| by Peggy O’Mara, Editor and Publisher
On March 12, the Consumer Product Safety Commission issued a warning regarding the use of baby slings. The CPSC asserts that slings pose a suffocation risk for infants younger than four months old, and that caution should be exercised when carrying babies of this age group in slings.
On March 24, the CPSC got more specific by announcing a recall of the Infantino SlingRider, citing three infants who died in this particular sling. In addition, the CPSC called for mandatory standards for slings because no standards of any kind, mandatory or otherwise, now exist for slings. The CPSC is currently working with the American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM), Infantino, other sling manufacturers, consumer advocates, and test labs, among others, to develop voluntary standards that can be used as the basis for industry-wide, third-party certification. If a standard is approved, it will most likely be incorporated into the certification program of the Juvenile Products Manufacturers Association (JPMA).
The recalled Infantino SlingRider has a deep pouch, excessive fabric, and elastic around the edges. Like other “bag slings,” it puts a baby at risk for becoming curled up tightly, chin to chest—a position that can restrict breathing, especially in babies who are not yet able to hold up their heads.
Babywearing has seen a dramatic increase in the last five years; from 2006 to 2008 alone, sales of slings increased 43 percent, to over $21 million, according to CBS News. Along with this increase in use has come a rush to manufacture new slings, which are now sold at Babies-R-Us, Target, and Walmart.
Three years ago, when several sling manufacturers, including Hotslings, Zolowear, Ellaroo and MayaWrap, became concerned about the lack of safety standards for new sling products, they approached the JPMA, a national trade organization, to ask them to create standards. But while the concern for sling safety standards is new, babywearing is not. It has been around for centuries, and is a necessity for parents all over the world who carry their babies while they work and do domestic tasks.
American Indians prefer a cradleboard. Among the Inuit, babies are carried in an amautik. Latin Americans use a rebozo, and Koreans like a podaegi. In Japan, babies are wrapped in the traditional kimono sash, or obi. Among the Hmong, baby carriers incorporate intricate designs intended to protect the infant’s soul from evil spirits. And in Tanzania, carriers are made of kanga or kitenge textiles.
When I was a young mother in the early 1970s, I carried my babies in a red corduroy Snugli front pack and a frame backpack that I sewed from a Kelty kit. As a mother of two babies under 18 months, I was inspired by photos I’d seen of women in traditional societies who wore their babies as they went about their lives.
By 1980, three makers of baby carriers—Andrea’s Baby Pack, Tot Toter, and Heather’s Handmades—were advertising in Mothering. These were all home businesses selling products designed and made by moms. The 1980s saw almost a “call to arms” as that generation of mothers discovered the book The Continuum Concept: In Search of Happiness Lost, by Jean Liedloff (Perseus Books, 1975), and took seriously a term she coined: the in-arms phase.
Liedloff’s book details her experience living with a stone-age tribe in the South American jungle. The Yequana care for their babies as all our early ancestors did: marsupial style. They carry their babies almost everywhere they go, seldom putting them down—and when they do, they pick them up again as soon as they stir. Contrary to Western concerns that this type of parenting spoils infants, Yequana infants grow into children with an emotional security and confidence rarely seen in the modern world, according to Liedloff.
In our Winter 1985 issue we published Linda Dawson’s “The Baby Sling,” though the article was actually about a wrap (in those days, babywearing terminology had yet to be standardized). Over the Shoulder Baby Holder was founded in 1987, and in 1988 was the first company to place in Mothering a display ad for a baby carrier. A young doctor, Bill Sears, wrote an article, “Wearing Your Baby,” that we published in our Winter 1989 issue. Sears stated that he’d first learned about babywearing while researching his book The Fussy Baby: How to Bring Out the Best in Your High-Need Child (La Leche League International, 1985), and had seen how effective babywearing was in his own family when his wife, Martha, fashioned a homemade sling from a bedsheet. Sears went on to develop his own baby carrier. Many of our advertisers—babyTrekker, Baby Wrap, Maya Wrap, New Native—have also been pioneers in the field of babywearing.
While babywearing is a practical solution for a busy mother, it is also beneficial to the child. Recent studies have shown that babywearing facilitates breastfeeding, decreases crying, and helps babies sleep better. The benefits of touching have been well documented, and we know that physical contact between mother and baby is associated with the release of oxytocin, a hormone responsible for positive emotions and the inhibition of the negative effects of stress.
A recent study at Columbia University compared the attachment of babies carried in a baby carrier vs. babies carried in a car seat. The study showed that, at 13 months, the babies who had been transported in wearable carriers were significantly more likely to demonstrate a strong attachment to their mothers.
