by Tami Grosset
We babywear in a good era! Really we do! Sling safety has never been better and we know more than ever before about how to wear our babies safely.
Babywearing still seems to have a reputation in our society, of being a risky practice, especially regarding the wearing of newborns. Its hard for people who don't understand the rules and practice of safe babywearing to tell the difference between a ring sling and a bag sling.
But what do we mean by safe babywearing? Safe babywearing, to me, is where your baby will not be placed at increased risk of death or near fatal injury. It means your baby will not die because of your chosen carrier. It means your infant will not experience a life threatening event because of your sling. The carrier you have may not be ergonomic but it is not unsafe because it is not ergonomic. It may be sub-optimal but its probably safe. The distinction between safe and sub-optimal is an important one to make.
Over the past 4 years or so the babywearing industry has developed. The BCIA (Baby Carrier Industry Alliance) has been collaborating and working with consumer safety agencies like the CPSC (Consumer Product Safety Commission) and ASTM International (American Society for Testing and Materials) to create a Sling Safety Standard. Baby carrier manufacturers in the US are mandated to comply to the CPSIA (Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act). This involves a legal requirement to provide a registration card and model number for each carrier, to report any incidents that occur with any carriers and to test carrier parts to prove the absence of lead or phthalates. There is currently a voluntary ASTM Sling Carrier Standard which asks manufacturers to have samples of carriers tested rigorously and to include safety labels, further increasing user knowledge and infant safety. This voluntary standard will shortly become mandatory and it will be virtually impossible to buy a carrier in North America that has not been subjected to the most rigorous safety standards and testing.
Despite all this I have heard frequently of late, in various babywearing forums, advice from babywearing advocates, that the use of one carrier or another is not safe for newborns, even when the carrier is marketed as appropriate for newborns. The advocate often will suggest other carriers that they feel are more age appropriate, usually a wrap or a ring sling. The advice is given with best of intentions and in support of babywearing but this is not what I would call positive advocacy. Here is why:
A potential babywearer (we'll call her Barbara) is interested in a soft structured carrier (lets call it BubbaCarry) which is made by a well known manufacturer and is designed to carry newborns and up to 35lbs. She feels that it would suit her needs more than any other type of carrier. She asks on a babywearing forum if anyone has heard of BubbaCarry and if they can offer a review. The response Barbara gets is that the BubbaCarry is unsafe for newborns. Barbara is now confused. The manufacturer is baby carrier compliant and BubbaCarry has an infant insert which is designed to allow a newborn baby to be worn in the carrier. She trusts the manufacturer and babywearing industry. But she's read this babywearing advocates advice in previous threads and she trusts her as well. She is experienced and really knows her babywearing! Who does Barbara believe; the manufacturer or the advocate?
Barbara might just decide to use the BubbaCarry and not return to the babywearing community for help or advice again. She might fear judgement for using the carrier she chose. She may feel like a 'fake' babywearer for not using the wrap or sling that was recommended to her.
Barbara might choose to take the advice of the advocate. She might purchase a wrap instead of the soft structured carrier she'd initially picked out and as predicted find she does not like to use it. She might find the wrap overwhelming and is intimidated by the length of fabric. Wrapping is not for our Barbara! As a result Babara does not wear her baby at all.
The other outcome could be that coupled with the general belief in wider society that babywearing is a high risk activity Barbara becomes so confused by the whole thing that she jettisons the idea of babywearing entirely and chooses a fancy stroller and bucket seat to push or lug about.
Barbara, like all new babywearers, needs to trust the babywearing industry, the baby carrier manufacturer and the babywearing community equally. If existing members of the babywearing community do not trust the manufacturer or the industry then why should Barbara.
Of course any baby item can be dangerous. Even the infant car seat, one of the most highly regulated baby devices available, can fail in the event of a collision...... if its used incorrectly. As always it is the use of a product and not the actual product that increases or decreases the level of risk. A good baby carrier will mimic in arms positioning. This means that when in a carrier the baby will be held to the body of the wearer in the exact same way the baby would be held if he/she were in the arms of the carer. There are many baby holding devices available to purchase. Baby carriers are just one type. Other devices include bassinets and bucket car seats for example. Nearly all other devices fall short in their ability to hold baby snug against the carer's body with baby's head above the chest near the carers collarbone. (see 3rd paragraph of the BCIA's Position Paper)
As babywearing advocates how should we answer requests for advice about which carriers are safe for newborns? Firstly we should ensure that the carrier in question meets the current safety requirements demanded by the ASTM (US) or EN (European) standards and that the carrier is designed to be used with a newborn. Then we should ensure that the parent knows how to use the carrier correctly, since it is the practice of babywearing, and not the product that ensures the safety of the worn baby. Lastly parents should be advised to look at the position the baby is in, whilst in the carrier. If it mimics an in-arms position where the baby is carried upright with a visible airway and the babies head is at a kissable height then it is safe. It may not be the carrier you would choose for your baby but it is still a safe carrier.
As advocates we should trust our own industry and as a community we should help and support new baby wearers to use their carriers in a safe manner. I urge our babywearing community to be positive in our advocacy and dispense with the confusion that has the potential of tarnishing the reputation of babywearing and the babywearing industry.