Babywearing for Plus-size People

When I was pregnant with my youngest child, I began to read about attachment parenting. This style of parenting meshed so wonderfully with my formal child development education as well, as my feelings about my children and family life in general, that I knew immediately that my baby would be attachment parented. I donít care for the experience of pregnancy at all, but I just love caring for and nursing a new baby. What a joy it was to make a decision to parent in a way that would allow my baby and me to stay close to each other as much as we wanted!

Also a joy was the realization that attachment parenting is an inexpensive way to parent. My second youngest child was 7 when my youngest was born, so our baby equipment was long gone, given to various friends or destroyed by active children over the years. My shopping list for the new baby was very short: car seat, diapers and covers, clothes, fingernail clippers, and a babycarrier. Simple, right? I hadnít counted on the difficulties I would encounter finding a babycarrier that would work for me! I am a large woman.

At that time, I owned a babycarrier that Iíd been using occasionally with babies in my in-home daycare service. It was a widely available front/back carrier that I picked up at a discount store. It fit fine; the waist belt would have fit a person larger than I (well, before pregnancy, anyway!). I couldnít stand to wear it longer than half an hour, though, and never with a baby larger than about 15 pounds. Sure, it came in handy if a baby needed to be held when I had to prepare lunch for the older kids, but I would never consider wearing it frequently nor for very long. And I would never consider wearing that carrier in public! Letís face it; as a woman of significant size, I can think of more attractive things to wear than a tight belt around the outside of my shirt! The belt seemed to function as something intended to accentuate all of my squishy parts as much as anything else. The carrier obviously was not going to work as something in which to carry my baby for many hours a day. Thus began my research into the world of baby carriers and slings.

Why is babywearing different for plus-size people?

Since my sonís birth (July 24, 2002), I have owned some 35 slings and carriers, helped dozens of parents learn to use slings, including many plus-size parents, and finally opened an e-store specializing in slings and carriers This article addresses other parents like me. If you are a size 20 (or thereabouts) or smaller, you will probably be able to use slings and carriers in standard large sizes without a problem. However, if you are larger, there are some special considerations you may want address before you begin to buy. The following discussion is based on my own sling use and that of others I have spoken to or worked with. Please note that I will always be careful to use words like most, many, and other qualifiers when talking about how a given sling style works for larger parents. There is no "best" sling for all parents, whatever their size. What is a positive about a sling for one person may be a negative for another. Most sling retailers on-line will accept returns or make exchanges, so donít be afraid to try a few carriers before deciding which one is the one for you!

Most slings available today come in larger sizes. I am thrilled that this is so, but as we all know, just making things bigger is only part of what we need. Who among us has not gone to try on a new shirt and found that, although it fit well everywhere else, the neck hole was huge, or the breast pocket was much too far to the left? Just making everything bigger doesnít always work! Our proportions are often very different from those of our smaller friends. We also wear more natural insulation, so many of us tend to be warmer than others, making the weight and padding of a sling an important consideration. Digging and pinching are also bigger problems for us because we are softer all over.

Ring slings

This is what most people are referring to when they say baby sling. A ring sling is basically a rectangle of fabric, gathered at one end and sewed to two metal, plastic, or nylon rings (see Figure 1). The wearer puts the rings just below one shoulder, wraps the fabric around her body, and secures the end of the fabric in the two-ring buckle. This creates a pouch or bag for the baby to sit or lay in. The two edges of the fabric in front of the wearer are called the slingís rails. The fabric that comes out of the rings and hangs down is called the tail.

Differences among ring slings
Ring slings come in various forms:
  Some ring slings are entirely unpadded, and some are padded. Padding varies from very light to very heavy.
  There are differences in tail construction; some are closed (meaning they are sewed shut, a bit like a fabric strap) and some are open.
  Finally, the way the fabric is attached to the rings affects how the sling sits on your shoulder (see below).

Believe it or not, each of these differences has implications for plus-size parents!


Figure 1. This unpadded ring sling has a "hot dog" style shoulder and an open tail.