If babywearing has so many benefits, then why have safety concerns been raised about slings? In the last 20 years, the total number of deaths attributable to slings has been 14. Twelve of those deaths were of babies younger than four months, and most of those 12 were either born prematurely, were low-birth-weight twins, or had breathing difficulties, such as a cold.
Despite the tragedy of even one dead infant, less than one death per year is a very low number compared to other causes of infant death. The leading cause of infant death, congenital anomalies, resulted in 5,623 deaths in 2002. Birth trauma caused 345 infant deaths. Homicide claimed the lives of 303 infants, motor-vehicle accidents 120, and drowning 63. In addition, the three most recent deaths reported have all been associated with one model of sling: the recalled Infantino SlingRider.
But even car seats can be dangerous if used incorrectly; as they should with any baby product, parents must know how to properly use slings and baby carriers. Fortunately, babywearing classes are held in cities all over the country.
In 2006, when M’Liss Stelzer, a babywearing teacher and former nurse, came to our office to tell us of her own concerns about the safety of slings, we asked her to write an article for us. Her “Babywearing Bliss” appeared in our January–February 2007 issue (Mothering no. 140). In that award-winning article, now part of our Babywearing 101 reprint, Stelzer outlined general guidelines for safe babywearing, several of which also apply to positioning babies in car seats:
Choose only a sling that lets you see baby’s face.
• Be sure baby is not curled up tightly, chin to chest. This position can restrict breathing, especially in newborns or infants who cannot yet hold up their heads.
• Make sure that the sling fabric is “breathable,” and keep baby’s face clear of the fabric.
• Do not press baby’s face tightly against your body.
• Position baby’s face upward.
• Reposition baby if there are any signs of respiratory difficulty: rapid or labored breathing, grunting or sighing with every breath, or restlessness.
In response to the CPSC warning, we created a “Mothering Special Report—Babywearing”, and on March 22 we aired a radio show, “Safe Babywearing.” The show featured Glenda Criss-Forshey, president of Babywearing International; Alma Gordillo-Webb, moderator of the babywearing community for MotheringDotCommunity (MDC); Jane McClintock of QuirkyBaby, creator of Facebook’s Babywearing Safety Page; and M’Liss Stelzer, author of “Babywearing Bliss.” To listen to the one-hour show, click on “Radio” on the Mothering.com homepage.
We applaud the CPSC for recalling the Infantino SlingRider. While some of you are concerned that the CPSC’s call for mandatory standards may lead to the creation of standards that are unrealistic, in fact, since its inception in 1973, the CPSC has addressed safety problems predominantly through the process of voluntary standards.
This pattern will change, however, because of the passage of the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act (CPSIA) of 2008. This act, initially created out of concerns for lead and phthalates in products made for children, requires the CPSC to study and develop safety standards for infant and toddler products, including baby carriers. The CPSC must either make the existing voluntary safety standards for these products mandatory or provide a stricter safety standard.
From the consumer’s point of view, this is a good thing, as the creation of safety standards has sometimes taken too long. Nancy Cowles, Executive Director of Kids In Danger (KID), an organization founded by the parents of a baby who was killed in a recalled portable crib, says that the standards process has been frustrating because “the predominance of manufacturers on the committee and the management by the JPMA seem to slow changes to the standards that would address emerging hazards.” Cowles calls for more consumers to get involved in the standard-setting process. (See the Kids In Danger blog)
The Mothering community has both the history and the expertise to inform the creation of safety standards for slings. It is important that we both monitor and participate in this process, because the CPSC and the ASTM face special challenges in creating these standards, as virtually any piece of cloth within a rather wide range of width and length can be used as a baby sling.
The good news is that Kristen DeRocha, president of Hotslings, is the chair of the ASTM Sling Carrier Standards subcommittee. The subcommittee is working to complete a draft standard, to be voted on in October 2010. Committee F15 on Consumer Products oversees the ASTM’s development of the sling standards; a schedule of their meetings is on the ASTM website under “Meetings.” On the Meetings page, under “Find a Meeting: By Committee,” select “F15–Consumer Products” and click “Go.”
To contact Information and Public Affairs at the CPSC, call 301.504.7098, or go to www.cpsc.gov/about/contact.html to send an e-mail or to contact CPSC staff members. Watch Mothering.com for notices of upcoming Sling Carrier Standards subcommittee meetings, Committee F15 meetings, and updates and activism alerts regarding slings and sling safety.
And keep holding your babies.