Almost Fearless

The Ultimate Baby Carrier Guide for Traveling Parents

You have an adventure in mind. Maybe a big adventure – a multi-day camping trip! – or a smaller, but no less compelling adventure, like a stroll through the Roman Forum and down the Via Appia. And that adventure comes with a baby in tow.

Whatever you choose to call it – a carrier, a pod, a car seat – you can’t take it there. Or if you can, you need an expensive and enormous stroller system, cumbersome in the extreme, which will bounce over cobblestones and run into passers-by. Maybe your newborn needs carried close. Maybe your infant needs to see the world, not the sky above her wheeled conveyance. Maybe your toddler can only toddle for a block or two, or your preschooler can only make it about a mile before collapsing and, slug-like, refusing to move.

Basically, you need a baby carrier. Some kind of conveyance you can affix to your body by means of ties or buckles, into which you can insert your baby (preschooler) and get going. You don’t want to wait until your kids are older, or better behaved, or have better stamina. You want to go. And you want to go now. And with the right carrier, you can.

There are several different basic types of baby carriers. I’ll tell you the pros and cons of each one, the adventures, ages, and bodies they’re best suited for, and what you can buy a what type of price point.

Backpack Carrier

This is the old standard of baby carriers. It’s tall. It’s wide. It’s deep, and it’s bulky as all heck. It has a frame, a chest strap, and an often-floating waist strap. Baby goes in the back and sits in a narrow base that only offers support to his crotch. This isn’t ideal: imagine sitting on a fence rail, legs dangling, for a long period of time. Of course, you’re not wearing a diaper, but it’s not exactly ergonomic. You can help baby be more comfortable by putting a towel sideways in the seat, which spreads his legs a little more and takes up a little more of his weight. For all the opprobrium heaped on this type of seat by babywearers, however, my older sons (backpack babies up til age 5-6) have never complained, even on 3 mile + hikes.

Pogo AG, Mijo Journey

This carrier is best for babies over six months, and can last you up to preschool and beyond, depending on the size of your kids (mine are tiny). Most babywearing educators recommend you not wear your baby on your back until four months. Before that, only experienced wearers in a wrap or a beh dai should try it, and then only with baby right up on the back of their neck, so they can monitor their breathing. Babies tend to fall asleep in backpack carriers, and when they do, they slump forward. They need the neck control to prevent their windpipe from crimping and causing oxygen deprivation or suffocation.

But for all its depth and bulk, backpack carriers have a huge advantage over other baby carriers: they’re the only ones who can carry your stuff. While some soft-structured carriers include a small backpack attachment, and you can always stuff things in the passes of a wrap carry, a backpack carrier is your only option, save a helper dog or other human, for carrying baby needs, camelbacks, nalgenes, granola, bug spray, sun screen – you get the picture.

This is THE carrier for soloing a hike. Period. You can’t go into the woods without gear, and you need something to put the gear in. However, it’s too bulky to do much of anything else.

Several different companies make different backpack carriers. Deuter’s Kid Comfort Carrier I ($199) has the basics, and, like other carriers of this type, holds the kid away from you to keep both of you cooler. Its Kid Comfort Carrier III ($299), on the other hand, has all the bells and whistles: a built-in sunroof, chin-rest, side entry, rearview mirror, and higher gear capacity. Only Osprey’s most expensive option, the POGO AG Premium ($330) has an adjustable hipbelt and removable daypack; all three of its carriers have a much larger footprint than any other brand on the market. Kelty has an array of backpack carriers available, from the basic Mijo ($139), which has very little gear space, to the more complicated Tour, Journey, and Pathfinder (you can find a great comparison of their specs on the Kelty site).

Soft-structured Carrier

Three years ago, you’d have no idea what I was talking about. Now, when I say “Ergo” or “a buckle carrier”, you probably imagine a carrier with a panel the holds the baby in, shoulder straps that connect via a chest strap (much like your backpack carrier or, for that matter, actual backpack), and a heavily padded waistband. Some types of SSCs, including Beco Geminis and Action Baby Carriers, have shoulder straps that unsnap so you can wear them backpack-style when baby is on your back, and crossed behind you when baby is on your front (much more comfy in a front carry). Otherwise, you may find yourself groping to snap a chest strap behind your back when baby’s on your front.

