Reflections on motherhood #3: the joys of babywearing

This post is the third in a series about my experiences of motherhood and what I wish I’d known before I had a baby. You can see the original post here.

No, a few months ago I didn’t know that ‘babywearing’ was a thing (or even a word) either. It’s only when I stopped to think about it that I realised that most of the world’s mothers don’t have (and historically didn’t have) access to what we know and love as prams and pushchairs. I also remembered something I’d read somewhere during the hazy chaos of the early newborn days – that some babies in some cultures don’t cry. Which kind of cultures? Those cultures where babies have unlimited access to the breast and are carried all day. But those newborn weeks were so manic that I didn’t have a chance to think anything more of it.

Happily, a friend of a friend had been in touch asking for some advice about teaching A level German. She’d had a baby boy a year or so before and offered me her carrier to try out. I wasn’t one for passing up a good offer like that and readily accepted it. The type she leant me, an older style BabyBjorn, seems to be very popular with new mums. I’d seen a few others about and it looked properly sturdy and not something my daughter could fall out of (that was my main concern at this point). It was great for popping out and back to do the odd errand when I didn’t fancy lugging our pram around. But, after a while, it began to hurt my back to carry my daughter in it, so I gradually started to use it less and less. I also read on some websites that, as a narrow based carrier, it doesn’t support a baby’s back as well as other soft structured carriers or slings. But I figured it was so uncomfy for more than about ten minutes at a time that my baby wasn’t going to get any major hip problems from being in it. Then the unthinkable happened … my daughter, who was gaining weight at a rate of knots, actually grew too fat for it. I’m not joking! I could no longer fasten the clips around her and I had to finally admit total defeat and realise that if I wanted to carry her, it would have to be in a different sling or carrier. So I started to look into what was on offer.

And it was totally overwhelming! So many different kinds of slings! Ones with rings, ones with buckles, ones with straps, ones with nothing at all, ones on your front, ones on your hip, ones on your back, ones that do all of the above, ones that are ridiculously expensive, ones that are very cheap … so I decided to ask a good friend of mine who had been happily wearing her baby on her dog walks since she was born. She had two slings that she had told me about, and told me where to find out more. God bless the digital age! Because I got 99% of my knowledge from the internet. I found this website to be particularly useful at giving an introduction to the different kinds of ergonomic carrier. The folks over at Sheffield Sling Surgery also have some good introductory pages.

What’s an ergonomic carrier? Well, as I discovered, there are many types of carrier that are definitely not ergonomic, and the BabyBjorn I’d borrowed was one of them, as it had a narrow base (the most supportive kinds of carrier support the baby from one knee to the other). For a sling or carrier to be safest for you and for your baby, it needs to correspond to certain guidelines: tight, in view at all times, close enough to kiss, keep chin off chest, and supported straight back. This is known in short form as TICKS, and can be viewed in more detail in the picture below:

TICKSold

(There are also some guidelines about babies facing outwards and bag style carriers that can be viewed on the NCT sling safety page here.)

By the time I was learning about all this, my daughter was nearly 4 months old. We had largely bypassed the slings that are often recommended for newborns. I read that there are basically four types of sling:

– Wraps – These are single pieces of material that vary in weave, length and fabric. There are two basic types, stretchy wraps and woven wraps. The former are recommended for small babies up to about six months, after which they cease to be supportive enough. They can be pre-tied before putting your baby in, which is helpful when they are tiny! There are many brands but you can get a decent one for as little as £15, especially if you go second hand. There are also hybrid stretchies like the Close Caboo which are very popular. Some brands are Moby, Victoria Sling Lady (great name ;-)), Hana, Liberty and Boba. Woven wraps have a diagonal weave and come in many different blends, but most have some cotton in them. They are much more than just a bedsheet! They are woven specially for babywearing and as such are weight tested and dyed safely in case a child sucks on them (which happens frequently in my experience). They are the most versatile kind of sling. You can wear babies in many different carries on your front, hip or back. The original wrap make is Didymos, a German firm, but there are many good budget brands on the market now such as Little Frog, Lenny Lamb and Yaro Slings. Beginners are best starting with wraps that are 100% cotton, and most people begin with a size 6. You can buy a decent new size 6 for about £45. It’s worth saying that the second hand market is often better than buying new. That’s because new woven wraps take a bit of use to ‘break in’, i.e. to become soft and supple. So wraps tend to retain their retail value (or gain a little if they are especially sought after) once they have been used a lot.

– Ring slings – These are a length of fabric with two rings sewn at each end. You thread the fabric through the rings, and the weight sits on one shoulder. You put the child in and tighten the rings. They can be worn on your tummy or on your hip, or (for the adventurous) on your back. There’s a bit of a knack to it (one that I am still learning!) but once you get it these are great as it’s so quick and they last from newborn through to toddlerhood. There are variations on the type of shoulder (gathered or pleated), and whether the rails are padded or not. Most brands that manufacture woven wraps also make ring slings, so see above for some suggestions.