Padding
The choice between a padded and an unpadded sling is perhaps the most important, comfort-wise. An unpadded ring sling is often an excellent choice for a plus-sized parent. Almost all unpadded ring slings have an open tail, which means that the two rails can be adjusted independently. I have found, as have other large parents I have talked with, that I need to adjust the top rail of a sling much tighter than the bottom rail. This probably has as much to do with body proportions as it does with body size, but to get a perfect fit, independent rail adjustment is a definite plus.

Unpadded ring slings are also a great choice for parents of two very different sizes. The sling can be adjusted as small as necessary, so the smaller parent will just have a very long tail when wearing a sling thatfits the larger parent. My 60 pound, 7 year old daughter likes to wear her brother in my unpadded slings; we just twist the tail and tuck it in next to the baby so it doesnít get in her way.

As adjustable as unpadded slings may be, padding has one important benefit for plus-size sling wearers. Some people find that one-shoulder slings tend to dig or pinch at the side of the body where they go under the arm (this is not a problem unique to plus-size parents, but it is more likely) and padding can alleviate this problem. Padding, though, is also warm, and given the extra insulation weíre already wearing, this can be a problem. Different slings have different amounts of padding, from very heavy (think your favorite comforter, with rings) to very light, and some sling makers will custom-make a sling with the amount of padding that you choose.

Open vs. closed tail slings
The style of tail on a sling helps determine how adjustable the sling is. An open tail sling is the most adjustable; each of the rails can be tightened or loosened independently for a perfectly customized fit. Most unpadded slings and some padded slings have open tails. Some closed tail slings have independently adjustable rails. Itís a little trickier to get a hold of the right fabric for tightening, but it can be done. A closed tail sling is quicker and easier to thread, which is a benefit when the older kids are late for school and Iím putting a sling on as I run across a parking lot with the baby under one arm! As for closed tail slings that donít allow for independent rail adjustability, I donít know any plus-size parents who are comfortable with these. Iím sure there are plenty of parents out there who love these slings, but they are not my first choice.

Shoulder style
Some slings use an accordion fold for the shoulder, meaning the fabric is folded back and forth lengthwise, then attached to the rings. Other slings use a "hot dog" fold for the shoulder, meaning the fabric is folded lengthwise toward the center of the sling, before being sewn to the rings. And still other slings have a gathered, or fan, shoulder, meaning the fabric is not folded at all but is simply gathered onto the rings.

Why in the world would the size of a parent make a difference in the style of shoulder that works best? Weíre not just bigger, weíre also softer and rounder than average sized people, and that includes our shoulders. There are no protruding bones, no real angle at the shoulder on which to "hook" a sling shoulder, so slings tend to ride toward the neck a bit more on us than on others. Many people Iíve talked with have had more success with the hot dog and fan style shoulders than with an accordion folded shoulder. These shoulder styles have a natural center and tend to stay put better.

Using 2 slings
npadded ring slings are incredibly versatile and become even more so with a little creativity. Two slings can be worn at once, one on each shoulder, with baby sitting on the X. This approximates a cross carry done with a wraparound carrier (discussed below) and can be done with a baby on a parentís front or back. The beauty of this is that it is the only back carry that I have found that doesnít require tying anything around the waist, making it a very comfortable carry for plus-size parents as well as pregnant moms.

Other ring sling options and considerations
Ring slings come in a dizzying array of beautiful fabrics, from black to bright to undyed, woven cotton to cotton interlock to silk. You can even buy a quick-drying mesh sling to use in the shower or pool, or a sling made of material that protects baby from the sun. Most retailers, online and bricks-and-mortar, donít stock larger sizes. When they do, they carry only one or two colors, usually black or denim. That doesnít mean the sling manufacturers donít make larger slings in all those gorgeous colors! Most companies have a size that will fit parents up to about a 3x t-shirt, and most will make a sling in a larger size for only a small extra cost, or no extra cost at all. If you see a sling that you want thatís not your size, ask the retailer if she can special order one for you! The gorgeous fabrics out there are simply not to be missed.

