inherent risks and the more you know, the safer you can be.
If you are considering using a sling carrier, we also encourage you to take 3 minutes out of your day to watch the video below from the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) urging parents to use extra caution when using an infant sling.In the past, poorly designed slings and a lack of knowledge led to unfortunate and largely preventable infant deaths. While several of our award winners are slings, and slings can be very safe when you use them properly, we still believe you should know and understand how to use slings safely to avoid complications.
Carrying Positions and Holds
Not only are there several types of carriers, but most carriers offer a few different carry positions and holds. Versatility in carrying positions is an important factor when selecting a product because as the 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 that position can restrict or limit the use of one of your hands depending on the carrier.
The carriers in this review range from 1 to 5 possible carry positions. Most of the competition offers three or four positions with manufacturers counting forward front carry and facing parent front carry as two different options. Also, some carriers, particularly the wrap style, are capable of different types of "holds." For example with the Baby K'tan suggests a Kangaroo hold or the Hug hold, both performed while wearing your baby in the front carry facing in position.
How to Find the Best Carrier for You
After testing multiple carriers in this review and years past, we find that the market is full of many quality choices. Many of which offer as many compelling and innovative designs and fabric choices as there are new babies to fill them. However, those options leave many parents more perplexed than ever about which carrier to buy and why. Even determining which style of carrier is right for you can be difficult, not to mention which option within that style is the best.
Our testing left us feeling that two factors are more important than any other: comfort and ease of use. Why? First, if a carrier isn't comfortable, you won't use it. Whether it has you or your baby squirming and wincing, an uncomfortable carrier is more likely to end up sitting in a closet somewhere than out and about on adventures. Second, the last thing sleep-deprived parents is another complicated piece of baby gear that goes unused because of the time and effort involved. A simple but comfortable baby carrier is a winning combination.
How long will you wear your baby?
Some parents believe the "holy grail" of baby carriers is a product that can work from newborn to toddler, by allowing seamless carry positions changes while retaining comfort in each stage. A carrier that works well in the first few months may not perform well as your baby reaches a year and beyond. However, if you only plan to use your carrier until your baby is a specific weight or age, and can't imagine carrying a toddler off your front side, then this fantasy carrier is unlikely to impress you, and a simpler more infant suited option may be what is best for your family and budget.
Determining how long you plan to carry your little one can save you time, money, and frustration down the road. While it is true that many new parents may be unable to answer this question before the baby arrives, others will already know that they have limitations in desire or physical prowess that may limit how much weight they can/want to carry. A great economical wrap may be all you need if you plan to stop carrying your little one after they can sit up on their own. But a wrap will be a little harder to use with a 30 lb squirming toddler and the stretchy fabric and lack of structure may have you gritting your teeth and wishing you'd invested in a soft structured carrier with more support for you and your little monster.
The fact is that when your baby is a young infant (birth to 4 months), they weigh a wonderfully light (7 to 15 lbs). During those first months, a front carry position is ideal, with baby facing inward toward the parent, and combined with ample neck support. This weight zone is the BabyBjorn Original sweet spot and a big part of why this quality carrier has been a best seller for many years. The wrap style products also shine in this age range. But, once the baby gets older and heavier, the virtues of competing designs become more than evident. For example, in the 6-12 months age range when your baby can be over 20 lbs on average, many parents feel the BabyBjorn Original is uncomfortable for extended wearing and may cause neck/shoulder or back pain because it lacks a waistband link the BabyBjorn One which is far easier for carrying children up to 33 lbs. The One's weight limit is a full 8 lbs over the limit of the Original.
Wearing baby on your back is another great way to get longevity out of a carrier as your baby grows. However, many of the options do not work in this position including most of the wraps and slings. So if you plan to wear your child as long as possible and can't imagine their feet ever touching the ground, then you'll want a carrier with a wide weight range and multiple carry positions for the long haul. The Tula Free-to-Grow is good for carrying children from 7-45 lbs, the largest range in this review, on your front or your back.
Is it comfortable?
Wearing your baby should keep baby happy and make your life easier. But, if your baby isn't comfortable, neither of these things will happen. Babies need to feel secure to feel comfortable and safe. Carriers that hold baby close to your body and up high enough for you to kiss the top of their heads are ideal (and safe!). The baby's head and back should be supported properly as well. Soft-structured carriers do an outstanding job at this. Wrap style carriers also keep baby in a close, almost womb-like swaddle but the fabric gives to allow freedom of movement and a natural curved back body posture. Wider seat bottoms or larger "pockets" for baby's tushie also make a carrier more comfortable for little ones, so they aren't dangling from their crotch (ouch!).
The most comfortable babywearing position will change as baby grows. Young infants in their "fourth trimester" (0-3 months) feel comfort tightly swaddled or snuggled up close to their parents in front carry facing in position. Around four 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 older babies become more active and progress through the toddler years, riding in the back carry position provides the opportunity to take in their surroundings comfortably for both parent and child. None of the slings have a back carry position, and the Storchenwiege Woven Wrap is the only wrap with a back carry option. However, most have a hip carry position that allows for both forward and back visibility.
Your comfort needs will change over time as your little one gets bigger and more mobile. Newborns and smaller infants are relatively easy to carry, and most parents can do so for more extended periods of time. As your baby starts to grow, you'll soon see the advantages of padded shoulder straps and the additional support of a waistband to help distribute your baby's weight to keep greater adventures comfortable. Being able to change positions or make minor adjustments on the go is also important to staying comfortable as the day passes. Carriers with multiple positions or easy adjustments are the best choices. Slings allow for quick, small changes for fit or comfort and work for parents and little ones of various sizes for a custom fit. Soft-structured carriers with ample shoulder padding, great waistband support and the ability to tighten or loosen straps as needed to shift baby's weight or to find a more comfortable position are comfy with older or larger babies.
How much effort does it take?
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 some have more of a learning curve than others. Wraps are far more difficult to learn and use, but they are budget-friendly and super easy to keep clean. Soft-structured carriers have lots of buckles and straps, but their increased adjustability means more comfort and most of them let you put the carrier on before you pick up your baby. You'll want to consider how much effort and time you are willing to put into using the carrier and the type you choose will be based on the time and method you think will work best for you and your family. How difficult is it to put on the carrier? Do you need to hold the baby while you put it on? Are there methods you'll need to memorize? Is it adjustable for size, so it can be interchanged between parents easily? Slings are super easy, they slip right on have a single adjustment point, and are easily sized for parents and babies, even on the go.
With so many carriers to choose from it can be difficult to know where to start or how to narrow the field of options. In the end, you can't go wrong with a simple, versatile, and supportive carrier. With the three questions above in mind, you should be able to narrow the high-ranking products down to one or two best choices. If you aren't sure how you will use a carrier, or for how long, you may consider dipping a toe in the carrier pond with an inexpensive wrap which is excellent for newborns. As your little ones grow and you get a better idea of your needs and goals, then you can make a more substantial purchase to last the remainder of your babywearing years. Here's to a long life of babywearing and keeping baby calm, cool, and collected in a bond building baby carrier.