These products generally break down into four categories:
Stretchy wraps: These are often the go-to wrap for newborns because they cocoon the baby in a knit fabric that stretches and conforms to the body like a T-shirt. The type of fabric matters in stretchy wraps. Most are made from cotton or rayon, but some companies add a small amount of spandex, which Kozen, the fabric scientist, calls a “power stretcher”—it’s able to extend up to seven times its length and return to the original shape.
Some people find stretchy wraps wonderfully snuggly; others find them uncomfortable, especially with older babies. Although the weight limit of stretchy wraps ranges from 25 to 35 pounds (or about 16 months to 4 years old for the average child) many people find this type of wrap causes body strain when a baby reaches about half that weight. “When the carrier is asked to stretch more to support the same amount of weight, it puts more pressure on the shoulders or the back of the caregiver,” said Angelique Geehan, the Houston-based consultant. On the upside, once stretchy wraps are tied, you can slip the baby in and out as needed. And the Baby K’tan, which is made of prefab loops of fabric, doesn’t need to be tied at all—it slides on over the head, and so, unlike the other products in this category, comes in specific sizes.
Ring slings: Ring slings are simpler to use than wraps by design: A panel of fabric is threaded through two rings to create a seat to support the baby. It doesn’t involve wrapping, and all adjustments are made at the shoulder. As a result, ring slings are also more finicky, said Stare: “You have to get the adjustment just right to feel safe.” Because there’s usually less fabric involved they pack up swiftly and don’t sweep the ground when you put them on. Plus a baby can be easily popped in and out. People often choose ring slings as a secondary carrier, Stare said, for use at home or in situations where a wrap may be less convenient, like traveling on a plane or on a rainy day.
Compared with long wraps and other types of carriers, ring slings function more like a fashion accessory. They’re easy to wear empty and aren’t much longer than a scarf. Typically made of a woven fabric, such as cotton, linen, bamboo, or silk, ring slings are strong enough to carry older children on the hip—the max weight of most is at least 35 pounds—but a baby can also be dropped down quickly to nurse, using the tail as a cover. “A ring sling can go a long way toward making you feel a little bit put together,” said McNeilly of the Center for Babywearing Studies.
Woven wraps: These wraps are made from woven fibers—typically cotton, but also linen, wool, hemp, or silk—interlaced tightly at right angles, so that the fabric does not “give” unless it is pulled diagonally (in the direction of the bias). As a result, they are more supportive, even for toddlers—the max weight of most woven wraps starts at 35 pounds, and with the right fabric and hold combination some people find them comfortable for at least that long. Stare of Wild Was Mama said she also recommends woven wraps for people with back problems or babies that have low muscle tone. “It’s easier to get symmetrical support in all the right places for you and your baby’s body,” she said.
Woven wraps are also more versatile than stretchy ones, in that they allow for a wider variety of carries—front, back, or hip—and they can be wrapped with one or multiple layers of fabric over the baby, which means they transition easily between seasons. Woven wraps are typically sold in various sizes depending on body type and the kind of carries you’d like to do (Didymos has a good sizing guide). That makes them less straightforward to share. And though we found the woven wraps we tested to be comfortable and supportive, they were also less forgiving when it came to learning how to tie them tightly, nurse, or pop a baby in and out. (One subway ride that stalled long enough to necessitate nursing ended awkwardly, with one armful of baby and the other of balled-up yards of wrap.) Consequently we did not name any as picks.
Meh dais: A meh dai, or bei dai (although the name “mei tai” is still in circulation, much of the babywearing community discourages using it), has a panel of fabric that holds the baby to the caregiver’s chest or back, but is secured by long straps that are wrapped and tied. The max weight limit for meh dais, which are typically made of 100 percent cotton and lightly padded, is 35 to 40 pounds.
