I am told that even though baby carrier choices are expanding, the only obvious option to most parents, especially those looking to big box stores for guidance, is the Baby Bjorn and its various knock-offs. A lot of parents have ended up equating babywearing with the Bjorn, and I come across parents all the time who say that their children, especially their boys, hate babywearing, because they only encountered that one specific type of carrier.
Not every child dislikes them, because they don't cause pain, maybe just some discomfort, especially if a boy's little penis gets squished as gravity puts pressure on the pelvic bone.
The real health problem with wearing a baby in a "dangling" narrow-bottomed carrier like the Bjorn is that it forces an unnatural and unhealthy stretching in the hip joints as gravity pulls the legs straight down.As it turns out, the International Hip Dysplasia Institute has an explanation–the bottom support fabric of these carriers is too narrow, which allows gravity to cause discomfort.
As the International Hip Dysplasia Institute explains, it can take a while before babies adjust to life with more space:
After birth, it takes several months for the joints to stretch out naturally. Babies that have been in the breech (bottom first) position may need even more time to stretch out naturally. If the hips are forced into a stretched-out position too early, the ball is at risk of permanently deforming the edges of the cup shaped socket (hip dysplasia) or gradually slipping out of the socket altogether (hip dislocation). Hip dysplasia or dislocation in babies is not painful so this may go undetected until walking age and may also result in painful arthritis during adulthood. - IHDI
Here's an illustration of the type of carrier that is not recommended:
and an illustration of why:
See why it might be a shock for Baby to go from that knees-to-chest position in the womb to the straight-leg position pictured above? The Bjorn and the similarly designed Chicco carrier I recently encountered lets gravity pull a baby's legs into an unnatural position (even though it looks natural to an adult, because we obviously need to straighten out our legs to walk). The thing to really note here, so I'm going to repeat it, is that while this might be uncomfortable enough to cause your baby to resist to or fuss at being worn in this way, it's not going to cause screaming pain. The child may adjust to the carrier just fine without a complaint. That's why the IHDI has issued such a detailed report on the subject.
How Your Carrier SHOULD Look
Here's what you want your carrier to look like, when you look in the mirror:
And here's why:
The rule that helps me is that you want the knees bent and hugging your body. See how the wide-bottomed carrier in this illustration works with gravity to keep those knees up? That's good! Your child should be kicking his legs out to your sides, not kicking you in the groin. Not getting kicked in the groin? That's also good!
You Have Choices
There are two types of carriers that look like the illustration above, and many retailers have weighted dolls on hand for you to try them out with a "baby" and everything. The types of safe babywearing carriers are called the "Mei Tei"/"Asian Style" carrier and the "Soft-Structured"/"Buckle" carrier; the difference is that the former has ties that hold it on, while the latter has buckles.
Babyhawk is a much-beloved company that makes a Mei Tei and a soft-structured-hybrid-style carrier. They also have a fun feature that lets you pick the fabric to design your own carrier.
My favorite carrier in the buckle category is the new Onya carrier, but the Ergo is great, too. And if you want to wear your newborn with either carrier, Ergo sells an insert that provides the extra support you'll need–it even comes in organic! (Onya is developing an insert, but this family run company is fairly new and still growing, so they recommend using Ergo's insert for now.)
It is 100% worth the time to try out the different types, because some are better on different body types. I hear more petite mamas rave about Mei Teis, while dad's rave about the Ergo. If you're going in for a buckle/soft-structure carrier, know that you'll be spending a bit more; the engineering and construction behind these is pretty intense, so forgive the price tag. (Mei Tei's use gravity to keep the knots you tie nice and tight, but gravity is not so kind to plastic buckles!) It's more important with structured carriers than with any other type to try out a few different brands, because each one seems to work differently on different body types.
Read the Box Carefully
Please pay close attention when buying a carrier and planning its use to the age and weight limits, especially on the lower end. In other words, if the company tells you not to put a newborn or baby under 15 lbs in a carrier, don't do it! You could cut off the child's air supply, because the tiny ones sink too far down–that's what the insert I mentioned is for. It really is necessary if you're going to use a buckle carrier with a newborn! The upside is that most of the buckle carriers are real workhorses. They'll last as long as you can handle carrying the weight of your kid–well into toddlerhood.
Please visit the IHDI site, because they have really great info on to car seats and slings, with easy-to-understand illustrations and simple explanations. You can see how to properly settle a baby into a car seat (very important if Baby to sleeps in the seat or spends a lot of time in the car long trips) as well as how to properly position a baby in a pouch or ring sling. If you swaddle your baby, visit their page on hip-healthy swaddling for great tips that help you avoid constricting those little legs too much.
What they don't cover are the wraps, but that's easy: when wrapping a baby up in a Moby® Wrap or other fabric wrap, keep those legs in the shape of the letter M, with Baby's bottom making the dip in the middle of the letter and knees making the two peaks.
This becomes less pronounced as Baby grows and can hug your body, but the "M" rule helped me a lot when I was wearing an eight-week-old. When she does get a bit older, you can use that illustration right there to help you tuck the fabric under Baby's bottom to make sure she's still getting good hip support.
The Feminist Breeder has a great review of all the types of baby carriers out there, if you're looking for more info about each of them, and she pays close attention to healthy orthopedic development, so it's a review I love to promote.
Finally, if you have used a Bjorn or other narrow-bottomed carrier–don't panic!
It takes quite a bit of time in a carrier/seat or sling to do long-term damage. A few trips around the block won't do irreversible damage. But you'll definitely want to invest in a new carrier to avoid the risk. If, like me, you wear your baby around the house, to the store, on walks, to the park and everywhere else, please study the illustrations and choose a carrier that works for you and your baby's hip health. It's not necessarily a big investment. If you're up for taking on the learning curve of the fabric wrap, you'll spend under $75. A ring sling is under $100. Look out for giveaways and hand-me-downs, and check out Craigslist and tag sales! I won my Moby wrap and my sister passed her ring sling on to me after her kids outgrew it. My OnyaBaby is coming soon, and I can't wait!
Anne-Marie Lindsey is a stay-at-home-mom, aspiring HypnoBirthing Instructor, mental illness fighter, wife, dog owner and auntie. I write about everything, including the beautiful, fun, peaceful, scary, stigmatized and painful on my personal blog, Do Not Faint where motherhood meets depression and anxiety!