Deciding on the type of baby carrier that will work best for your family can be a very complicated process. There are a LOT of types and choices, and each one has its pro's and con's. That's why I own so many! (It has nothing to do with wants. It's all pro's and con's of different types. ;-) Well, that's what I tell my husband!).
Your first step after you decide you want to baby wear is deciding on the style of carrier.
There are lots of styles and types of carriers - this is a focus on soft structured carriers or SSC's. A SSC is probably what you picture when you think of babywearing. Its like an empty backpack that your baby sits in. Ideally, you want something that keeps your baby in the optimal ergonomic shape (Think 'M' shape with knees and bum) and has coverage from one knee to the other knee as long as baby isn't walking yet. They don't have a hard frame to them and can usually be worn on the front or back with some giving you the option to forward face or wear the baby on your hip.
Once you've narrowed it down, choosing a brand can be equally complicated. Soft Structured carriers can be particularly confusing. Ask your friends and they will give you the name of their favorite, or the one they hear the most (*cough* Tula *cough*). Even if it's the most popular, the unique fit of different SSC's means that what works best for your best friend, might not work best for you.
So how do you decide?
How do you make a choice?
Here are my 10 tips on how to choose a soft structured carrier
1. Try them on if you can.The only 'real' way you're going to know if something is comfortable is if you try it on. Your best friend loves her carrier? Borrow it and wear your baby in it for a while. Wear her baby for a while too if that's possible - you're baby won't be this size and weight forever so you want to make sure it's something that will grow with you and continue to meet your needs.
There are some brick and mortar stores that carry a lot of the popular brands so seek them out and go there to try them on, or, hire someone to come to your home if they carry a lot in their teaching stash. Personally, I carry 6 brands with me, so will at least give you an idea of styles and features that you're looking for. Worst case - use this list to make an educated choice about the differences then try it on before you 'commit' to it.
2. The height and structure of the waist band.
Some of the carriers have very stiff, tall waist bands and some are much shorter and softer to work with. What is most comfortable for you will depend on things like the height of your torso, how high you wear you pants and the amount of padding around your middle. Someone who has a shorter torso is going to prefer a stiffer, narrower waist band and someone with extra padding around the middle might like something a bit softer that doesn't dig as much. Personally, I like a softer waist band - but I know a lot of my clients prefer the structure of the really stiff ones. Even if you can't try before you buy, when you do get your carrier, pay attention to this feature before you commit (cut the tags off, wash it etc).
3. Padding on the shoulder straps
While you might think that more padding on the shoulder is going to make things more comfortable, in reality bulky padding might get in the way. For most people there is a happy medium for padding - none is not enough but the bulkiest is to much. Keep in mind, when you're baby is on, it's the waist and your back that are carrying the weight, not your shoulders, so even really padded shoulders aren't going to necessarily make things more comfortable.
4. How do you tighten the shoulder straps?
Once you get your baby on, you need to be bale to snug everything down and get it tight. Sometimes straps are tightened from the top of the attachment and sometimes it's from the bottom. Some carriers allow tightening from both attachment points. The different tightening motions use either your biceps or your triceps and what works better is all about personal preference.
5. Where does the waist do up?
Some waist buckles do up in the middle so that the buckle sits in the middle of your back. Others do up more on the side so the buckle sits around your hip. There are advantages and disadvantages to each. If the buckle does up in the middle of your back and you are sitting for a long time with your baby on, the buckle might get irritating to your back. In the same way, a buckle that does up on your hip, might get annoying if you're carrying a bag or your arm in rubbing up against it while walking. When using your carrier for a front carry, you are going to put the carrier on and then pick up your baby. But on your back, depending on how you get your baby on, you may be contending with a baby while doing up the waist. All these things are important to consider that when thinking about what you prefer.
6. Can you do up the top buckle without dislocating your arm?
Most soft structured carriers have two buckles, the waist buckle and the top buckle that stops the shoulder straps form falling of your shoulders. The top buckle should move up and down to accommodate the different positions that it needs to rest in when carrying your baby on your front or your back. The method that it moves up and down, and how easily you can do that when your baby is on your back is another important determining factor when you're deciding on a carrier. Some carriers have a mechanism that allows this buckle to move up and down like a zipper. For others its a strap that wraps around the shoulder strap and moves. Other still have a ribbon down the middle of the shoulder strap and the buckle moves on that.
7. Can you reach the hood straps while baby is on your back?
When baby is on your back, the primary function of the hood is to bring their head in against your back when they fall asleep. Since most babies don't fall asleep before you put them up, or resist the hood until they are asleep, putting the hood on when baby first goes on your back isn't really going to work. You want to be able to access the hood and use it if you are alone - if possible. Some of the carriers have straps on their hood that are long enough to grab and others don't.
A word of caution here - just like with car seats, aftermarket products that attach to carriers haven't been tested with the carrier and therefore can't really be considered safe.
8. Does this carrier have special features that work for you?
Each carrier has different 'special' features that make it unique. Some brands have attachments like pockets or warmers or rain covers. Others allow for different types of carries (front, back, forward facing, hip) or have different options that are designed to make them more comfortable. Others still might change into something when you're not using it as a carrier or be designed for a specific use - like in the water. Different options might work better in different circumstances so be careful - you could end up owning a lot of carriers!
9. Are there features that don't work for you?
There are LOTS of options out there. If you are looking and come across something that doesn't work, keep looking. Chances are there is another carrier that doesn't do that, or one where that feature isn't as prominent.
10. Try them on
There are LOTS of options, so even if you can't 'try before you buy' don't be afraid to try and send it back. Play with it, and see what you like and don't like. You are potentially going to be wearing this a lot, so you want to make sure it's comfortable!
Still need help deciding? Schedule a babywearing consult to learn more about the options available.
What do you like or not like about your soft structured carrier?
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