Meh dais strike a middle ground between structured carriers and wraps, and therefore may appeal to people who find the latter intimidating, or who don’t fully trust buckles, which McNeilly notes can be a point of failure. Peterson, who co-owned Metro Minis with McNeilly, said this is in line with his experience helping customers—and his own experience. “I was never a good ring slinger and, for me, wraps were too much fabric,” he said. “I needed some strings.” Some versions, however, are overdesigned, adapting features (padding, stitching reinforcement) from buckle carriers that actually make them less versatile than traditional meh dais. We did not name a meh dai pick because the models we tried did not perform as well as our wrap and sling picks, but we plan to look at this category more closely in a future update.
Different carriers excel in different situations, and people gravitate to brands based on their look and feel—as with a pair of jeans. “Before purchasing a carrier, it can be really helpful to feel them and try them on in person,” said Boarman, the Maryland consultant. “I find that everyone has different preferences when it comes to fabric. Sometimes even babies themselves have preferences.”
All of the experts we spoke with recommend envisioning how you will use the carrier: For running quick errands? Taking long hikes? “If you’re looking for one carrier to do it all, it’s choosing to compromise,” said McNeilly. “At some point on the journey it will not be as comfortable—like wearing one pair of shoes or a bra for three years.” She advises parents to think about what’s important to them before they buy their first carrier, including when and how long they plan to babywear. Most people choose a carrier optimized for newborns because they need to be held, McNeilly said. “When babies come out of the womb they are not fully baked—they need a physiological body in order to stabilize themselves.” But if you buy a carrier that’s best for newborns, you may find yourself shopping for a second one in a matter of months.
Although structured carriers tend to differ significantly from brand to brand, wraps and slings are simpler and so nearly identical in form and function. We homed in on six criteria to help us distinguish between otherwise very similar products.
Ease of use: The number one stumbling block for people who have tried slings and wraps—particularly for those who have tried and given up on them—is the complexity of putting them on. (“I’m supposed to spin around three times, click my heels, and then do what?” one person said with exasperation during testing.) We wanted a carrier that was straightforward for the majority of people to use, even in an inevitably sleep-deprived state, and in which the baby could be popped in and out without having to retie. For woven wraps and slings, having clearly defined top and bottom edges, called “rails,” also matters as that makes the carriers easier to put on correctly and to adjust.
Comfort and support: Carrier fabrics range from super-stretchy to woven with little give. Generally speaking, the stretchier the fabric, the more work the wearer’s body has to do to support the baby. Fabrics also come in various weights, which makes a difference depending on the climate. Because these carriers are worn close to the skin, functioning more like an item of clothing than a piece of gear, we aimed for a product that was comfortable to wear in every season and while standing or sitting as well as over long walks. A good carrier should also provide enough support so that you never feel you have to keep one hand on the baby, and the fabric shouldn’t slip once tied.
Versatility: Some products are sized to the wearer’s frame and height but we decided it was more advantageous to be able to share the carrier with another caregiver. Ideally slings and wraps should work for any body type without being overly cumbersome. Bonus points went to those that could double as a nursing cover.
Washability: Babies are messy. Drool, spit-up, and even the occasional diaper blowout will find its way onto your carrier, and the tails of a long wrap can drag on the ground as you’re preparing to tie it. Experts recommend starting out with a carrier whose fabric doesn’t have to be handled with kid gloves. “I don’t recommend anything beyond what someone does to take care of their clothing,” said Geehan.
Portability: The carrier may be the baby’s primary mode of transportation, or parents may want to tuck it into a diaper bag or the stroller basket for another option while on the go. That means we looked for products that folded or packed down to a portable size and were relatively lightweight to boot.
Although there has been recent consolidation in the industry, the wrap and sling market can be quite boutique and there are many different makers. Fabrics can be very specialized and expensive. Our initial research turned up about 60 wraps, ring slings, and meh dais. We whittled that list to 15 that were widely available, affordable (less than $150), and received either a substantial number of positive reviews or strong recommendations from experts and parents.