Pouch (tube) slings

This is the simplest of the sling styles to use. A pouch is basically a piece of fabric, folded in half and sewn together at each end to create a circle. It is worn the same way as a ring sling, over one shoulder with baby in the hammock created at the front. Some pouches are adjustable, but this adjustability does not refer to the rails. Adjustable pouches can be made a bit larger or smaller by means of zippers or snaps.

I love the idea of a pouch and own several, but I donít recommend them for very large parents. They tend to dig, or roll up at the side under the arm, even when the fit is perfect. I think maybe we're just too soft! If you do decide to try one, go for a fabric with lots of body, something fairly heavy with some give but not too much stretch to it. This may help minimize the bunching problem.

Unstructured (Asian-style) soft carriers

These carriers derive from the Chinese Mei Tai: a square of fabric with long straps coming from each of the four corners. Usually used as a back carrier, a parent ties the bottom straps around their waist and the top straps go over the shoulders so that the square creates a seat for the baby.

These carriers usually have plain fabric straps 2-3 inches wide. Unfortunately, a narrow fabric strap around the waist of a large parent is neither comfortable nor attractive. I say unfortunately because I have one of these and I can toss my toddler over my shoulder onto my back, tie a couple of knots, and heís secure. Itís easy, but painful after just a few minutes.

Structured soft carriers

These are the most commonly available carriers but they just wonít work for us big folks for serious babywearing. However, there are some premium versions out there that often work better for us. Some come in larger sizes; others have a waist strap extender available. If you donít object to a waist strap, these can be very convenient and easy carriers to use, especially for long wearing of larger babies. Just be sure to look for a well-padded waist strap.


Hip carriers

Hip carriers are the least versatile of baby carriers and, although theyíre very convenient, I have yet to meet a parent of significant size who used one regularly. The waist straps are typically not long enough and some put 100% of a babyís weight on the hips which may be uncomfortable for someone with a very soft waist. Others put a lot of pressure on the shoulder.

Wraparound carriers

A wraparound carrier is a long rectangle of cloth that is wrapped around the body to create a variety of holding techniques, and then tied with a knot. This is by far the most adjustable of all babycarrier styles and is often a perfect sling choice for a larger parent. Wraparound carriers are available in two basic types of fabric: woven and stretchy. A woven wraparound is usually 100% cotton and although itís not stretchy, it does have some give. Stretchy sling fabrics are made of cotton interlock or cotton/lycra blends.

Because they can be tied in such a wide variety of ways and because they spread a babyís weight effectively across the wearerís body, many larger parents choose a wraparound as their primary sling, especially with an older or bigger baby. If you are uncomfortable having anything tied around your waist (as I am), you can tie a wraparound in a way that wraps nothing around your middle. They pass over both shoulders and lay most of babyís weight across your back. The best such carry is the short cross carry.

Figure 2. Here is the back of a woven (non-stretchy) wrap-around carrier wrapped in a short cross carry. The fabric is spread widely across Adrienne's shoulders.

If the fabric is spread out well over the shoulders and across the back, babyís weight wonít cause any painful pressure points (see Figure 2). I can wear my 20+ pound toddler this way for hours. This wrap has the added benefit of being wearable without a baby: an older baby or toddler can get down to explore then return easily to the comfort of Mom or Dad.

The only caveat for large parents regarding wraparounds has to do with the stretchy fabrics. The stretchier they are, the tighter they need to be tied to keep the baby in position. This can cause the fabric to roll or bunch at the waist or sides and dig in uncomfortably. However, because stretchy wraps are among the most comfortable carriers, they may be worth trying to find out if theyíll work for you.

Other carriers

The Podegi, or Korean blanket carrier, is a blanket with straps attached to each side of the top edge. I would be hard pressed to describe how this one is worn without pictures! I have tried a Podegi and I didnít notice any problems particular to a large size parent (although it would have to be ordered in a larger size than is normally available). However it is a blanket wrapped around the body, and therefore hot!

FinallyÖ

If you have discovered something about babywearing as a plus-size parent that I missed here, please contact me so that I may consider including that information in future versions of this article. I intend this resource to be as complete as possible and I welcome the opportunity to expand and revise it.

© Adrienne Jones (Enchantment Parenting), 2003. All rights reserved.