With the recent Beco and Ellaroo recalls, sling safety has been on my mind and the minds of many babywearers. At Magic City Slingers meetings, and in our internet presence as well, we try to promote safe babywearing practices. For example, we try to raise awareness about positioning newborns so that their airways remain open and unobstructed. Now is a good time to think about what makes a particular sling more or less risky than another sling.
I think it’s helpful to think of babywearing as a skill rather than as a function of a particular baby carrier. There are lots of parenting skills … diapering, burping, feeding, bathing … pretty much everything you do with a baby involves skill, so it’s no stretch to think of babywearing as another baby-care skill. Thinking of it this way, to me, helps remind us that we as caregivers are the most important factor in babywearing — not the sling, which is just a tool. Nevertheless, slings are essential tools, and we need them to work properly. So on with some nuts-and-bolts comments about sling safety.
One wonderful thing about wraparound slings is that there are no seams, rings, or buckles that can fail. What’s a safe wrap? One that doesn’t have rips or weak points in the fabric, and one with enough texture to stay put when you wrap. Avoid slippery fabric. Don’t use fabric softener on wraps, as it can change the texture and make the wrap rather slippery. (Try stripping with vinegar if this is a problem.)
A ring sling is essentially a short wrap, or shawl, with two rings attached to an end. There are, of course, variations, particularly with heavily padded, closed tail slings like the NoJo, Sling Ezee, or Over The Shoulder Baby Holder, but the variations don’t change the safety equation. With the addition of rings, two potential weak points are added to a shawl: the rings themselves, and the means by which they are attached to the shawl.
When purchasing a sling, find out about the rings. The current standard practice among reputable sling manufacturers is to use nylon rings, aluminum rings, or chrome-plated welded steel rings. (Also, the current standard diameter for metal rings is now approximately 1/4-inch. Thinner 1/8-inch macrame rings, while once commonplace in slings, are no longer used by sling manufacturers in the know. The ring diameter isn’t so much a safety issue as it is a function issue. Slings with thin rings are a lot harder to adjust.)
Sling Rings is a company that manufactures rings especially for baby slings; they weight test their rings to 250 pounds. Nifty Rings also offers aluminum rings for use in slings; however, I don’t happen to have any information about their testing.
Thread and Stitching
The way the rings are attached to the sling is also important, as it can be a weak point. Weak ring attachment was the reason for the 2005 Zolowear sling recall. (Which is, by the way, my favorite recall ever … with no reports of falls or injuries, the company nevertheless took the proactive approach to take potentially dangerous slings off the market.) With the kind of stress we put our slings through, one row of stitching is simply not sufficient. In fact, most reputable sling manufacturers do not use cotton thread. Look for multiple rows of stitching with quality thread. Don’t feel bad about asking the vendor about the thread. Vendors who are concerned about the safety of your little one are hip to this issue and can tell you how they assure that their thread and stitching method are secure.
A pouch is simply a tube of fabric with a curved seam. The seam is the potential weak point. Typically, manufacturers use a french seam stitched down to look like a flat-felled seam. This type of seam involves three rows of stitching and is generally considered a strong seam. Concerns about thread apply, of course, and quality thread is important. Again, cotton thread is not the best choice.
With pouches, size is also a safety issue … especially when carrying newborns in the cradle position. Squishing a newborn into a too-small pouch in the cradle position can be deadly. See the Correct Newborn Positioning article.
Mei Tais and other Asian-inspired carriers
With the addition of more seams and points of attachment comes an increase in possible weak points. Mei tais have top and bottom straps attached to a main body. Again, strong, quality thread is important for safe construction. Straps must be attached with strong thread, and they should be securely attached … usually with more than one row of stitching. Many manufacturers use an “X Box” to reinforce the straps, but this is not the on ly method of reinforcement. Here’s a thread on TheBabyWearer discussing bartacking as reinfocement. On mei tais with two-layered bodies, you can see the strap reinforcement, but on mei tais with three layers (including most reversible mei tais), the straps are usually affixed to the hidden inner layer, so you can’t inspect the construction. So ask about it before you buy!
Fabric choice is also important for mei tai safety … particularly strap fabric. For example, there have been some problems with cotton corduroy straps where the corduroy has ripped. Strap and body fabric should be strong; quilting cotton is insufficient. Weaker fabrics can be reinforced with strong ones … so, for example, cotton corduroy could be used as an outer, decorative, strap fabric over a strong canvas inner layer.
Here is a fact-filled thread at TheBabyWearer about what makes a quality mei tai and what doesn’t. And this thread is a must-see tutorial on how to check a carrier (specifically, a mei tai) before using it. I think of this as a pre-flight check … I wouldn’t want to fly in a plane if the pilot didn’t do the pre-flight check, so I assume my baby wouldn’t want to ride in a carrier if I was too lazy to check it before each use.
Soft Structured Carriers
Buckle carriers, also known as “soft structured carriers,” have safety issues similar to mei tais, plus a few more. I regret that I have no information about how to check for buckle safety other than simply using the buckle, which of course doesn’t tell you whether the plastic will break during use. Because it’s possible for a buckle to break during use, always thread the buckle through the safety elastic bands (if the carrier has them … Ergo carriers do have them). The bands are designed to “catch” the buckle if it fails.
Some other possible safety issues with buckle carriers involve the webbing between the padded straps and the buckles. Issue number one is whether the webbing is securely stitched to the straps. This was the problem with the 2006 Beco recall of a batch of ten carriers: the webbing was not extended far enough into the straps; therefore, the reinforcing stitches missed the webbing. This is probably a hazard that consumers simply cannot reliably check for. You might be able to feel whether the webbing extends to the reinforcing stitches, but you might not. Another possible problem with webbing is that sometimes webbing can be slippery, so that there’s not enough friction for the buckles to work properly. The only way I know of to test for slippery webbing is to use the carrier with a spotter to see whether the webbing slips through the buckles.
So, what’s a consumer to do? First of all, if you’ve made it this far, you’re already a pretty safety savvy sling shopper. Knowing what you’re buying and where the potential problems are is half the battle … you can check for many potential problems, and you can ask important questions about sling construction. The simpler the sling construction, the fewer the potential problems.
Finally, for perspective, I think it’s worth noting that the sum total of reported injuries for all of the sling recalls mentioned so far is zero. For comparison, half a dozen babies suffered fractured skulls after falling out of the Baby Bjorn frontpacks recalled in 1999. There have been other reports of injuries, including fractured skulls, associated with other frontpacks or framed backpacks, and L.L. Bean was fined $750,000 for failure to make a timely report to the Consumer Product Safety Commission when they discovered that one of their backpacks was unsafe.
I could be wrong, but there seems to me to be a difference between small companies that specialize in baby carriers and big companies that have many products. The small carrier companies that are owned and operated by babywearers have been quick to recall problematic slings, and the problems haven’t been as severe as those associated with larger manufacturers.