By Joylyn Fowler
"Sling, mommy, sling." Every day I hear these words. I couldn't live without my sling, and neither could my toddler. With the sling, I am empowered to be a mommy and still do all the things one must do: prepare a meal and then eat it, read email and respond, write on the computer, and do all the other little things that moms need to do daily using both hands. My slings go everywhere with me. I have three of them, one is simply not enough. My husband also has one. It is not only larger than mine, fitting his large frame, but is also a blue pinstripe and very masculine. Slings are designed to carry a baby or toddler, but unlike most other baby items, they have many other uses.
For one, slings make excellent blankets. I'll never forget one night on the beach with my parents, when my mother, cold and without a jacket, wrapped my sling around her shoulders. It felt good to know that this item I used for my baby was helping my mother, who has always been there for me. The sling has warmed many children as well, warming them in the car, when sleeping in a stroller, or even in someone's arms. I've used it myself when my child was not in the sling. However, two people together are always warmer than two apart, and when the sling is being used as designed, holding my child, we keep each other warm.
The cloth of the sling can do more than warm the body. I'll never forget when my four-year-old fell asleep on a long car ride. Her poor little head kept falling forward, her upper body jerking sideways with every lurch of the car. I pulled out the sling and wrapped it around her and her seat, nestling her head within the padded sides. With the pillow on one side, she was comfortably sleeping, no more falling or jerking. And while the night wasn't very cold, and she was in the warmth of the car, the comfort of the well-loved sling helped her to sleep even more peacefully.
On hot days, as well as cold days, slings come in handy. My children have both learned that they can use the sling to protect their eyes from the sun in the car. The sling is heavy enough to block out the sun but not so heavy that it makes them too hot. It is the perfect size to spread out over the stroller, protecting the occupant from both the sun and from strangers peering in at them. For a small baby, the cushioned sides of the sling make it perfect for propping up around the baby in a car seat or stroller, protecting it from the sun but leaving the face and mouth clear.
Slings are not made of thin fabric, and it's a good thing too! A sling can protect your child from places you don't want their bare bum sitting upon. Yes, I'm talking about those changing tables. And while I am so thankful that so many more businesses are installing diaper-changing stations, that wonderful container of "towels" provided for you to lay the child down on is almost always empty. Even if it were not empty, I'd rather place my child on the comfort of a sling, with the pillow under their head, then use the thin paper provided. When there is no changing table available, the sling is an instant one. I've placed it on booths in restaurants, on counter tops in bathrooms, on the grass in parks, and on benches in the mall. Not wishing to put my child's bare bottom directly on a surface that might not be clean, the sling is the perfect answer. Keeping the side of the fabric that is normally next to my child facing up, I can diaper without worry. And if one of those inevitable accidents happens before I can get the dry diaper under my baby, then it's not a worry--I just throw the sling into the washing machine when I get home.
It is a good thing the sling is washable, for it has sat under many clothed bottoms as well, including my own. It has marked our place for a parade, children have eaten snacks at the park on it, and has been placed on a car seat after a spill, keeping the unfortunate occupant dry even when the seat is wet. I've also been known to put the sling to other, less noble tasks, such as wiping a runny nose, drying a few tears, cleaning up spilled juice. Just last week my poor sling was the recipient of a sick child's tummy contents. Better than using mommy's shirt!
Speaking of mommy's shirt, the sling protects others from seeing the chocolate fingerprints, the ketchup stains, or the results of the diaper that leaked. The child doesn't have to be in the sling for the mother to wear it. And when the child is not in the sling, the little pocket that the folds create make a perfect resting place for other things-a sippy cup of juice or a bottle of water, mommy's keys and sunglasses, a camera, a baby doll or a toy car. Sometimes all of these, and more, are stored in my "empty" sling. And as long those important items are in the sling, you know they are safe, next to you, and can't be stolen.
The sling is safe, although some new sling owners have a difficult time using it in the beginning. It takes time, and practice, to realize you don't have to hold your baby to keep them safely in the sling. Of course, that doesn't mean you can't hold your baby. If my hands are free, not doing dishes or folding laundry, then my arms are around the child in my sling, even though I know I don't have to hold on. After five years, I can take my toddler and swing her and the sling to my back, freeing both hands and arms to carry a tray of food, or another child, or do any multitudes of other tasks. This does take practice, though. I tell new moms to use the sling 20 minutes a day for six weeks, and by the end of that time, you'll never want to be without it.
Unfortunately, I have been without a sling a time or two, forgetting it in the dryer, or leaving it on the couch. Each time I regret it, for it's not simply fabric to hold my baby to me, but it can keep my baby safe at other times too. A merry-go-round without a seatbelt can seem very fast for a small child, but with their sling wrapped around them and the pole in front, and daddy's arms hol ding tight, now it's fun! Grocery carts don't always come clean and germ free, let alone with a buckle, but the sling can be arranged in such a way that the child is protected and secure. When your child is ready to be in your arms again, you can still have two hands free for shopping while your toddler helps from the safety of the sling. There are many places where there are no seatbelts-on trains, buses, and trams for instance. During a recent 16 hour, over night train trip, I used a sling for a seat belt for each child while they were sleeping. The risk of an accident is slim, but I felt more comfortable knowing that if there were an accident my child would be safer.