Soft structured carriers (SSCs) – These are carriers that fasten with straps and buckles and often have a padded waist. The Ergo carrier is perhaps the most commonly known of these types of carrier. I’ve found that some people just feel inherently more comfortable with buckle carriers, and if this is you, then the good news is there is a lot of choice these days! They can be worn for front and back carries, and are better with babies that aren’t newborns (though some come with newborn inserts). They are easy to put on, but there is a disadvantage – if someone else also uses the carrier, they will have to readjust the strap length (rather like a rucksack) to suit them, which can slow things down. Many brands also do different sizes (baby, toddler and pre-schooler). Some popular makes are Tula, Connecta, Manduca, Ergo and Beco Soleil. *IMPORTANT* Be aware that Ergo fakes are really convincing these days. Only ever buy what you think is an Ergo carrier from either a genuine Ergo stockist (like John Lewis) or if you have proof of purchase (i.e. a receipt) that it was bought from a genuine stockist (look on Ergo’s website for a list of approved retailers). The many ‘Ergo-style’ carriers that look too good to be true on eBay and from Amazon sellers are just that: too good to be true. They haven’t been safety tested and there are many anecdotal reports from within the babywearing world of straps breaking and buckles snapping.

– Mei tais – The last main type of carrier is an Asian style one that seems to me to be a cross between an SSC and a wrap. There is a panel of material with straps sewn onto it, but no buckles, and you fasten the carrier by tying a couple of knots with the straps. These are great for bigger babies as they spread the weight evenly, and can be worn for front and back carries. Again, there are many brands, and if you look on eBay you can get a Palm and Pond mei tai for about twenty five quid. But, as with many things, you get what you pay for, and although some people swear by their P&P, you can get much better quality for just a little more money. Babyhawk, Lenny Lamb and Catbird are some great brands of mei tai.

There are also hybrid carriers, like a mei tai with wrap straps, or half buckle carriers, and so on, but you can get lost in the many varieties so I’ll leave it there for now!

Now, I am no babywearing guru, and when I first started looking into all this, I really knew nothing. What I *should* have done, with the benefit of hindsight (isn’t it a wonderful thing?) is go to my local sling library and try out a few different types of sling. The Oxford Sling Library meets fortnightly and is a great resource. You pay a small fee (like a fiver!) to borrow a sling and be taught how to tie it. If you’re not local you can find your local sling library here. What I actually did was read up a lot, find a sling I liked the look of, buy it, and hope for the best.

I struck lucky. I went for a mei tai, because I figured that it was something both my husband and I could use without having to adjust strap length, and it didn’t look as fiddly (or as scary!) as wrapping. I bought a Catbird baby mei tai second hand from eBay for about £30. I used it every day from when Phoebe was 4 months to 9 months old! Suddenly I discovered how easy and comfortable it was to wear my daughter! I wish I had known about comfortable, safe and inexpensive carriers long before. As I started to use the mei tai more, I started to realise that Phoebe loved it there. And I realised that, actually, babies are born expecting to be held all day. And here was a method of holding her that was easy, cheap and so so lovely! It’s like having a really lovely long snuggly hug!

My husband also really got on with the mei tai. We started to realise that life could basically go on as before, if we just wore her in the sling. I could do all those things that the push chair had prevented me from doing for those 4 months – sit upstairs on the bus into Oxford, go on long walks round the countryside, pop to the shops without taking what felt like the kitchen sink with me. I could also do some housework (something that is difficult to do when you have a needy baby!), do the cooking (as long as I was careful), and no longer had to clean the buggy’s wheels every time we took it out (our house is carpeted). Suddenly medieval town-planned streets were open to me, and Phoebe and I no longer needed to walk a million miles to use lifts in shops. It was like becoming a person again, not just a mum!

I also figured out how to nurse her in the sling, and, given that she was such a refluxy baby, this was a life saver. She went through a prolonged stage of refusing to nurse unless we were moving and I could not have got through this stage without my trusty mei tai. And I began to see that, really, I could have made my life a lot easier if I’d just used a sling from the beginning. Baby refuses to be put down to nap? No problem, she can doze on me in the sling and life goes on. Baby wants to nurse for 6 hours straight (which is normal, by the way, in the early weeks!) No problem, she can nurse in the sling while I catch up on my correspondence or read a book. Baby refusing to go in the pram? No problem, you don’t really need one anyway. Because the truth is, babies often need to be kept physically close to you. You can’t spoil them by cuddling them too much. But life has to go on. And a sling enables my life to go on and for my daughter’s needs to be met all at the same time. Ideal. (Other benefits of babywearing can be found here.)

