All slings considered

Baby carriers, when chosen well and used correctly, can make travel with children easier, writes Angela Baura

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 04 November, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 04 November, 2012, 10:07am

When Naomi Tempany moved to Hong Kong three months ago, she struggled to explore the city with three children in tow and a baby in a stroller.

After a particularly frustrating MTR journey, she found a more convenient way of getting around town with her young family.

"I now carry my six-month-old son in a baby carrier, which means I can easily go wherever I want and keep my hands free to care for my older children," Tempany says.

While hi-tech strollers are favoured by many parents, a growing number find they prefer the intimacy and ease of having their child in a sling or carrier. A traditional practice in societies the world over, carrying babies has enjoyed a revival among urban sophisticates in the past two decades.

Gillian Anderson, a stay-at-home mother of two, uses a baby carrier to comfort her baby while she carries out chores at home. "Baby wearing allows me to hold my five-month-old close to me while I work. Carrying her also allows me to get around Hong Kong efficiently."

Baby wearing - the simple act of holding or carrying a child using a baby carrier - is a rising trend in Hong Kong and across Asia, according to Alexandra Dickson Leach, founder of Bloom & Grow, a distributor of maternity, baby and children's products. "Baby wearing offers parents convenience and freedom. It allows parents, grandparents and helpers to bond with baby, and carried babies are known to cry less."

There is evidence to support Dickson Leach's view. A 1990 study by Columbia University's College of Physicians and Surgeons found that early carrying in a soft carrier led to more maternal responsiveness and better attachment between mother and baby.

For Reshma Tourani, however, baby carrying proved to be an uncomfortable convenience. Carrying her son for 14 months, Tourani experienced excruciating back pain and, five years later, is still undergoing treatment. "Using the carrier ruined my back, but I had no choice. I couldn't carry my son and a diaper bag and get in and out of places," she says. "When my daughter was born two years ago, I couldn't use my baby carrier at all as my osteopath advised that it had weakened my muscles."

Parents and infants are at risk of injury or trauma if they do not use a carrier that appropriately supports both the parent's and baby's spine, says Dr Michelle Zhou, a chiropractor. The way a child should be carried is dependent on their stage of development, she says.

Babies up to three months old should be carried in a sling carrier with firm, breathable fabric. "Babies are born with a curved spine and very little neck control. They should be carried in an oblique to horizontal position, with head and bottom well supported in flexion, similar to how a mother would hold her baby in her arms," she says.

Dickson Leach advises that a hammock-style baby sling not only supports a newborn's developing spine but also allows mothers to bond with their babies, keep them warm, and breastfeed discreetly.

When a baby is about three months old, a mother should consider switching from a sling to a carrier with a broad-based seat to avoid uneven weight distribution across her back. Between the ages of three months and nine to 12 months, a typically developing baby will have better neck control, their spine will start to straighten, and they will be physically heavier. At the same time, the lumbar area of the spine and pelvis will still be undeveloped.

"A baby should be held in a carrier with a broad-based seat that ideally extends all the way to his knees. He should be facing his mother or father. This way, his lumbar spine and pelvis will be supported," Zhou says.

She reminds parents to tighten the straps of the carrier to avoid strain on their shoulders and thoracic spine.

Despite suffering chronic back pain since her early 20s, Ifat Kafry Hindes' condition has not been aggravated by baby wearing. Hindes wore her first baby in a sling for 18 months until she was five months' pregnant again. She intends to do the same with her newborn until she no longer needs to be carried.

"I chose two very good brands that would be beneficial for my babies' development, and that would sit on my hip and disperse the baby's weight properly," Hindes says. "My Hug-a-bub sling, which I use until my children are four months old, and my Ergobaby carrier do not hurt my back at all."

Most children start walking by the age of one, and their spinal curves are fully developed. Before that, when they become too heavy for a baby carrier, parents tend to carry their babies on their hips, which "can create substantial strain and imbalance on the spine and pelvis, particularly the sacroiliac joint," Zhou says.

Dickson Leach recommends a strap-on hip seat, which provides a firm shelf for children to sit on and allows mums to maintain an upright and neutral position.

Once parents have chosen a developmentally appropriate baby carrier, it is imperative that they wear it properly, to protect their backs and ensure their baby's safety.

Britain's Sling Manufacturers and Retailers Consortium says babies should be held tight, in view, close enough to kiss, with the chin off chest and the back supported.

"When done properly, baby wearing is completely safe and natural for parents and babies," Dickson Leach says.