Updated: Jul 2, 2021
Talking to new members of the babywearing community seems to raise familiar questions, commencing with “which carrier is right for me and my family?” followed closely by “how do I make this thing more comfortable?” Feedback from many carers indicates that one of the most common reasons for abandoning babywearing as a parenting tool is that the carrier was just not comfy, no matter what adjustments were attempted. Neck pain, shoulder pain, headaches, back pain, pins and needles in hands, difficulty reaching straps and buckles, my baby gets upset; the list of carrier-induced symptoms is long.
It can be overwhelming trying to figure out how to safely don and doff your baby carrier and precious cargo, let alone make it comfortable. The following tips aim to help make your carrier as comfy as possible for you and your bundle of joy. The focus of these tips will be on optimising the comfort of one of the most common and available babywearing options - a baby carrier consisting of a waistband that buckles onto the wearer, with a back panel to support the baby and straps that buckle or wrap around the wearer’s back.
1. Start in a comfortable posture
While focusing on the safety of your baby when trying a new technique or carrier, it’s easy to forget about yourself and to set yourself up for comfort. Commence as you mean to continue and assume a comfortable posture in your body before finishing off your carry. Ask for help, review yourself in the mirror or do a quick body scan and check for any tension in your neck, shoulders, arm or back. Ensure you are not holding your breath or bracing which may impact on your comfort. Stand tall, with shoulders low and neck long, breathing evenly and not tilting your body to any one side.
If you notice pressure anywhere, attend to it quickly while merely a discomfort rather than letting it build and becoming painful. Perhaps the carry is too tight and requires adjustment somewhere. Alternatively, if you feel that you are trying to fill the space between you and the carrier by lifting your shoulders, rounding your spine or puffing out your chest, then it is possible that your carry is not tight enough. Remember that your child is finely tuned to your mood and will pick up any stress, often manifesting it for you by struggling to get out of the carry. If it is uncomfortable for you, then it is likely uncomfortable for them, especially as you start to shift your posture to find a comfy position.
2. Balance your centre of gravity with that of your child
Using a carrier replicates the arms of the wearer around the child, reducing upper limb fatigue, pressure on wrists and allowing hands to be free for other tasks. Optimising comfort when carrying your baby requires you to balance your centre of gravity with that of your child so that you can stand erect without effort, discomfort or risk of injury. In standing, the body will respond to a change in position of your centre of gravity with postural shifts that allow you to stay upright.
Your centre of gravity is the point where all the forces working on your body are balanced and in equilibrium. As a result, this point does not have to be inside your body, especially with added loads or movements. Adding the weight of your child to your body moves your centre of gravity and requires a postural response for the body to say upright. One only need consider how far you need to lean sideways to balance your toddler on your hip or lean backwards to accommodate your baby in arms on your front. These postural responses are not necessarily comfortable and when sustained can cause pain and discomfort.
A comfortable carry causes minimal displacement of your centre of gravity and the postural adjustments you need to make are small and less likely to cause joint or muscle strain. If your carry is not comfortable and you find yourself leaning one way to stay upright, consider how you might be able to balance your centre of gravity better with your child.
Generally, carrying the child upright, high and central on your chest or back balances their centre of gravity with yours. This ideal height can be achieved by placing you and your child heart to heart regardless of whether you carry them on your front or back. Also consider checking the ways in which your child’s centre of gravity can be drawn and held closer to you. Ensuring your carrier is firmly fitted minimises additional displacement if the child moves in the carrier. Carrying your child in a deep-seated squat position makes them smaller and draws their centre of gravity inwards and closer to you, which may make it more comfortable.
3. Let the carrier do the work
This might sound obvious, however many issues with comfort when babywearing come from not allowing the carrier to do the work. Lifting your shoulders, shifting your centre of gravity, using your hands for support when upright and pain or discomfort are some of the signs that the carrier is not doing its work.
There could be many reasons for this. Perhaps the carrier is too tight, too loose or a combination of both. Perhaps the carrier is being asked to do something beyond its capacity or the design of the carry is not appropriate for you and your child. Whatever the reason, if you don’t feel you can relax and let the carrier hold the baby without extra support, the carrier is not correctly fitted and requires adjustment.