You can use an SSC from the time baby is born, though most manufacturers recommend waiting until 8 pounds. Carriers that snap inward or get narrower, such as the Gemini and Action Baby Carrier, are a better choice for newborns than ones that require an infant insert, such as an Ergo or a Tula. In addition to detracting from ergonomics, infant inserts are hot. Pretty much every other carrier on the market, including the Lillebaby and Boba, require one.

While some of these carriers brag that they can face  out (Gemini and Lillebaby among them), babywearing educators don’t recommend it. First, your baby can easily get overstimulated, and when they’re facing outward, they have no way to turn away from that stimulation – leading to crankiness and misery. Second, baby is leaning forward. You’re bracing backwards to hold baby up. This is a chiropractic nightmare.          There are plenty of other options for under six month babies who absolutely need to see (we’ll get there).

A good SSC can last you from a newborn all the way to an older toddler. My three-year-old still rides in my Action Baby Carrier. SSC’s not only work well for all ages, they do well in all climates – because they hold the baby less tightly against you, they’re perfect for the heat.

SSCs, or, as my husband calls them, buckle carriers, are great for people who like, well, buckles. While they can be a pain to adjust between caregivers, the same way a backpack would be, they can be well-worth it for someone who’s intimidated about learning a “more complicated” carrier. While you can adjust to nurse in them, it’s not as easy as some other carriers, and you may find that you need to take the baby out entirely to bottle-feed.

SSCs are a great choice for an all-around baby carrier for your adventures. Ergo has a discontinued backpack that attaches to their carrier, but that’s no longer sold (though you can find one on the secondary market). They’re wonderful for a hike, especially since, adjusted correctly, their weight should sit on your hips, like a good backpack. Many parents use them as their only carrier for all their errands, trips, and shopping, from newborn to toddler.

Ergos and Tulas are now ubiquitous, and you can likely try them on at your local Target. Buy. Buy Baby does the same for Lillebaby, which tends to be more expensive. If you’d like an American-made product that has a little bit of a lower price point, Action Baby Carrier is a fantastic choice. It’s important to always buy your SSC from an authorized dealer (Amazon is not an authorized dealer), as there have been major counterfeit issues with several different brands. These counterfeit carriers are of inferior make, and have broken while being worn.

Beh Dais, Meh Dais

Formerly known as mei tais, these carriers look like SSCs with long straps instead of buckles: a panel with four straps extending off it. This is a traditional Asian carrier, and is quite easy to use, despite the intimidating lengths of trailing fabric. Like an SSC, you can wear your baby on your front or back – and technically on your hip, though it’s an uncomfortable carry that’s hard to get right. Babywearing educators recommend that unless you have extensive experience, you refrain from back carrying in a beh dai until your baby is four months old. However, because you can use a rubber-band to cinch the body of a beh dai more narrow, beh dais make great newborn carriers.

You can also get a beh dai snugged tight against your body for a great fit. The beh dai’s lack of buckles means it passes easily between caregivers, and it’s easy to nurse in – just drop baby a little bit lower. This gives it a big advantage when you’re on-the-go in a strange city, nursing the baby and passing him back and forth. Its narrow straps make it a cool carrier for a hot climate.

You can use the same methods to get your baby on your back that you would with an SSC: a hip scoot, a superman toss, or a santa toss.

Truthfully, if I had to own only one carrier, I’d own a beh dai. It rolls up small for easy carrying in a carry-on or suitcase. You can get them, generally, in two sizes – baby and toddler – so if you like them, you’ll eventually have to buy a larger carrier, which can be a drawback if you want an option for a larger toddler or preschooler. And despite the nuisance of trailing straps, I’d rather have a beh dai than an SSC with a newborn (no hot insert, much easier to nurse in). It’s also great for toddlers who wants to get up and down, up and down, because it rolls up so small in a backpack. A servicable beh dai can see you through all sorts of adventures, from hiking the forest to the Forum and negotiating the Roman Metro afterwards.