We went on a driving holiday to Germany in September last year, and took our pram with us. It took up half our available boot space, and we only used it once (on the ferry on the way out there, and that was when we realised we really didn’t need it). How much more German and Belgian beer we could have brought back if we had just left the pram at home! When we arrived back in the UK a week and a bit later, we retired the pram. Most people who have a sling also use buggies, but we realised that we didn’t need it and it was taking up a lot of space in our small house! So we put it in the loft. We haven’t missed it.

‘But doesn’t it hurt your back?’ I get this question a lot. The answer is, well, no, unless you have pre-existing back problems. Not if you use your sling properly and it is an appropriate one to your baby’s age and weight. I *did* find the mei tai started to get a bit diggy with me as Phoebe neared the 9 month mark. But I think that’s because I was wearing her too low down, and not tying it off evenly. It’s just I had been able to get away with it when she was smaller. My husband still happily wears her in the mei tai for hours at a time.

I, on the other hand, decided to have a go at wrapping, and bought myself a Little Frog size 5 from this online retailer who came highly recommended. It is a daunting wrapping world out there, I’ll tell you, complete with much unknown terminology that can put people off. Wraps come in different blends, sizes, brands, colour ways and patterns. There is a thriving Facebook community of buyers and sellers of woven wraps, and they all use abbreviations that can be somewhat perplexing. It took me a while to learn how to ‘speak sling’. ‘DISO Erna 3’, for example, means that the poster is desperately in search of a Kokadi (that’s the brand) Erna im Wunderland (that’s the pattern) in a size 3 (about 3.2m). ‘DH with a CCCB’ means that the poster has wrapped a Double Hammock (a kind of carry) with a candy cane chestbelt (a sort of belt across your chest that is made by twisting the strands of your wrap). Wrapping also looks terribly tricky at first, and it does take practice. But I have found it to be totally worth it. Why? Because it’s the only type of sling that moulds perfectly to you and your baby’s size. It’s also the most versatile because you can do about a hundred different carries (that is, there are about a hundred different ways of wrapping the material around you), so if you find one of them pulls on certain bits of your body, you can just switch to another one. Now, I certainly cannot do a hundred different types of carries. I can do about four. But that’s all I need at the moment and I’m trying to perfect the ones I can do before I look at learning others.

I have had some amusing comments when wrapping my baby in public. My favourite (from a dear mum friend) was ‘you’re like an earth mother, Victoria!’ Another good one was ‘did you learn that from Africans?!?’ Um, no, from YouTube actually. And it’s true, you can totally teach yourself to wrap from watching YouTube videos. I have found the best to be by www.wrapyouinlove.com (though she makes it look so easy!), though if you join some of the Facebook groups such as this one you’ll pick up a lot of other good video tutorials.

Like so many babies, my daughter is currently going through a period of extreme separation anxiety and often wants to be with me all the time at the moment, to the extent that I often have to take her to the loo with me too because otherwise she gets really distressed! Since I figured it’s easier to change my life to fit her needs rather than her needs to fit my life (and since I know that periods of separation anxiety are totally normal), I realised it was time to learn how to back carry her so I could get on with doing the cooking and preparing the table for breakfast etc. She was now too big to be on my front as I couldn’t see past her when preparing things in front of me, so it was time to learn how to get her on my back. To help me, I watched a million videos, practised over a bed (but only for 5 minutes at a time as Phoebe got bored) and I also had a sling consultation with Emily Edwards from wearthemwithlove. Emily is an accredited babywearing consultant and volunteers at the Oxford Sling Library. I had a 2 hour consultation on ruck technique and felt much more confident about getting Phoebe on my back safely and effectively. We’re now progressing to other back carries that are multilayer and more supportive than a simple ruck. It is a learning curve, but I love learning new skills, and I am now confident enough to back wrap in public and Phoebe enjoys being up there when we’re out and about.

Finally, another comment I often get is ‘she’ll soon be too heavy for you to do that’. Actually, you can carry your child until he or she outgrows the need (i.e. till pre-school age), so long as you have an appropriately supportive carrier that you know how to use. And as I always tell people, I find it *much* easier and less tiring to carry Phoebe now, even though she weighs 9kg, than I did when I was pregnant with her. I have so much more energy, and her weight is distributed evenly. I honestly wouldn’t do it if it was uncomfortable or tiring! I have so enjoyed learning about this noble tradition that stretches back millennia, and I know that I have much more to learn in the coming months and years. If you’re in doubt – give it a try! Pop to a sling library and borrow a sling for a fiver. I don’t think you’ll be disappointed. On the contrary, I think you’ll get the bug like me!

I’ll leave you with a video tutorial of the best woven wrap carry to start off with: a front wrap cross carry (FWCC). Enjoy!

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