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In the parenthood

Baby wearing’s hip, but is it safe?

Tips for using slings with care

(Karin Dreyer/Getty Images)
By Lylah M. Alphonse
Globe Staff / April 1, 2010

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People have been carrying their infants in slings, pouches, and packs for centuries, and in the 1960s, it became common to see women and men in the US with their babies bound close to their bodies. Now, “baby wearing’’ has gone from hippie to hipster, with the Maclaren crowd eschewing expensive strollers for chic, hand-dyed silk slings. And with the increase in popularity has come an increase in concern about the dangers posed by soft, unstructured carriers.

Last week, Infantino recalled more than a million of its “SlingRider’’ and “Wendy Bellissimo’’ infant slings, offering free replacements less than two weeks after the US Consumer and Product Safety Commission issued a warning about using slings for infants younger than 4 months. While 14 deaths have been reported over the last 20 years, three occurred in 2009 and 12 have involved babies younger than 4 months. “Many of the babies who died in slings were either a low birth weight twin, were born prematurely or had breathing issues such as a cold,’’ the report pointed out.

The danger is in the way a very small baby can suffocate in a sling-type carrier. Preemies and babies younger than 4 months are most at risk, because they aren’t strong enough to turn their heads or push their faces away from the cloth. But those babies are also the ones that can most benefit from baby wearing, according to Melissa Radcliffe, owner of baby carrier and accessory company TogetherBe.

“All of the benefits of kangaroo care can be mimicked by being worn in a baby carrier,’’ says Radcliffe, a mother of three, referring to the technique of holding a newborn upright against the parent’s chest, skin-to-skin, with a blanket or the parent’s shirt covering both parent and child. Kangaroo care has been shown to help stabilize the baby’s heartbeat, regulate breathing, improve oxygen-saturation levels, improve breastfeeding and sleep patterns, and decrease crying, according to information from several experts, including those at Children’s Hospital Boston and Harvard Medical School.

The most popular types of baby carriers include pouch slings (“Like a Miss America sash,’’ Radcliffe says), ring slings (like the Maya wrap, which uses a set of rings to adjust and secure the material), Mei Tais (a square of fabric secured by four long ties, based on a traditional Asian design), wraps (several yards of stretchy cloth that can be tied in different ways), and structured soft carriers (like the Baby Bjorn). Most of them allow parents to carry their child on their chest or on their back, but the safest way to wear a baby is upright and facing you, in a tummy-to-tummy position, Radcliffe says.

How do you know if your baby is safe in his sling? Here are some guidelines:

1. Make sure he’s not curled up tightly in a chin-to-chest position, say the experts at Babywearing International (www.babywearinginternational.org). This compresses the baby’s airway, making it difficult for them to cry or breathe.

2. Make sure you can see the baby’s face. If you have to move the fabric away from your baby’s face, you need to adjust the baby or use a different type of carrier.

3. Keep your baby close enough to kiss. “If you bend your head down, you should be able to kiss the top of their head,’’ Radcliffe says.

4. Make sure your baby carrier mimics the “in arms’’ position. That is, when your baby is in the carrier, she should be in the same position that she would be if you were carrying her in your arms: fairly snug to your chest and somewhat close to your face, according to Babywearing International.

5. Choose a carrier that’s appropriate for your child’s age and weight. Some carriers are safe for toddlers up to 35 pounds, others are better for smaller babies.

For recall information, visit the US Consumer Product Safety Commission at www.cpsc.gov. If you’re confused about your carrier, or worried that it might not be safe, contact a store for a baby wearing demonstration (Crunchy Granola Baby in Salem offers classes every third Saturday and walk-in instruction any time; call 978-741-0800) or find more information at www.babywearinginternational.org

Lylah M. Alphonse writes about parenting news, tips, and trends at Child Caring on Boston.com/Moms. Her new blog, In the Parenthood, debuts there this month. E-mail her at LAlphonse@globe.com or follow her on Twitter: @WriteEditRepeat.

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