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Buying Guide: Baby Carriers

January 2015

Wearing your baby in a carrier is a great alternative to carrying him around in your arms or pushing him around in a stroller all the time. Not only can it promote bonding and ease fussiness, but it's also very practical — you'll be able to use both hands for other activities, you'll be much more agile (e.g. in small or crowded spaces, or on hikes), and you can even (if desired) breastfeed hands-free on the go! In this article we'll share what to look for when buying a baby carrier for your child at each stage of development.

CONTENTS:

When you're done here, don't miss our top picks for best baby carriers by subcategory:

Note: This guide may contain affiliate links, meaning we may receive a small commission on any purchases that you make (at no cost to you); see our full disclosure.

Why babywear?

For those who are not yet sold on babywearing, the answer is, in a nutshell: because it's awesome! Your baby will love it, because it will enable him or her to stay closer to you. Studies show that babies who are carried cry less and are healthier than babies who aren't. And you'll love it too, because your arms won't fall off, and you'll be able to keep your hands free for other things — so you can actually GET. STUFF. DONE.

Not yet convinced? Check out these articles on the benefits of babywearing from Babywearing International, Dr. Sears, and La Leche League International.

Types

There are several different kinds of baby carriers on the market — each best suited to different situations, stages of development, and body types.   There are four basic types of carriers: soft carriers, ring slings/pouches, wraparound carriers ("wraps"), and backpack carriers.

Soft carriers

Soft carriers feature shoulder (and usually also waist) straps to secure the baby on the wearer's chest/stomach, back, and/or hip.   They are very easy to use, are easy to pop baby in and out of, and often allow you to wear baby in a number of different positions. If you're only going to buy one baby carrier, and ease of use is of paramount importance to you, a soft carrier (especially a soft structured carrier) is a great choice.

Soft Structured Carriers (SSCs)

Soft structured carriers (SSCs) are soft carriers that retain their shape/form even when not being worn — and are what most mainstream folks think of when they hear the term "baby carrier" (two of the most widely known brands are the Baby Bjorn and the Ergo).  SSCs are very easy to use, are great for all the standard positions (front and back, and often also hip), and are also Daddy-friendly.  There are also a few dedicated hip carriers on the market (e.g. Scootababy); these are hands-down the most comfortable option for wearing baby on your hip, but obviously they're not as versatile as SSCs with two shoulder straps.

Soft Structured Carriers are also known as “buckle carriers.” Credit: Beco

Mei tais and Asian Baby Carriers (ABCs)

Mei tais and Asian Baby Carriers (ABCs) have less structure than SSCs (they do not retain their shape/form when not being worn, and typically have unpadded waists), and have long straps that you tie off instead of clipping a buckle. Because of the straps and the unpadded waist, mei tais are more adjustable than SSCs; for example, you can wear the waist apron-style or folded over (higher up on the waist) with a newborn, or non-apron style (and lower down on the waist) with an older baby. They also fold up smaller in your diaper bag. On the downside, due to the need to futz with straps, the learning curve is a bit steeper than with SSCs, and it's not quite as easy to pop baby in and out. The lack of a padded waistband also means baby's weight does not distribute as well to your hips, resulting in greater strain on your shoulders; as a result, mei tais are best suited for babies under use with younger babies rather than heavier ones.

A mei tai features long straps that are tied with a knot. Credit: Babyhawk

Ring slings and pouches

This family of carriers features a piece of fabric forming a loop that goes over one shoulder and around the opposite hip/waist.  The baby usually sits on your hip, but front/stomach and back carries are also possible.  Ring slings and pouches are lightweight and pack up nice and small in your diaper bag, allow you to pop baby in and out very easily, and are great for hip carries.  But because they are worn on one shoulder, they're better for smaller infants (3-6 months) and/or shorter wearing periods (the maximum amount of time varies by person — somewhere in between 20 minutes and 2 hours).   Note that these carrier types are associated with several notable safety risks, including injuries from falls and suffocation; if you do choose to use a ring sling or pouch, be sure to read up on how to use it safely.

Ring slings

Slings typically have two metal rings on one end, and an open "tail" on the other end.  The "tail" is threaded through the rings for an adjustable fit; it can be left loose, or tucked in.  

