Safe Babywearing by Jessica Richards
Baby slings have had a bit of bad press recently. In March 2010, Infantino recalled its 'Slingrider' because of a US$220m lawsuit set on them by the mother of 7 day old Derrick Fowler, who asphyxiated in their sling. At least 7 babies have died in this same design of sling (3 of those in 2009 alone) and another 37 injured in sling related accidents.
So what makes these particular slings so bad, and what can we as parents do to avoid safety problems with baby carriers?
These represent most of the danger. Shaped like a duffel bag, they force babies into a 'C' position, effectively cutting off their windpipe- worse than the concern over baby capsules. What little air they can get is stale and rebreathed due to the cinched in drawstrings or thick elastic edges. It is nigh impossible to monitor baby for the same reason.
These slings are also uncomfortable for the parents, having thin straps which cut into the shoulder and lolling around the body like a handbag, away from your centre of gravity. If you have one, do NOT use it. Throw it away, so no other baby is in danger. There is just NO safe way to use these, especially for newborns.
General safety points
Baby's face should always be visible in any carrier you use. Never cover their nose/mouth with fabric or allow them to smoosh into your chest so they snuffle. Monitor your baby closely every few minutes (easy to do when they're 'close enough to kiss') making sure you can always get a finger or two between their chin and chest.
Listen for laboured breathing or wheezing.
With a pouch sling and ring sling, it is important that baby's back and neck are always straight. This is helped by putting baby in a diagonal position in the carrier- bum in close to you and head touching the outside edge. (See Slingbabies.co.nz for detailed instructions.) Pull up the inside edge to make your sling more shallow, if baby seems to be disappearing down too much.
When feeding in a sling, reposition baby's face upwards once they're finished, as they can smother under mother's breast.
Always use a carrier that mimics the way you hold baby naturally. If it hangs baby down away from you and slouching, it is NOT a good one.
Refer to TNP Autumn issue for what to look for when choosing a baby carrier.
If you have a Nature's Sway, look for the line of stitching going diagonally across the sling and position baby's spine along it. Do not put them along the main folded seam as it will curl them too much. Cinch the ladder-lock in tight so baby is as high and snug as possible.
Babywearing out and about
Be aware of your extra width and depth when wearing your baby. Those little toes stick out further than normal! Be extra cautious in the kitchen if you really must wear them when cooking (not usuall advised) I back carry if necessary so they're up and out of the way- even then, little feet like to kick where they shouldn't! Watch out for low/slim doorways.
Take the weather into account- make sure any exposed parts are appropriately protected from cold or sun. Sunblock/hats are essential especially for back carried babies! Also, keep an eye on what your back carried baby is doing when you're shopping, or you might leave with more items than you intended - a little embarrassing!
Do NOT babywear for any activity that requires safety gear, e.g. horse riding, cycling, rock climing(!) driving a car. We love to wear our babies but sometimes it is just not possible or advised!
Take your own fitness and needs into account when choosing your carrier for the day. A pouch for a 5km hike will hurt before long, and wearing your 18kg toddler for 3 hours after a year's break will hurt more!
There are no studies that definitively show frontpacks are damaging to babies. The upright, legs-down position is not as comfortable as the frogleg optimum position. Babies' spines are not designed to take the weight of their body, and their genitals don't like it too much either. In some very rare cases Spondylolisthesis may develop from the stress on the spine.
This is alarming, but ultimately the benefits of being close to their parent as opposed to stuck in a stroller, outweigh the discomfort. Unfortunately frontpacks do get very uncomfortable very quickly, depending on brand and design. But if they are used sensibly with attention paid to cinching it snug for back support, they can be a useful babywearing tool and get many of us hooked into babywearing!
What should I do if I see a dangerous looking carrier? Polite and cheerful is the way to go, just approach casually. Praise them for wearing their beautiful baby, and ask if you can show them a more comfortable way to wear it. You could suggest a different type, or that they have a look on Slingbabies for some ideas. If it's a bag sling, you could mention the Slingrider recall and how they may have noticed the same problem of snuffling and discomfort. Many people get them as gifts and have no idea about the danger. You can direct them to our Bag Sling page for info. They may or may not be receptive, but hopefully you'll plant a seed of question in their mind and they will do the research for themselves.
With a bit of common sense and a well designed baby carrier, babywearing is very safe and enjoyable. Baby is up out of harm's way and close to you, their main shelter from the wide world. They rely on us to keep them safe. Let's keep it that way!
Jessica Richards is a mother of 3, ex-teacher, LLL Leader and founder of Slingbabies- a non-profit babywearing group and website.
Next issue: Special Babywearing.