Having your baby face forward in a carrier on your chest is tempting for many parents. It seems like so much fun - but is it? Let me lay out six points that might make you consider positioning your baby to face you instead: on your chest, hip or even on your back.
1. No head support
Slings and carriers don’t provide head support when forward (outward) facing. That means a risk of asphyxiation before your baby gains full head and neck support. In order to keep your little one safe, you need to avoid letting his head dangle forward and prevent the carrier from cutting into his throat. Full head and neck support is an individual milestone: can your baby hold up and turn its head without assistance for a prolonged period of time? You're the judge. Babies usually gain full head control around 6 months of age.
Regardless of age, in order to avoid the risk of choking, your baby shouldn't be allowed to fall asleep in the carrier in this set-up. And what a waste it would be of one of babywearing's main perks: to have your baby fall asleep peacefully in the carrier?
2. Sensory overload before you notice
When outward facing, your baby is locked into an encounter with a very new world, with you behind his back. That means your baby is forced to face and process enormous amounts of information. As an adult, you are well-equipped for this familiar task, but babies are yet able to filter out the excess, turn away and rest or fall asleep. That is sensory overload. Your baby may quickly become overwhelmed, irritated and tired while, at the same time, lacking the reassurance provided by having you in view. You can’t immediately respond to your baby’s cues of fear, fatigue, hunger or pain. In these cases, a quick response might save you a lot of fuss.
3. Your baby wants to see YOU
Do you think your baby is bored looking at you? Many parents want their babies to have a better view, to enjoy looking out at the world around them. The truth is, babies may find some momentary enjoyment in observing these bright, busy new scenes - but YOU are their favorite sight. Parents often underestimate the importance of their own presence and perhaps even forget sometimes that the visual world is a startling new frontier which takes time for little brains to acclimate to. Seeing you is the ultimate joy for your baby, especially when you are responsive and playful. You are their constant, a safe space within which they can test their understanding of this new capability. And in return, you are rewarded by seeing your baby processing, communicating, giggling and sleeping.
Consider carrying your baby facing inward on your chest, hip or back. You might be surprised by how much older babies can look around, having their shoulders free to move in the carrier or sling, while still facing you. That way, your baby will enjoy his favorite sight, you, while being able to observe the world and rest safely on your chest at will.
4. Your baby NEEDS to see you
Seeing you is not only a delight for your child. It is a critical part of your child's social and emotional development.
During the first years of life, babies are developing socially and emotionally, using so called social referencing. When there is an event upsetting your baby, he will regulate his reaction by looking at you, learning from you the meaning of different emotive expressions, words and sounds and their associations with things. Your child also forms his decision making skills and builds confidence in your input.
When you carry your baby facing outwards, it is very difficult for your child to see or check in with you. By keeping your little one close, oriented towards you, you allow him to read your facial expressions and body language. This is an important element of your child’s development. Carrying your baby facing you, on your chest, hip or even high on your back - depending on your baby's head control and your preferences - is a perfect way to nourish that critical connection.
5. Healthy hips and spine development
Only a few forward facing carriers on the market are hip-healthy. Most babies end up hanging in a super narrow carrier - the crotch dangler. That is not ideal for your baby’s hips or spine development. More about hip-healthy seating here. The same goes for a wrap - here the smile of the seat depends on your wrap and wrapping skill.
6. Parents’ discomfort
Finally, facing outward shifts your baby’s weight forward - as opposed to your center, creating extra weight for your back. Beware of carrying your baby forward facing very low on your chest or belly, swinging. It is an indication that the carrier is too loose. As with any other carrier or carrying style, you should keep your baby close. Do your bodies move as one? They will if you leave just enough space for the palm of your hand between your chests.
7. Safety check and go for it!
In or out, carrying your baby in any safe manner is great for both of you, so go for it. Once you decide to carry your baby facing outwards, do it safely and for short periods of time. For the comfort of you and your little one, try to get a smiling carrier with a hip-healthy seat for a forward facing position. More about a smiling carrier here.
Have fun sharing face-time and keep safe!