Ring slings are worn on one shoulder and are typically used to carry baby on the hip. Credit: Comfy Joey

Pouches

Pouches consist of one continuous loop/tube of fabric, featuring a deep pouch where baby sits. They may be of fixed length, or may be adjustable (e.g. using snaps or Velcro).

Wraparound carriers ("wraps")

A wraparound carrier or "wrap" is essentially a long, rectangular piece of fabric that is wrapped around your body to secure the baby against your chest back, or hip.  Some version of these has been worn by women for centuries!  Modern versions come in a range of lengths, from approx. 2.7 to 5.7m (or 9 to 19 feet), with the standard length being around 4.2 to 5.2m (depending on your size).  Wraps distribute weight very well (no pressure points), are extremely versatile, and are infinitely adjustable.  However, the learning curve is definitely steeper than that with either soft carriers or slings/pouches, and it usually takes longer to get baby in/out.  Wraps can also be difficult to put on or adjust on the go; you also run the risk of getting the tails dirty if they drag on the ground.   Wraps are especially great for newborns (up to 3-4 months), who often don't fit well in SSCs and tend to really love the womb-like nature of the wrap.

Stretchy wraps

Stretchy wraps are made of out of a stretchy knit material, usually stretch cotton.  The Moby Wrap is the best-known brand.  Stretchy wraps are cheaper and slightly easier to learn to use than woven wraps; however, they are really best suited for infants three months and younger, as the stretchy material is not supportive enough for heavier babies.  If you think you're like to want to continue wrapping your baby beyond that, consider investing directly in a woven wrap. Stretchy wraps are also not suitable for back carries.

Stretchy wraps have lots of give and are popular choices for newborns. Credit: Boba

Woven wraps

This type of wrap is woven on a loom — the most common material is 100% cotton, but wool, silk, linen, and various blends are also available.  They are more expensive, but also more supportive, than stretchy wraps — and thus can be used with newborns as well as with older, heavier babies and toddlers.  They are also often woven into beautiful patterns — some are nothing less than works of art!  Wraps come in a practically infinite number of length, fabric, and print/pattern combinations, so it wouldn't make sense for us to recommend a specific make or model as being the best fit for every parent's needs. However, some of the most popular wrap brands include: Didymos  (the originator and "Grand Dame" of the woven wrap world), Storchenwiege (known for being workhorses), Dolcino, Girasol, Natibaby, Oscha, Ellaroo, BBslen, Vanatai, and Ellevill (gorgeous patterns).

Woven wraps, more supportive than stretchy wraps, are appropriate for any age. Credit: Vanatai

Backpack carriers

These are exclusively worn on the back, and are a great choice for hiking, travel, or other outdoor pursuits.

Frame backpacks

This classic type of backpack carrier features an external metal frame, similar to old hiking backpacks — only the main cargo you're carrying is your baby, rather than backpacking gear. The external metal frame and heavily padded waistbelt help you to transfer baby's weight to your hips, allowing you to carry your baby more comfortably for a longer period of time. It's uncommon to see frame backpacks in urban settings as they are quite bulky and are quite heavy (e.g. 4-7 lbs., vs. 1-2 lbs. for most other carriers), but they are fantastic choices for extended hikes over uneven terrain.

Frame backpacks are perfect for hiking and other outdoor pursuits. Credit: Kelty

Convertible backpacks

Convertible backpacks are smaller, lighter packs (with no external frame) that convert readily from backpack into child carrier. The comfort and weight distribution are no match for what you'd get with a frame backpack, but these can be good choices for travel or shorter hikes. Backpack carriers are suitable from six months (or whenever baby is able to sit unassisted).

Convertible backpacks are well suited for travel and quick trips. Credit: Kelty

Buying advice

Do I really need a carrier? How many?

A baby carrier is a key purchase for most parents. Imagine being able to stroll with your baby around town (for example, at a friend's BBQ, the local farmer's market, or the zoo) without wearing out your arms or having to lug around a stroller — or being able to soothe or bond with baby at home while retaining use of both hands (so you can work, read, vacuum, or make dinner!).

If you do decide to get a carrier — it's very possible to get by with just one, if you choose wisely (i.e. get one that can adapt fairly well to different stages of your baby's development, such as a convertible Soft Structured Carrier or a woven wrap). However, if you anticipate doing a lot of babywearing and are not on a super-tight budget, you should consider getting one baby carrier for the newborn stage (0-6 months, when most babies don't fit well in infant carriers yet), another second one for the infant stage (6-18 months), and a third one for the toddler stage (18+ months). Carriers vary a lot in size, and this will allow you to get the best fit for your baby (e.g. full back coverage, and knee-to-knee width) at each stage.

