What does it mean to carry your baby in a sling ergonomically?
For a new mother, carrying her baby in arms while she tries to make a cup of tea, eat lunch, carry dirty laundry, and to rock her baby to sleep, can be hard work physically and make normal daily tasks challenging.
More and more parents are turning to baby slings to make their lives easier and to nurture a close relationship with their baby, who invariably wants to be held close to them.
A comfortable baby carrier will make light work of carrying and be physically good for you both. But not all baby slings are equal in terms of comfort for the baby or parent.
Firstly, what do we mean by ergonomic?
Ergonomics is all about designing things so they can be used easily and safely. When that is applied to something that is worn on the human body it covers physiology, fit and biomechanics. When applied to baby carrying it is more specifically related to whether carrying is healthy for the body, working in harmony with the baby's physiology and preventing risk of injury to the parent's body.
If it hurts or is uncomfortable then it can be improved on in the way that is used, or an alternative can be tried.
What makes a carrier ergonomic for the parents?
A carrier is comfortable for the parent, with minimal strain on muscles and effect on posture, if it has the adjustability to ensure the load of their infant can be held close to their body. A baby carrier should ideally allow the infant to be carried high on the body, so they are close enough to kiss their head, and hold them snugly. A baby is then carried close to the parent's centre of gravity making the load much easier to bear, so they feel lighter and putting less strain on your body.
If a carrier is not tight enough and/or your baby is sitting low on your body, or your baby's legs are dangling and not well supported, then your child's weight will be dragging down on you, feeling heavy and could lead to back strain or injury.
As I said, not all slings are equal. The better carriers are those that are fully adjustable or at least fit well, and have a wider base so a baby is in a physiologically healthy position (more on this below). In short, it is more comfortable to carry your child with their legs supported straddling your body.
What makes a carrier ergonomic for the baby?
There are many aspects of a baby's physiology that need to be considered if we are concerned with carrying our baby in a way that is optimal for their physical development. We can let our baby be our guide. How do they like to be held, how do they position themselves?
There are other positions we can carry in, but from birth we will carry our baby in an upright position with their chest to our chest.
Most often babies bring their knees up to their chest, so they are higher than their bottom, with their weight tilted into their pelvis. Their hips are very slightly spread from birth, but very little, becoming naturally wider as they develop over the first 3-4 months. This positioning and a sling tightened snugly for back support, protects their spine and the muscles.Until a baby can sit unaided they need back support up to their neck, and the sling must be tight to hold them snug to their parent's chest.
The 'spread squat' position with knees higher than bottom, and a rounded bottom so they are seated in the carrier, is the most comfortable and healthy for normal hip development.
Baby is our guide: whatever our baby naturally is like in arms, the sling should follow as a natural extension of being in arms.
Physiological benefits in the baby
These aren't related to ergonomics but in a piece about the physicality of carrying I thought it would be remiss of me to omit the positive physical effects of carrying besides whether a carrier is ergonomic.
These include the gentle movement being toning for their muscles and stimulating the vestibular system in the brain, which is all about balance and coordination. Being carried helps to strengthen their chest and neck muscles which is what tummy time aims to achieve, and the closeness where they can feel your warmth, heartbeat and breathing, helps to regulate their own temperature, heart rate and breathing.
It is of the utmost importance that a baby is safe when carried. This comes down to maintaining their airway, ensuring they are securely in the sling and our ability to monitor that.
They must not be slumped in the sling, and their back must be supported so they are held as sturdily as if they were being held in arms. The parent must always be able to see their baby's face, see their nose, mouth and check their chin is not tucked into their chest. Being high up makes it easy to keep an eye on our baby.
Besides these safety precautions, being on your chest in a sling is one of the safest places to be.
Physiological factors in the parent
There is an element of building up your muscles and strength to carry your baby. For the mother recovering from birth and with her body going back to normal, while she is regaining her core strength, she cannot expect to be able to carry for hours straight away. A sling may also work different muscles that you haven't used before.
During pregnancy a mother's posture has changed considerably, so an ergonomic carrier used well can enable her to stand normally again and regain her pre-pregnancy posture.
Carrying your baby in a sling avoids constant holding or lifting your baby from one surface to another, or a heavy carseat, or lifting a pram out the boot, even more so if recovering from a caesarean section. Pushing a load like a pram can be physically demanding compared to wearing your baby in a sling, at a time when you are most vulnerable to injury, especially while the hormone relaxin still remains in the body for the first few to several months after birth.
Some parents already suffer from physical conditions or may have current or historic back problems so the way your baby's weight is distributed throughout your body in a sling should be carefully considered if there is to be an option that is most comfortable and not exacerbate any issues.
How will I know if the sling is right for us?
It is a great idea to try before you buy, which you can do through the sling library hire service at Carry My Baby in Leicester, because a carrier might be comfortable after a few minutes, but you won't know for sure until an hour later. Expert hands on advice in helping to fit it well to you and your baby and learning to adjust it correctly can make a real difference too, with Joanna Mockford, a trained Baby Carrying Consultant. You can have a carrier that is ergonomic but not use it in the most optimal way. Carry My Baby also offers a consultancy service and workshops so you can learn more about the positive effects of baby carrying, physiology, safety and how to use different types.
Whether you have particular physical needs or not, seeking out local support at a Sling Meet, Sling Library or a Baby Carrying Consultant will help ensure you and your baby are comfortable when carrying.