4. Use the features of your carrier to your advantage
The features of baby carriers are numerous, with each component of the carrier adjustable to make it more comfortable. It may take some exploration to determine which one/s you might need to help the carrier do the work of holding your child. Remember your carrier needs to be firmly fitted in all the right places to ensure comfort for you and your baby. Be aware of the manufacturer’s weight limits and guidelines and consider any other conditions you may have such as mastitis, which can influence how you use your carrier due to pressure on your body.
An ideal carry is one where the weight of the child is borne across the whole body. There is minimal loading on sensitive structures such as neck muscles or forces causing the body to work hard to remain upright. Start at the waistband and work your way through the features of the carrier.
The waistband should be worn tight and high on the waist. Tighten to the point that you can fit only your fingertips between the top of the waistband and your body. This is important to set a firm base for the rest of the carrier to do its job and to hold your child firmly against your body. A higher waistband is also a key for a comfortable back carry.
The back panel offers most support and safety for your baby when it covers most of your child’s back and minimises displacement of their centre of gravity for your comfort. The height of the panel depends on the head control of the child and if they are asleep. To position for maximum back panel support, sit the baby deep in the seat, tuck the pelvis if needed and then tighten the straps of the carrier. Additional support can be provided by using a hood or back panel extension.
For safety reasons, ensure your child is visible, the back panel is no higher than the lower part of their ear, and their head is not covered. If your child is too deep in the carrier to be seen clearly, you may need to use an insert (if appropriate) or wear your waistband higher to absorb some of the height of the back panel.
The chest strap is an important feature for safety and comfort, especially in a front carry. Most carriers have moveable chest straps, meaning they can shift up or down along the shoulder straps they secure. When fitted in a front carry, the chest strap should be in line with the lower edge of the shoulder blade, often referred to as the bra line. It should make a horizontal cross along the spine. This point is around the maximum curve of the thoracic kyphosis (the area of spine between your shoulder blades) and is key for a comfortable carry.
Wearing the chest strap above this line creates a force which tries to curve the spine further into a kyphosis (slouched posture). To remain upright, the body pushes back and straightens the spine which can result in pain and discomfort through the mid back and often also the lower back, neck and shoulders.
If the chest strap is not in the right spot, move it. This may mean getting someone to help you position it correctly, or you may need to undo your carrier and shift the chest strap until you get it where you want it to be. Once it is in the right spot, leave it there and use the functionality of your shoulder straps to loosen and tighten the carrier instead. If you cannot get a comfy position for the chest strap, then crossing your shoulder straps may be a more comfortable option for you.
The shoulder straps spread the load across the upper body and hence are important for comfort. They should always be worn flat and firm against your body. If the straps are worn crossed in a front carry, wear the point of crossing as close to the lower edge of the shoulder blade as possible (as described above for the chest strap). If wearing the shoulder straps straight, the chest strap should form an “H” shape between the shoulder straps at the lower edge of the shoulder blade. There should be no slack between you and the shoulder straps, tighten them so the carrier is firmly secured against you. If your child complains that they are being squashed, then gently release the tension until you find a happy balance.
Some carriers have additional adjusters of the shoulder straps, called perfect fit adjustors (PFAs), close to the top of the back panel. If there is slack in the carrier around this area, then you can tighten these PFAs to remove any looseness through the shoulder straps. If available, tighten these PFAs last in a front carry and first in a back carry.
Go forth in comfort
Wearing your baby should be a joy, not something to make you cringe. A well-fitted suitable carrier can be comfortable regardless of the age and weight of your child. In addition to the ideas outlined above, The Babywearing Practice website www.thebabywearingpractice.com.au has a wonderful library of tips on how to comfortably wear your baby. If you just can’t manage to find comfort despite implementing these tips, I encourage you to seek support from a qualified babywearing consultant to help you get your Goldilocks carrier fitting for you and your child.
Babywearing must first and foremost be safe for both wearer and child. The Babywearing Practice has an easy to remember SAFE acronym: Secure, Airways, Firm, Eyeline.
Secure – baby is securely attached to the carer’s body
Airways – baby is upright, head is neutral, mouth and nose are unobstructed, chin is off chest
Firm – baby is firmly held in the carrier, with no gaps between the baby and carer’s body or carrier
Eyeline – baby is in view and you can see them easily