When do I need it?

You can use a wrap, pouch, or infant carrier (with insert) from birth. An infant carrier (without insert) can be used from four to six months (once your baby has developed good head control).

Stage considerations

Your baby's age/stage of development should be a key determinant of the type of carrier that you buy. At every age and stage, make sure that your carrier that provides good back and leg (knee-to-knee) support.

Newborn stage (up to 4-6mo.)

For the newborn stage, you need a carrier that is not only sized appropriately for your little one, but also offers sufficient head and neck support. Your basic newborn choices are:

1) A wrap (stretchy or woven): Adjusts easily to fit any size baby and hold him or her snug to your body, however they have a fairly steep learning curve. The Moby and Boba are popular examples of stretchy wrap picks, and once you start getting into woven wraps, well, down the rabbit hole you go. See here for our top wrap picks.
2) A soft carrier: Soft-Structured carriers — such as the Ergo, Baby Bjorn, and Tula, just to mention a few of the most popular brands — are the easiest, most convenient solution for most parents. Many are not designed to fit from birth, however, and may require use of a potentially cumbersome infant insert. If you plan to do a lot of babywearing, we highly recommend getting a Soft-Structured Carrier that adjusts elegantly for newborn use (e.g. via an insert and/or adjustable crotch width) for the first few months — for example, the Beco Gemini, Lillebaby, or Infant Kinderpack. See here for our favorite newborn-friendly soft carrier picks.
3) A ring sling / pouch: These are great for quick jaunts, fit easily into a diaper bag, and are easy to pop baby in & out of. However, they have a bit of a learning curve (like wraps), and because they are one-shouldered they tend to be less comfortable for longer carrying periods and once baby gets beyond about 15 pounds. We wouldn't recommend one of these as your primary carrier, but it would make a great secondary (e.g. diaper bag) carrier. See here for our top picks.

Stretchy wraps such as the Moby are popular choices for newborn use. Credit: Moby

Infant stage (6-18 months)

At this stage, you're in the sweet spot for baby carriers — so many carriers will work well. Most SSCs and woven wraps will work great. If you are new to babywearing, want something easy to learn to use, and/or just want to buy one carrier that you can use for all occasions — then a Soft Structured Carrier (SSC) is for you. See here for our top soft carrier picks.

If you are again looking something more adjustable and versatile, and don't mind a steeper learning curve, consider getting a woven wrap. See here for our top woven wrap picks.

At this age, you may want to avoid stretchy wraps, slings, and pouches, however, as these are no longer likely to provide enough support for your increasingly heavy baby.

Most standard size SSCs are a good fit for babies 6-18 mo. Credit: Tula

Toddler stage (18+ months)

As your child approaches the toddler stage, he is likely to outgrow most standard-size soft carriers. Once you notice that baby's legs are no longer supported knee to knee, and the back panel no longer comes up to his shoulders — it's time to consider sizing up. Several standard-size soft carriers, including the Boba 4G, have higher backs and wider seats, and thus have better-than-average longevity into the toddler stage. There are also several larger soft carriers designed specifically for toddlers (and even preschoolers!), such as Tula Toddler and the Kinderpack Toddler models. See our top soft carrier recommendations for toddlers here.

Alternatively, if you're a wrapper, a thicker, more supportive wrap will also work (linen blends tend to work well). See our top woven wrap recommendations for toddlers here.

Carriers with wider, taller body panels are optimal for babies 18+ mo. Credit: Tula

Lifestyle and other buying considerations

In addition to your baby's age/stage of development, here are a few other factors you should also consider when deciding what type of carrier to buy:

  • Desired carry positions: Do you want to be able to carry your baby on your front (outward- and/or inward-facing), back, and/or hip?  How important is it to you to be able to use a wide variety of positions?  Slings & pouches are really best suited for front/hip carries, and structured carriers for front and back carries.  Wraps are extremely versatile and can be used with many different types of carries.
    The four basic babywearing positions: front-facing-in (FFI), front-facing-out (FFO), hip, and back. Credit: Ergo
  • Desired use cases: Do you plan to use your carrier for long periods at home?  Primarily for errands popping in and out of the car?  While hiking?  Is it important to be able to nurse in your carrier?  If you plan to use your carrier for extended periods of time, you almost certainly want to get a two-shouldered carrier or a wrap (something where the weight is evenly distributed).  If you need to be able to "pop" baby in and out quickly, you're probably best off avoiding a wrap and selecting a SSC or sling/pouch instead. For hiking, consider a back carrier or frame backpack. If you want to be able to nurse in your carrier, try to test some out beforehand to make sure the logistics will work.
  • Adjustability: Will the carrier be worn by more than one person?  Do you anticipate potentially losing or gaining a lot of weight?  If so, be sure to look for something that is easily adjustable.  Some carriers offer "extender" straps for wearers with larger measurements. If you're petite, look for a carrier that offers you the option to cross the straps across your back for a more snug fit.
  • Physical issues: If you have any back or shoulder issues, be sure to take those into account.  A sling/pouch (with its uneven weight distribution) is probably not the best choice in this case.
  • Personal style / aesthetics: You'll wear your baby carrier so much that it will be as much an expression of your personal style as a piece of clothing.  Are you a crunchier mama (or dada!) who loves the idea of wearing a traditional baby carrier — the type that parents have been wearing for centuries? Or are you a busy parent who needs something super convenient — that will be simple to learn to use, and will be easy to take on and off? On another note, do you want a neutral color that will go with everything — or a bright fun color and/or pattern?
  • Climate: A wool wrap might be a great choice for a cold climate.  In hot climates, you may want to choose a more breathable fabric that wicks away moisture, and avoid wraps (as the multiple layers of fabric can retain a lot of heat).
  • Materials: Do you want something made of regular or organic cotton, wool, silk, linen, or a blend?  Are you OK with polyester (easier to wash, and able to wick moisture away from skin in hotter climates)?
  • Care instructions: Be sure to pay attention to the care instructions, especially for carriers that are going to be used with younger babies — for these, machine washability is a must.  Look for something with drool pads, or invest in an aftermarket set, to extend time between washings.

Best places to buy

Buying new

Big local retailers like Target and Babies R Us (occasionally also Costco) tend to carry only the best-known brands, such as Baby Bjorn and Ergo, plus some lower-end carriers. As always, for convenience, and also often price, our favorite online retailer for baby stuff is Amazon.com.

If you want a wider selection and/or a more personal touch, you may find it worthwhile to visit a specialty baby carrier retailer. Their owners are very knowledgeable; many offer free consultations to help you find the best baby carrier for your needs. A partial list of babywearing retailers includes the following:

For some of the more narrowly distributed brands, your best bet is often to purchase directly from the manufacturer (for example, Tula and Kindercarry).

If you're interested in testing out a carrier (or several) before you buy, you can take advantage of the carrier rental programs offered by PAXbaby, Granola Babies, Heavenly Hold, QuirkyBaby, and Tula.

Buying used

If you are on a tight budget or are looking for a discontinued style or print, your best options for buying used are the FSOT (for sale or trade) boards at TheBabyWearer.com or Diaperswappers.com. There are also a number of Facebook B/S/T (buy/sell/trade) boards for various carrier brands.  There are lots of babywearing addicts on those boards (you might even run into the author of this article there :) ), many of whom are selling carriers in excellent or even like new condition, at a considerable discount off of retail!  The downside is that some effort is required to register for those sites and troll the boards regularly looking for a specific carrier.  You can also sometimes find carriers on Craigslist or on eBay, but these are more hit or miss.

Features

Here are key features to consider when shopping for a baby carrier:

  • Positions: There are four main positions (front facing in [FFI], front facing out [FFO], back, and hip) — some carriers can only accommodate one, while some can accommodate all.
  • Age/weight range: Some carriers are suitable for use from birth (7-8 lbs.), while some are designed for use (without insert) from 4-6 months (or ~12-15 pounds). Most soft carriers have a recommended weight limit of about 45 pounds; the Beco Gemini and Baby Bjorn Original have lower limits, at 35 pounds and ~25 pounds, respectively.
  • Size / coverage: For soft carriers, note the height of the panel (you optimally want high back coverage), and the width of seat (look for knee-to-knee support) to make sure they are a good fit for your baby.
  • Convertibility: Some carriers can be adapted for use with babies of different sizes. For example, several infant SSCs have adjustable-width bases (e.g. Beco Gemini, Pikkolo, Ergo 360), integrated inserts (e.g. Boba 4G), or optional inserts (e.g. Ergo, Tula) that allow them to be used with newborns. Some infant-sized SSCs can also be adapted for toddler use with optional accessories (e.g. Tula).
  • Material: Cotton and cotton/poly blends are easiest to care for. Given how much time baby will spend in (and teething on) your carrier, you may want to consider organic cotton. Wool can provide extra warmth in cooler weather. Linen is sturdy. Bamboo lends a soft hand feel. If you will be wearing your carrier in a hot climate, consider a breathable (e.g. mesh) or moisture wicking material.
  • Machine washability: A very nice to have, especially for younger babies.
  • Shoulder strap and hip belt padding: More padding will generally make a carrier more comfortable for the caregiver.
  • Caregiver fit and adjustability: Different carriers willwork best for different body types. Among other things, consider the waistband & shoulder strap length and adjustability. Very petite wearers may find that they need a specialty petite size with a shorter waistband and straps. Also, different carriers feature waistbands of different shapes (e.g., straight, curved, and so on); try a few on before committing.
  • Closure mechanism: For example, tie (more adjustable) vs. buckle (more secure, and easier to open and close quickly).
  • Hood and/or head/neck support: Critical for younger infants and sleeping babies.
  • Pockets/storage: Many soft carriers have a pocket built-in built into the front of the waist or the main panel.

Usage tips & safety

Age appropriateness

Always make sure your carrying position is developmentally appropriate; in particular, ensure that your baby receives head and neck support if inward. Newborns should only be carried front-facing-inward (FFI). Around four months, you can start carrying them front-facing-outward (FFO) in selected carriers. Hip carries are appropriate from around four to six months. Starting around six months, you also can start doing back carries.

Secure positioning

Your baby should be securely contained in your carrier — it shouldn't feel like he could ever slip or fall out. Using a carrier with good (preferably shoulder-high) back coverage will help with this. Always also check to make sure all buckles and/or knots are secure.

Maintaining an open airway

You must be vigilant to ensure that your baby is breathing properly at all times in your carrier (especially slings), in particular with babies younger than four months and/or who have colds or respiratory problems. An often-stated rule of thumb is that baby's face should be visible to you, and his head should be close enough to kiss. Make sure his nose is not pressed up against any fabric, and that you can fit at least two fingers between his chin and chest.

Proper thigh support and hip development

Hip dysplasia is a developmental issue to which babies younger than four to six months are especially susceptible. The safest position for the hips during infancy is one in which the hips spread naturally to the side, with the thighs supported and the hips and knees bent (also called the "froggy position"), which minimizes the forces on the hip joint. In particular, do not put baby in a position in which his legs are extended and his knees are together (for example, in a sling) for any sustained period of time, and when evaluating different carriers that offer a front-facing-out position, look for one that allows for a substantial hip angle.

We'd also like to address specifically the common perception within the babywearing community that "crotch danglers" such as Baby Bjorns also contribute to hip dysplasia. We have not been able to find any scientific evidence to support this widespread belief specifically. However, we do believe that carriers that allow baby's legs to dangle are not as comfortable or ergonomic as those that provide a wider base, and carriers with a wider base also promote a greater hip angle, and therefore we recommend that you use only carriers that support your baby from knee-to-knee. For more information, see this article from the International Hip Dysplasia Institute.

Baby’s legs should be spread and thighs should be supported to the knee to minimize forces on the hip joint. Credit: Intl. Hip Dysplasia Institute

Accessories

  • Drool/teething pads: Drool pads snap around the tops of your straps, where your baby's mouth is most likely to make contact with your carrier. This keeps your carrier cleaner, allowing you to extend the time between washings and thus keep it looking newer.
  • Infant insert: An optional infant insert is available for many Soft Structured Carriers, to allow you to use them with infants smaller than ~15 pounds (or younger than 4-6 months).

Additional information

Check out these helpful resources to learn more about babywearing:


Note: All featured products and brands are editorially selected by our editors; we do not accept compensation in exchange for coverage. This post does contain affiliate links, meaning we may receive a small proportion of any purchases you make after clicking on them (at no cost to you); thanks for your support! See our full Editorial Policy & Affiliate Disclosure here.