By now, Infantino’s Mei Tai has become ubiquitous at Targets everywhere for somewhere around $29.95. I prefer the Catbird Baby, which has many of the same features and is made is America by working moms. A BB-Tai, Fidella Fly Tai, and Soul Meh Dai all have what’s called wrap straps, which mean that the straps are wider and help draw the baby closer the wearer, ensuring a tighter, more wrap-like carry. This can help make the carrier more comfortable on your shoulders, but also make it a little hotter.

Pouch

You’ve seen the “free” offer from Seven Slings. Basically, a pouch is a ring of fabric you wear around your body and over a shoulder, with the baby inside. They are highly sized – you need to make sure you get exactly the right size for the combination of both you and baby, or baby could fall out or worse. Many companies show them with baby in a laying-down position; this is very, very hard to get right, as baby could easily go chin-to-chest in a loose pouch and suffer oxygen deprivation (remember, there is no easy way to adjust a pouch or make it tighter). Your baby should always be high enough for you to kiss him.

A pouch works well for an older infant who wants to get up and down. Unpadded, they will bother your shoulder after a while, so you probably don’t want to use them for more than quick ups. It’s a great purse carrier, since it folds up so small – something you can keep on yourself just in case.

Hotslings are great pouches to get, and claim to be adjustable. Please do NOT buy a padded bag-style pouch sling. The prototype for these, the Infantino SlingRider, was recalled in 2010 after several infant deaths were associated with its use.  

Ring Sling

Like a pouch, ring slings go over one shoulder. However, unlike a pouch, ring slings are adjustable via a metal double-ring system: think one of those ugly belts from the 1980s. This makes them useful in all sorts of ways that a pouch is not. They make wonderful newborn carriers, especially for NICU or preemie babies, because it’s possible to get them so snug by tightening each rail, or edge, separately. You can only wear ring slings on your front or hip, though. While many, many people online will tell you otherwise, most babywearing educators agree that ringsling back carries are only for short-term emergencies and/or very experienced wearers, and never for small babies.

Though ring slings are one-shouldered, they spread over that shoulder and snug against your body, meaning that when done properly, your baby’s weight should be born by your body, not your shoulder. If your sling is digging into your neck or weighing on your shoulder (and you’re not wearing a toddler-beast), you need to adjust. It’s a very easy carry to nurse in, on both breasts – just loosen the sling and slide baby sideways, then tighten back up for a hands-free experience. Bottle-feeding works the same way.

Unfortunately, over the long term and with a baby larger than fifteen pounds, a ring sling will throw your posture off as you lean to compensate for their weight hanging on one shoulder (this can happen even when your baby is in a centered front carry – it’s instinctual and not related to any actual weight-bearing). The sling’s cupped shoulder will also restrict movement on one arm, leaving you unable to raise it above about mid-body level.

Under six-month-old babies who absolutely have to see the world can often be pacified by a ring sling hip carry. This gives them the security they need to turn away from the world if they have to, but the versatility to do more than gaze at your face.

If you have a small baby and you want to explore a city for the day, a ring sling is a great choice. It transfers easily between wearers and the baby’s size outweighs the carrier’s negatives. It also folds up well in a diaper bag, and can be used, in a pinch, as a strap to hold a baby in a chair. The ring sling tail is also useful as a sunshade, nursing cover, and yes – snot rag (every babywearer has done it). This is not the carrier to take hiking, to use with a larger toddler who does not want constant ups and downs, or to expect to back carry with.

Ring slings come in several shoulders, and the best way to find the one you love is to attend a babywearing meeting. My favorite is the SBP signature pleats, which you can get from Sleeping Baby Productions, an American WAHM who’s a leading expert in the field with over a decade of experience. She sells a great French twill sling for $45, though her prices increase from there. Beco sells a gathered shoulder through Target for $55. Maya wraps are slightly padded, but most babywearers tend to move up from them after baby gains a few pounds. Lillebaby is more expensive, at $97, and I’m not sure how easy it would be to adjust the covered rings. Then there’s Sakura Bloom. You either love it or you hate it; the gathered shoulder catches and holds the fabric in place. It comes in any number of elegant fabrics, and prices start at $180 for these gorgeous slings, which come in multiple fabrics, like silk and cashmere. They’d be great for a night on the town – say, if you have to accompany your public school husband to prom, an adventure in itself (I may perhaps be speaking from experience here).

