An Overview of Baby Backpacks, Pouches and Slings
Much as you love to cuddle your child, sometimes you just need your arms and hands for other duties. This is especially true when you’re traveling, where your limbs and digits may be called into service for a range of tasks like toting luggage, filling in customs forms or selecting souvenirs.
While strollers are a viable option for some travel locations, for others “to stroller or not to stroller” is the question – they can be bulky and cumbersome contraptions ill-suited for a particular destination or portion of your trip. Consider a child carrier as part of your travel toolkit if you have a baby or small child in tow.
The baby carrier niche is full of options, as product designers have considered every possible aspect and angle of the torso to exploit (someone out there is probably working on a head-perch!).
They range from simple slings to structured backpacks, with an array of pouches, wraps, front carriers and hip carriers in between (click here for an overview on what features to look for in a carrier). You’ll have to test drive a few models on for size and comfort – what works for your sister, spouse or best friend might not work for you. You may even want to have two or more types of carriers for different situations or acquire different styles as your child progresses from newborn to toddler.
Here’s an overview of the various types of child carriers on the market.
The classic front carrier is a close and convenient way for you to tote your baby when traveling. With shoulder straps for you and a fabric seat for junior, it’s a balanced load that leaves both arms free for other tasks. Your child can face in towards your chest or out towards the world – whether asleep or alert, your little one will feel safe and snug, lulled by the rhythm of your heartbeat.
One drawback to all that body closeness is that it can get a bit hot and sticky in there for both parties, so look for breathable materials or mesh ventilation to encourage air circulation.
Try to find a carrier with a support panel that helps cradle your inward-facing newborn’s head and then folds down into a drool guard once the neck muscles develop.
Features like padded shoulder straps, adjustable waist belts and lumbar support pads make front carriers an ergonomic choice, but the flip side is they are a bit bulky to simply toss in a diaper bag or carry-on (depending on what else you’ve got in there). For all-round versatility, some models can convert into a back or side carrier.
Once your baby can sit up (usually somewhere around 5 or 6 months old), a baby backpack becomes a viable option for carrying your child, especially for travel. Most kids love the view up there! For active, outdoorsy parents it’s a must-have whether you’re going for nature hikes, beach strolls or city walks – for some destinations it’s more convenient than a stroller.
Designed with both parent and child comfort in mind, you can tote your child around in a backpack for longer durations and up to an older age/weight limit than any other type of carrier (over 40 lbs/18 kg, if you have the strength and endurance). The most rugged, heavy-duty models come with an external lightweight aluminum frame that spreads open as a convenient kick stand for loading and unloading.
Some have all the ergonomic bells and whistles of a hiking/camping backpack (lumbar support, padded shoulder and sternum straps, adjustable waist belt etc.) to protect your back and neck from strain – make sure there’s a five point safety harness for your child too. Most have pockets and pouches so you can tote some light gear as well as your child. A detachable sun/rain canopy is a worthwhile feature. There are several soft, lightweight, frameless back carriers on the market too – a less bulky option for space-constrained travelers.
On the downside, backpacks can be a bit tricky to put on by yourself, and you won’t be able to see how junior is doing there (unless you opt for a rearview mirror), but many parents wouldn’t dream of venturing far without one. Check out Kelty, MacPac, Tough Traveler and Patapum. For heightened versatility, consider a backpack that converts to a stroller.
Hip moms and dads like it on the side. Carrying a child perched on the left or right hip is a natural, intuitive position for both parties and a side carrier makes this a hands-free and posture-friendly approach. It eliminates the tendency to lean and jut out your pelvis, which can strain your lower back, put your spine out of alignment and be a literal pain in the neck.
Once babies can hold their heads high they are ready for this type of carrier and some can support a child up to 40 lbs/18 kg (trust me, even a preschooler will demand to be carried from time to time). A good hip carrier should be able to adjust to either side for versatility. Watch out for models with small shoulder straps as they tend to creep towards the neck and dig in uncomfortably. A wide band or one that hooks onto your shoulder to support the weight is best.
For another kind of hip carrier, check out the Combi Urban Baby Carrier, Hippychick Hipseat and KidCarry. These are not hands-free carriers per se, but rather practical posture-saving platforms attached to a waist belt, ideal for easy on-and-off child perching. They are small, practical and perfect for travel.
There is a growing field of versatile baby carriers that adjust to front, back or side positioning with a twist of a strap. Check out: Ergobabycarrier.com, Evenflo Snugli Serenade Vibra Soft Baby Carrier, and Infantino 6 in 1 Rider.
Slings and Wraps
Baby wraps and slings have been around for centuries in many cultures of the world, but they seem to have hit the global mainstream in the last decade or so. Some of these carriers are little more than a wide strip of (often breathable and organic) woven cloth or stretchy fabric that is either tied in place, wrapped to wear or secured with a ring or some type of fastener. They can be padded for extra comfort or unpadded (which is more compact for travel), and can easily adjust fit adult bodies of all sizes.
Don’t be intimidated by the apparent origami-like expertise required to secure your child in one of these. With a little practice, you’ll get the hang of it (pun intended). Proponents swear by their comfort, closeness, versatility and ease of use.
Most models can adjust to accommodate chest, hip and back holds, facing inwards or outwards, as well as a desirable cradle hold reclining position – ideal for newborns, sleeping cherubs and nurslings. Many can secure a child up to 30 or 40 lbs (13.5 to 18 kg), although they may be a bit restrictive for older toddlers – up to age two is comfortable for most. Even twins can be supported in some configurations.
Slings and wraps come in all sorts of colors, patterns and fabrics, from the plain and practical to the latest trendy designer look. Check out Maya Wrap, Huggababy, Didymos, Ellaroo (www.ellaroo.com), Cuddly Wrap, and Kari-Me.
Taking its cues from the kangaroo, the pouch-style baby carrier is yet another option for lugging your little love around at home or away. It’s a simple, slip-over-the-shoulder sling with a built-in pocket shelf to tuck your baby into. Just toss it over your shoulders like a sash and place your baby between the fabric folds. At different angles your child can be sitting upright, fully reclined or even latched on for a discrete feed.
Pouch carriers are perfectly suited to newborns and younger babies as they feel safe, soothed and secure cocooned up in there. There are no complicated straps, buckles, folds or ties to contend with, so the learning curve is minimal and the portability/packability factor is high. Ensure you buy the correct size for your body frame, though.
Baby Carriers for Water Use
Of particular interest to beach-bound travelers, some baby carriers are designed for in-water use. Most are made of insulating neoprene (wetsuit material that helps regulate body temperature – can be used for winter warmth, too) and some are made of UV protective fabric.
Modeled after a basic front pack or wraparound sling, these aqua baby carriers let you safely introduce your upright youngster to the pool, ocean or shower. This hands-free help is ideal if you have another toddler or two to watch over in the water simultaneously. Note, neoprene can irritate some babies sensitive skin, so watch for signs of irritation.