A sling does even more to keep your child safe. All it takes is a few seconds for that exploring toddler to be out of your sight. A sling keeps a curious child safe in your arms, away from the danger of being lost, or taken. If the baby is in a stroller or car seat, strangers think, somehow, that it's OK for them to touch your baby. If the baby is next to you in the sling, you can control those hands a bit better, and protect your child. I see parents every day pushing empty strollers, their child heavy in their arms. With a sling, the stroller could be left at home, or saved for those long days at an amusement park or longer walks, to carry the diaper bag and lunch cooler, and not the baby.
The sling has saved me many times, keeping both hands free for other children. Walking to the store one day with four children under the age of four seemed like an adventure for us all, until I got to the street that was busier than I'd ever seen it. Putting the two year old in the sling, I picked up my 21 month old, and with my four year old holding the "tail" of the sling, and the three year old holding my free hand, we were able to cross the street safely. I also use the sling as an extension of me when I have more children than I have hands. With the children all holding onto the sling, they feel attached to me and we can safely walk across a street, go up an escalator, or make our way through a crowd.
Of course there are other more common reasons to use a sling. A child in the sling benefits from something a child in a stroller can't have-conversation. Mother and child are right next to each other. Mom can talk to her child without yelling, or stopping and going to the front of the stroller, and the child can talk to his mother without wondering if he will be heard. A child in a sling is at conversation level, hearing not just the conversation between mother and child but also those between others around them. How can this be anything but good for her verbal, as well as other, skills? The toddler is right there during transactions; she sees how to purchase wanted items, and that money is exchanged. She watches her mother ask for directions, request special items, talk with neighbors, deal with conflict, and performing every day tasks--all skills she will need as she grows older.
Being close to mom during every day activities helps the toddler in many other ways. A child who interacts with and speaks to people he and his mother meet during their daily activities will be less afraid of "strangers" and more likely to trust his own instincts when it comes to people he doesn't know. Being close to mom constantly gives the child a physical connection with mom, and he becomes better able to read her queues. He will be able to tell when she doesn't like someone, and when she does, when she trusts someone, and when she doesn't. If a child trusts her instincts and if she is lost, she will be better prepared to deal with the situation. She will know where to go to get help, and whom to ask. The child will also be more confident in asking for assistance. We cannot always be there to protect our child, and the sling can only be used for a child for so many years. However, a child in a sling can only learn positive skills about communication and human nature, and these skills can only help protect our children when they are older.
Dads can, and should, use a sling too. Slings can come in all colors, so dad doesn't have to wear one with pink flowers on it. My husband takes his sling everywhere. On some nights, when I'm tired and my toddler is fighting sleep, my husband will take her and the dog for a walk. When they return she is almost always asleep or ready for sleep, comfy in the sling next to her daddy's strong chest. The sling has certainly increased the bond between my husband and our children in a way that a stroller could never have done. The sling must help the relationship between any parent and child. The mother or father will, without realizing it, play with the child's foot, smile at their baby, soothe their child with a back rub, or massage the child's leg. This contact cannot take place when the child is as much as a few feet away in a stroller.
The sling also encourages breastfeeding. It be used as a light blanket, helping to shield the breastfeeding pair from eyes, and many mothers can breastfeed their child while in the sling, so that they don't have to stop what they are doing. The first time I did this I was so proud, but now it has become just what I do. If my toddler needs to nurse, I latch her on and continue what I was doing. You definitely can't breastfeed your child while she is in the stroller, not comfortably anyway.
The fabric of the sling is no heavier than a light jacket, yet it is so much more functional than simply a child carrier. Most front packs are good only for a few months, until the child is 20 pounds, or less. My children didn't like them at all, didn't like the strap between their legs, and their inability to look around. The positioning is limited, either to only facing toward mommy, or in the better ones, to facing mommy or facing out. Breastfeeding is difficult to accomplish in a carrier. I was never able to do so, and always had to remove the child and the carrier. With a sling there are few limits as to how you can carry your baby and breastfeeding is easy. Backpacks are great, but if a child wants to get in and out all day long they are inconvenient. Most take two adults to get the child buckled into the backpack on the shoulders. The sling can be used from the time a child is born until they are three years old or older, as most slings are rated to about 35-40 pounds. Deceptively simple, a length of fabric, sewn, a few rings, and yet a sling can be the most important item, besides the child, a parent can have. I can't imagine having an infant or child without a sling around to help
Photo by Laura Egley Taylor