Wraps – stretchy

Wraps are basically long pieces of cloth. That’s it. They come in many sizes, many fabrics, and many ways of tying that you can youtube, though I’ll mention different carries throughout this piece. You’re probably most familiar with a Moby wrap: a 6 yard piece of heavy jersey fabric that you tie around yourself than pop the baby in.

There are a few other brands, along with the Baby K’tan, which is basically a stretchy wrap sewn into parts: an X that goes over the wearer’s shoulders and holds the baby, plus a band that goes around baby and caregiver to hold them tightly together. The problem with the K’tan is the same as a pouch: it’s highly sized, and a too-loose fit can cause baby to sag to low, putting him at risk for positional asphyxiation. It can also only be worn on the front.

Like woven wraps, stretchies have the same high learning curve (though you cannot back carry in a stretchy wrap. Your baby will flip right out the back). You need to learn to move fabric around your body and keep the top and bottom edges equally tight. A stretchy wrap, before you insert the baby, should feel like a tight t-shirt – you cannot wrap baby too tightly; the wrap will stretch to accommodate him. If it ever feels like it’s sagging too much, you can just tighten it up by pulling the rails tighter and tying farther up the wrap. Remember, your baby should always be close enough to kiss.

Baby K’tan, Boba Wraps

Stretchy wraps work great for babies from 8 lbs (the manufacturer’s stated beginning weight) to about 15 pounds. Around 10 to 12 pounds, you’ll find yourself tightening up the wrap more often. After 15, the wrap will begin to sag to a degree that makes it difficult to wear. So stretchy wraps have a limited babywearing shelf life, which is one of the reasons you see them for sale so often.

Another reason you see them for sale so often: stretchy wraps can be hot. Heavy jersey fabric isn’t the coolest fabric on the planet, and when you swaddle yourself in three layers of it, you’re going to sweat. It’s best for cooler climates; I loved mine when I was hiking with a newborn in temps around 40-55 degrees, with nothing higher than 70.

If you can get past the weight and climate limits, as we did, stretchy wraps can go anywhere. We used ours on five mile hikes when our oldest son was a newbie. We also took it to strange cities, drug it through airports, and just plain took it to the mall. Stretchy wraps are easy to nurse in: you can either put baby in a cradle hold or drop him lower down. Either way, it’s difficult for onlookers to tell what you’re doing.

Mobys are, of course, the most recognizable brand on the market and run about $45. I prefer the Boba wrap, which Target also stocks for $59, and which is made of a heavier jersey stock. The gold standard, however, is the Wrapsody Hybrid Stretch Wrap ($58-$99). It’s the stretchy that breaks all the rules: it’s cooler than others; it doesn’t sag with bigger kids; and because of the way it stretches, it’s suitable for back carries. Unlike the other stretchies, a Wrapsody Hybrid can take you through toddlerhood.

Woven Wraps

Now you’ve fallen down the rabbit hole. Woven wraps are pieces of cloth that can be any length from around 2.7 meters (called a “shorty”) to 6 meters, and just about anything in between. They can be made of many different fabrics, many (other than wool and repreve) designed to keep the wearer cooler: linen, hemp, and tencel. However, a thick wrap made in one of these materials will still be warm, so you need to be careful when ordering. Wovens can be worn on the front, hip, or back. And though you shouldn’t put your baby on your back until about four months old if you’ve never wrapped before, it’s safe for experienced wrappers to backwrap newborns.

As a longtime wrapper, I recommend that new wrappers pick out a 100% cotton wrap in a colorway they like, something not too thin or too thick, and go with it. As for size, I recommend a size 6 or 7 – go up to 7 if you’re bigger than a size 14 or the carrier will be used by someone who doesn’t identify as female. You will also need a longer wrap if you’re wrapping a big toddler (my three-year-old has pushed my base size from a 6 to a 7).

