While baby slings have been used for centuries in different cultures, their rising popularity among parents has led some practitioners to introduce them to settings.
Slings are made of soft fabrics that wrap around the chest, and there is an increasingly wide variety of carriers available, from wraps, pouches and ring slings to soft-structured carriers and mei tais.
Kizzy Coll-Cats, a babywearing consultant from Babywearing South West, explains, ‘We are a carrying species. We’ve been doing this worldwide since the beginning of time, when babies would be eaten or freeze if they weren’t picked up.
‘Today as a society we have done so much more research into child development that we now know how important holding and responding are to brain development, security and attachment, so carrying continues to be very popular.’
Despite the popularity of babywearing, spates of injuries and fatalities from baby slings and carriers – largely caused by dropping or positional asphyxiation, where the baby’s body position blocks breathing and they suffocate – have led to stricter safety standards.
The UK Sling Consortium has created the ‘TICKS’ safety check:
Tight: carriers should be tight enough to hug the baby close. Any slack or loose fabric will allow the baby to slump down, which can hinder their breathing and pull on your back.
In view at all times: you should always be able to see the baby’s face by glancing down. The fabric should not close around them so you have to open it to check on them. In a cradle position, the baby should face upwards, not be turned towards you.
Close enough to kiss: the baby’s head should be as close to your chin as is comfortable. By tipping your head forward you should be able to kiss the baby on the head.
Keep chin off the chest: a baby should never be curled so their chin is forced onto their chest, as this can restrict their breathing. Ensure there is always a space of at least a finger width under the baby’s chin.
Supported back: in an upright carry, a baby should be held comfortably close to the wearer so their back is supported in its natural position and tummy and chest are against you. If a sling is too loose, they can slump, which can partially close their airway. This can be tested by placing a hand on their back and pressing gently – they should not uncurl or move closer to you.
When Bristol Childcare decided to introduce slings across its three nurseries, all staff working in the baby rooms were given two-hour training sessions from Bristol Sling Ladies, introducing them to safe ways of carrying and allowing them to practise with a variety of slings and dolls of different weights.
Managing director Saffia Bullock says, ‘You have to be really careful because if used incorrectly, slings can pull on your back or shoulders. They can be dangerous, so you have to know how to use them safely.’
When used correctly, though, the benefits of slings can be wide-ranging, and apply to practitioners as well as children.
Ms Coll-Cats, who provides bespoke training to providers including all 31 settings run by Tops Day Nurseries, says babywearing can help with:
- transition – helping children who may find it overwhelming when they first come to a setting
- support with sleep – saving time for practitioners and allowing them to help more children
- replicating the home environment – maintaining consistency between home and nursery for children whose parents use slings regularly
- trips – offering more flexibility to take children who can’t walk
- physical fatigue – ergonomic carriers put less pressure on the back and distribute the weight more equally than carrying a child on the hip
- interactions – practitioners are more likely to talk to children about what they are doing when carrying, and children are able to observe all verbal and non-verbal interactions.
Lala Manners, director of the Active Matters website dedicated to early years physical development, agrees slings are a useful additional tool in settings. She says, ‘Slings are really good for some children some of the time. If you know babies might be a bit scratchy and unsettled, it can be a good thing for them.
‘From a physical perspective it is a useful exercise. Their spines will be having to work quite hard when they are awake in a sling, which is good for the muscles, and they can practise getting their head in alignment between their shoulders and strengthening their arms and legs by wriggling them.
‘From an emotional perspective, it is nice in terms of trust and support, especially for premature babies, who may really need this closeness and body contact, and it is nice for babies to be high up with a different perspective, looking out and making contact with the world.’
However, Dr Manners warns that babywearing should not stop any other activities from taking place. ‘Slings should not be relied upon, or become an alternative to playing on the floor or sleeping on backs. They are not a replacement for or better than these.’
To ensure babywearing remains efficient and beneficial to both children and adults, Ms Coll-Cats recommends policies, procedures and risk assessments be implemented. She says a babywearing policy should include:
- what type of carriers will be used
- how to check the carrier is safe
- who is allowed to carry
- how long children can be carried
- where and when carrying will take place
- individual plans for children with additional needs
- benefits of carrying for children and adults.
Ms Coll-Cats says a sling can be an ‘optimal place of learning’ for a young child in an early years setting.
‘I often quote the EYFS framework introduction, which says, “Children learn best when they are healthy, safe and secure, when their individual needs are met, and when they have positive relationships with the adults caring for them”,’ she says. ‘Babywearing facilitates that.’
She adds, ‘When Ofsted come round, you have to be able to explain the learning outcomes of babywearing to them; how it supports communication and language or understanding the world. My advice would always be to find a qualified and insured babywearing and carrying consultant, who ideally has some understanding of the EYFS, before introducing slings to your setting.’
Gabbie Howells is baby room manager at The Priory Day Nursery, part of Bristol Childcare, in Filton. The nursery has one sling which is shared around baby room practitioners, all of whom are trained in babywearing. Staff use slings only with babies who use them at home, prioritising those who struggle with attachment or separation anxiety.
She says, ‘Initially, none of us really realised how many parents used slings, but once you’re aware of them, you see them everywhere. For a lot of children, that contact is very familiar, and coming to nursery can be hard, especially for babies. They might need weaning into nursery life, especially if they’ve been at home with just one parent for a while. A sling might make them feel safe and happy to come to nursery, as it provides a real home-from-home environment. Then, as they get used to nursery life, they don’t want to be in the sling.
‘Slings reduce separation anxiety, and parents are more relaxed that their baby won’t just be left. When parents are relaxed, children are more relaxed too, so everyone benefits.
‘Children are not in the sling all day. We use them more for transport than activities. For less mobile babies, it can make it easier to go into the garden, for example, and it can stop them getting frustrated by being on the floor. We also use slings for trips. It’s good to show them life outside the nursery and for them to be at eye level while we work and talk.
‘To be honest, some of us were a bit sceptical at first, as a lot of our staff are very young and don’t know much about babywearing, but we fell in love with the slings. We worried about our backs initially but we all adapted to it well.
‘It’s also nice to have something in common with parents. Not many of us have children of our own yet, so it’s nice to have something that bonds us.’