Safety questions have been raised in the US about some baby slings.
Slings taking shots
No longer the preserve of sandal-wearing hippies, a new generation of yummy-mummies, including celebrities such as Nicole Kidman, has taken to strapping their babies to them with bright and funky fabric slings as they go about their everyday tasks. And it is an understandable instinct: "baby wearing" is a principle of attachment-parenting which maintains that carrying your baby for several hours a day benefits both their emotional and physical development.
But just over two weeks ago, the US Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) released a warning to parents that certain baby slings are being investigated for causing the deaths of 14 babies over the last 20 years, including one as young as six days old. There are two main concerns about the style of sling under investigation: one is that babies may fall out and the other is the danger of death by suffocation.
Last week, Infantino, which is facing a multimillion-dollar lawsuit over the death of a baby in one of its slings, together with the CPSC, announced the recall of over a million of its Infantino SlingRiders and Wendy Bellissimo slings in the US and Canada. Shortly afterwards, Mothercare withdrew all baby slings from its stores, pending its own review of the safety aspects, despite having reported a 100 per cent increase in sales of slings 18 months ago.
However, there are several other styles of baby carriers that have not been implicated in the CPSC investigation, mentioned below. As Dr Arthur Eidelman, the vice president of the Academy of Breastfeeding Medicine, pointed out in a press release last week: "All slings are not created equal. Unfortunately, however, the CPSC issued a blanket warning about all types of sling carriers." The slings that gave rise to the concern include bag slings that do indeed look like a large handbag. Some manufacturers seem to have taken the idea of "baby as accessory" to new heights, as they actively market the bag slings as something to keep all your bits and bobs and babies in. The simplicity of this design is appealing; there are no buckles, rings or ties to adjust. The baby, from newborn upwards, is placed inside the bag, the sides of which are raised above the infant's head and the bag is worn across one shoulder.
Gideon Wilkins is the managing director of Wilkinet Baby Carriers in the UK. The Wilkinet Baby Carrier, which is a different style to the slings being investigated by the CPSC, was designed by his mother, Sally, in the 1970s and has been a favourite of mothers ever since. "I think the [CPSC] statement is a fair statement and there is not a lot in it that I disagree with," said Wilkins. "They suggest a fair set of guidelines. If you look at many sling stockists' websites, this sort of thing was probably there a year or so ago."
Wilkins added: "The advice is not saying carriers are unsafe, but that parents have to be conscientious. A baby's breathing can be challenged in different situations. "It's fair advice that shouldn't be panicked over. It's not a reason not to use a baby carrier, but it is possibly a reason to be more cautious about the type you buy. A newborn baby is very fragile and it is reasonable to pay attention whether you put them in a car seat, a baby carrier or a pushchair."
Dr Omer Abbas Ahmed, a consultant paediatrician at the American Hospital in Dubai, points out that the enduring appeal of baby carrying may lie in the medical benefits associated with it. He explains that in addition to preventing hip dysplasia (a common congenital hip malformation) and helping premature babies' survival rates, carrying a baby for periods of time can assist breastfeeding and attune a mother to her baby's general well-being.
"The more physical contact, the more you get an awareness in the mother about what the baby is doing, how he feels, the breathing and the heart rate of the baby," he said. According to Dr Ahmed, it is thought that attachment parenting - keeping babies physically close to their mothers - might be useful in preventing cot death, or sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS). However, one of the contributing factors in SIDS is insufficient airflow, thought to be a factor in the deaths of the babies in the slings.
"The precautions people should take in relation to preventing SIDS are the same in relation to slings. They must be aware of whether the baby can breathe: young babies have poor head control, and if their airflow is restricted, practically by the fabric or physically because the chin is on the chest, this is the same as in SIDS. As long as the baby's head is upright and the mother can perform visual checks, there are benefits."
There are other benefits associated with carrying babies in carriers or slings, one of which is to prevent positional plagiocephaly, or flat head syndrome. There has been a dramatic increase in the incidence of plagiocephaly in recent years, thought to be a result of babies spending longer on their backs, both in their cots and as they spend more time in car seats and buggies. Furthermore, a study in 1986 by two researchers from McGill University in Canada found that babies who were carried for several hours a day cried 43 per cent less overall and 51 per cent less during the evening.
Claire Limpkin is a mother of two and a self-professed "babywearer". Limpkin, who lives in Abu Dhabi, has used a ring sling both with her son, now aged three, and her daughter, 11 months. "I use it every day. It's so easy I have two hands free and as everyone who has a baby knows, they like to be carried. As soon as I put her in the carrier she is happy and she'll stay in there for hours. She eats her snacks in it, sleeps in it. It's invaluable," she said.
Limpkin believes there are significant benefits for the baby to being in a carrier. "They are eye level with you, they talk to you and you talk to them. You interact with them all the time. It's much better than having them in a buggy, where they are at knee-level looking away from you while you go around the shops for two or three hours. "We talk all the time. She sees what I'm doing, what I'm seeing."
Baby wraps can appear fiendishly difficult to use and manufacturers often have instructional videos on their websites and detailed diagrams to help first-time users. In the UK, www.slingmeet.co.uk organises coffee mornings for mothers at which more experienced sling- and wrap-users can offer them assistance. Here in the UAE, babywearers have been known to give impromptu demonstrations at toddler groups if asked, so passionate are they about the benefits of baby carrying.
Despite the tragic deaths in the US, there are still compelling reasons for using other types of baby carriers. The mandatory standards for slings, which the CPSC is working towards, are a step in the right direction. Companies producing baby equipment are falling over themselves to creat products for babywearers. It is only fair that parents should be able to assume that the basic designs are safe and fit for use. There are various types of carriers. They include:
Ring slings There are lengths of fabric with a ring at one end through which you loop the other end to make a sling. The sling is then worn over one shoulder and can be adjusted to fit. This is very versatile and can accommodate babies from birth to toddlers. Brands include Maya Wrap, Huggababy, Wildslings, Ellaroo. Wrap slings Usually one long, piece of fabric, up to five metres long, which can be wound around the mother's torso and over the shoulders to create a pouch for the baby to sit in.
As old as time in design, they are usually cotton, either stretchy or woven, but can be tricky to master. Brands include Storchenwiege, Ellaroo, Moby Wrap, and GypsyMama. Pouch, or bag, slings The one-size-fits-all approach, with no fiddling with straps, buckles or tying, appeals to many but can make it harder to ensure that the baby is in the correct carry position. Brands that use this style include Hotslings, Lifft, Karma Baby and Munchkin.
Baby Carriers Probably the best-known manufacturer is BabyBjörn. These structured carriers are suitable from birth and very easy to use. It has adjustable straps and, as with wraps, babies of different sizes can be carried either facing away or towards the carrier. Hybrids Wilkinet combines the structured upright back of the BabyBjörns with the sitting position and tying methodology of the wraps.
Babies are supported by the material scooping under their bottoms rather than sitting with their legs through holes in a fabric seat. Other hybrids are the Close Baby Carrier which is a combination of a ring sling and a wrap, and the Asian-style Mei Tai.