Woven wraps have a much higher learning curve than even a stretchy wrap. You’re no longer inserting the baby into a carry, you’re actually wrapping around him – and that’s just in the standard front wrap cross carry, the basic front carry you’d do with a child under two. A kangaroo carry is also popular, and can be done with a shorter wrap (though it’s harder to nurse in. A FWCC is notoriously easy to nurse or bottle feed in, since you just drop baby into a cradle carry, or drop him lower, and latch him on).

There are several hip carries you can do with a longer wrap. You can also use a short wrap to do a sling carry with a slip knot. This gives you a one-layer carry much like a ring sling, but with a sliding slip knot that lets you tighten the top and bottom edges of your wrap separately. You’d do a sling carry with a 2.7m wrap. You can also use a wrap this length for a ruck under bum, a simple back carry that, while not the most comfortable thing in the world, will keep you going for about an hour before it becomes annoying.

Finally, you can use a woven wrap to get your baby very high and tight onto your back – a newborn, for example, would ride literally with his head on the back of your neck. Most of the comfortable back carries are multi-layer, meaning that you have several layers of fabric covering you and the baby.

Wrapping utilizes multiple layers of fabric and holds baby tight against you; for this reason, people with sweaty babies or who tend to get overly hot may find that a different carrier works better for them. In the summer, I usually choose a one-layer sling carry. Someone who picks a wrap should also realize that they will be spending some time watching youtube videos or – even better – going to a babywearing meeting and learning how to carry. It’s easy to mess up wrap carries, and a messy carry will sag and dig.

With that said, I spent the time to learn to wrap. I went to babywearing meetings and learned to back carry. I still back carry my three-year-old on occasion during hikes. I have hiked five + miles with a baby on my back and front; I’ve climbed up and down mountains. I have taken wrapped babies through airports and city marketplaces. If you’re willing to put into the time to learn to wrap, and you want something easy to feed in – plus the versatility of a lot of different carries, which can save your back on an all-day excursion – a woven wrap is a great choice.

Woven wraps do have one drawback, though – they tend to be expensive. I recommend buying one used, probably from The Babywearing Swap on Facebook. It’ll be broken in, and far, far cheaper than buying new. Sturdy, beat-it-up-and-ask-for-more brands include many Didymos wraps ($115+), Dolcinos ($90), and Storchenwieges ($99). I also really like cotton Ellevill Zaras ($185+) and Tekhni, who carries budget wraps for $99 alongside their more expensive lines ($185+ for a size 6).

 

Picking a baby carrier is not an easy choice. Basically, if you’re hiking alone with a baby over six months old, and you need to carry gear, you have to have a hiking backpack. Other than that, the choice is up to you. It depends on the age and weight of your baby, the amount of time they’ll be up and down, how long you’ll be carrying them, if you need easy feeding access, and if you want to invest the time to learn how to do different carries and holds.

For most people, in most situations, a beh dai  is the best bet. It’s easy to use; you can get your older baby onto your back with a minimum of fuss. With wrap straps, you can cup your shoulders and get all the benefits of a wrap without having to learn all the carries. You can bunch the straps up to keep them from making you too hot in the heat. And they are pretty easy to nurse in, though you might need to take your baby out to bottle-feed. A beh dai can see you through most adventures new parents are going to get up to: traveling, airports, shorter hikes (though you need someone or somedog to carry your gear). They’re even easy for quick toddler ups. If I had to pick one carrier, it would be a beh dai with wrap straps. It’s easy-on, easy-off, and comfy over the long haul.

A word to the wise, though: beh dai tails tend to be dark for a reason – they can drag on the ground. It’s best to stick with that. In fact, a darker carrier’s generally a better choice, despite heat absorption.  Because no matter what your adventure, between the baby and the world, that carrier’s going to get dirty.

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Elizabeth Broadbent

Elizabeth Broadbent is a freelance writer on staff at Scary Mommy. She also writes a regular column for ADDitude Magazine, All Together ADHD, and has written for just about every parenting outlet out there, in addition to TIME. Elizabeth has three small children, three large dogs, and one patient husband.

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