Baby Slingin’ 101 by Kristy Dallas Alley
Cartoon by Heather Cushman-Dowdee
So you think you’re ready for the sling mafia, do ya? All right, then. Better know your stuff. Here’s the basic rundown on what’s out there—the good, the bad, and the ugly. So pay attention.
If you’ve been on the internet lately, you may have noticed that every single stay-home mom on the planet now has a home business selling cloth diapers and slings. Never fear. Despite the overwhelming number of indie companies making slings, there are really only a few basic styles to choose from. And thanks to a new website called thebabywearer.com, you can now go to one place to see and compare them all in terms of appearance, price, and user reviews. But before you go clicking away, here is some basic information and just a few caveats.
The most popular style of sling these days is easily the unpadded ring sling, a la Maya Wrap. There are tons of Maya-style slings out there, but they do all have some seemingly minor differences to consider. A big one is shoulder style. The Maya has an accordion-folded shoulder that is all sewn together except for the top flap, which is designed to be flipped over so that it caps your shoulder, anchoring the sling in place. I am a devoted MW user, but I wear it on the right shoulder instead of the left, so the cap idea doesn’t work for me. I still find it easy to keep the fabric fanned out comfortably on my shoulder, but not everyone likes that feature. Other similar slings may have a “hotdog-style” shoulder, which looks smooth on top and can be fanned out from underneath. This type of shoulder tends to act more like a strap and can be tough to situate comfortably. Growing in popularity is the fan shoulder, where the fabric is simply gathered so that it fans out evenly above the rings. This style is easy to wear comfortably, but it does tend to ride down onto the arm. A new fan-shoulder sling that will soon be distributed by Maya Wrap (and is currently available in limited numbers through Midwifery Today) is the MamaBaby sling. This is an innovative twist on the ring sling design because it is made of a super-soft jersey knit and can be worn singly or in pairs to simulate a wrap-style sling without all the fuss of putting it on. This sling also comes with directions for a lot of rings-down positions, which is unique.
A variation on the ring sling is the padded sling. The Over the Shoulder Baby Holder (OTSBH) is the mama of modern sling use and is an example of a heavily padded sling. The padding is on the shoulder and along the side “rails” of the sling. Some people like the padding because it gives the sling some structure, making it slightly easier to use with a tiny newborn. However, very padded slings are bulky and can be difficult to adjust. The “tail” of the sling is sewn together, so the top and bottom edges cannot be adjusted independently as with the unpadded versions. The only sling generally available in mass production through stores like Babies-R-Us is the padded Nojo, endorsed by Dr. William Sears. Please trust me when I tell you this is the worst sling ever. I can’t imagine what Dr. Sears is thinking. It looks a lot like the OTSBH, but since the sling can only be tightened up to where the padding starts, it tends to hang very low. Hello backache! This is the sling your sister-in-law is likely to give you with the promising “I never could figure it out, but some people swear by their slings.” Nojos give slings a bad name. My favorite variation on the padded sling is the more lightly padded Ellaroo. These come in gorgeous sarong fabrics, have light padding, and have the tail sewn only for the last few inches, allowing for separate adjustment of the top and bottom rails.
Pouch-style slings are becoming more popular thanks to Cindy Crawford’s endorsement of the New Native Baby Sling through her Babystyle catalogue. Pouches are simple to use, fold up very small, and look sleek since there is no tail hanging down. The main drawback is that a pouch can’t be adjusted, so they are less versatile. There are “adjustable pouches” on the market, including a new one from Maya Wrap and the popular fleece pouches available from Kangaroo Korner, but they are adjustable only before you put them on. For example, you could adjust it to a larger size before your husband puts it on, then make it smaller for yourself, but you can’t tighten or loosen it with the baby in it. There are some great pouches available on-line in stylish fabrics, and many makers will custom sew your pouch to your measurements. Size is important with a basic pouch—it either fits or it doesn’t, since there’s no adjusting. Daisy Doodles offers a custom-sewn pouch with two rows of extra stitching that can be pulled out to make the sling a little larger if it doesn’t fit when you get it (and it’s only $18!).
Wrap-style slings are also gaining popularity among avid baby wearers. A wrap consists of a long piece of fabric that you wrap around your waist and then across your chest and back in varying ways depending on the holds you want to use. Most wraps are made of stretchy knits, but too much stretch can be a bad thing. This is a good style for someone who wants to put the sling on in the morning like a shirt and leave it on all day, popping the baby in and out as needed. Another advantage of wraps is that they can be used for the same positions as front (and back) pack carriers, like the Baby Bjorn or the more heavy duty Baby Trekker, as well as traditional sling positions. Length of the wrap, fabric type, and the manufacturer’s tying instructions are the only variations in this type of sling. The Ellaroo wrap is one of the few made of woven cotton rather than interlock. Rebozos are another, and both come in vivid Mexican-style stripes.
Fabric is an important consideration no matter what style of sling you choose. In some cases, it can be what makes or breaks the usability of the sling and separates it from the pack. For example, the Maya Wrap is made of hand-loomed Guatemalan cotton, which has a unique feel, weight, and ability to “give.” Most slings patterned after the MW are made of simple shirting or other machine woven cotton, so the effect is not the same. The climate in which you live may also demand a heavier or lighter fabric. Fleece pouches are wonderful if you live where it’s cold, but don’t believe it when they tell you it “breathes” and is comfortable up to 80 degrees. It’s not. For hotter climates and anywhere that has summer heat, you might want to pick up an extra, inexpensive sling made of water-friendly mesh or UV-blocking SoarveilTM fabric. And some makers, like Zolo, Taylor Made Treasures, and Chic Papoose specialize in beautiful, unusual fabrics, like silk, batiks, and sophisticated prints for the fashionista mama. It’s important to choose a sling that matches your style. It’s not very handy if you don’t want to be seen wearing it in public!
Whenever possible, buy a sling from someone local who can show you how to use it. If that’s not an option, choose an on-line retailer with a good reputation for customer service and availability in case you have questions about using your sling. La Leche League or Attachment Parenting International meetings are good places to find experienced sling mamas to help you out on the learning curve. There are also plentiful instructions and pictures to help you use any type of sling on thebabywearer.com, as well as forums where you can ask for advice.
Here are just a few basic pointers to get you started. Always make sure the sling is fanned out comfortably on the ball of your shoulder before you put the baby in it. If it has rings, they should be about where a corsage would go, not up by your neck and not smashing your boob. The baby’s butt should be the lowest point, which should never hang lower than your waist. If you are using a hip or tummy-to-tummy position with the baby’s feet hanging out, make sure the fabric goes down to the back of his or her knees and up to the armpits. If you want to nurse in a ring sling, do it with the baby’s head opposite the rings. In a pouch, slide the whole sling down so the baby is in the football hold position to nurse. And in any sling, if you are cradling the baby, there should always be fabric between the two of you. Lastly, stop worrying that your baby is “scrunched up.” Especially for newborns, this is womb-like and comfortable. They will let you know if they don’t like it, believe me! Ok, and one more thing; don’t put your sling away too soon. The hip carry can take you from about six months to over two years. So what are you waiting for? Get slingin’, mama!