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High back carries: is higher better when back carrying?

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High back carries: is higher better when back carrying?

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white woman in rainbow vest carrying 4 year old in sling

Do I need a high back carry?

If you’re in any babywearing Facebook groups you’ve probably seen people talking about how back carries need to be high. So let’s examine why people claim that a high back carry is essential, how the height of back carries affects how you feel.

Let’s go back to basics

What are the fundamentals of carrying? Your carry needs to be safe and ideally comfortable. Safe means secure – not falling out – and able to breathe. You need to be able to monitor your little ones breathing and ensure they aren’t slumping down.

So how does that relate to the height of a back carry? When you’re back carrying it is harder to see your baby’s face than when they are on your front. So you need to find ways to do the monitoring of their breathing. One way is to carry your baby high up so they are visible over your shoulder. When a baby is this high you can feel their breath on the back of your neck; this makes breathing easier to monitor. However, you can use a mirror, reflection in a window, selfie mode, or ask someone else to check your baby too. A low back carry does not mean a baby cannot be monitored.

Young babies, those under 6 months, are more at risk of slumping when awake than most older babies and toddlers. This is because they usually have less core strength and lower muscle tone. Until a baby has good upper body control, often indicated by being able to sit independently, we advise being very attentive to their position. If back carrying a baby under 6 months a high back carry can make monitoring position regularly easier. However, once your little one is sitting unaided this risk reduce. As long as you can monitor safety, the height of your back carry isn’t a specific safety issue.

I spy; what do they see?

Another reason people feel that it is important to carry high is so that babies can see. Some babies may be happier looking over their parent’s shoulder than at their back. However, babies on the back are no more restricted to only facing directly forward than are those on your front. If your baby turned their head to the side when front carried, and looked around them, they can do so on your back too. Babies often don’t mind low back carries and parents often stand side on to involve their back carried baby more easily. If your child gets grumpy looking at your back then a higher carry may increase their contentedness; however it is unnecessary to carry all babies high because some prefer it.

high back carry with 6 week old in woven wrap

Understanding rules helps you manage your risk

There are lots of ‘rules’ thrown around about back carrying. Understanding why they are used and what they mean will help you isolate the safety concern from the ‘rule’. People break ‘rules’ more, and in more risky ways, when the reasons for the rules is unclear. We have no issue with rule breaking when safety considerations are understood and managed!

But what about comfort for me?

Everyone has a height of back carry that is comfortable for them and it’s not always high! Some people are most comfortable carrying weight in the small of their back, whereas others prefer it to be at shoulder-height. This might also change as your child gets older and longer! I definitely find lower back carries more comfortable; I cannot comfortably carry a heavy toddler in a high back carry!

It is worth experimenting with what feels right and comfortable. It is also worth trying out how to get a carrier or sling carry higher or lower. What do you need to change? You can try this with a doll or teddy. Remember carrying a teddy and carrying your baby don’t feel the same. Teddy feels weightless in a high back carry because teddy weighs 350g! Once you feel confident in putting a sling on at different heights, try them with your baby.

How do they feel?
Can you monitor safety?

Let’s talk about the physics of carrying

centre of gravity

Your centre of gravity is the point in your body where gravity appears to act. This is slightly different for all body shapes, however, usually it is a little above your hips when standing upright. As you change position, your centre of gravity moves. Adding more weight, and the height at which that weight sits, also alters your centre of gravity.

If you’ve ever enjoyed a workplace manual handling video you’ll know the advice for carrying heavy objects; hold them as close to your centre of gravity as possible. For many people this is close to their body and and a little above their hips. This is because it maintains your centre of gravity, allowing you to move in your usual way without destabilising you, or causing overbalancing. It is easier to compensate for the increased weight at a point close to your centre of gravity. A weight high on your back changes your centre of gravity more, making it higher. When your centre of gravity is higher smaller changes to position impact stability to. greater extent. For example, leaning forwards, can easily destabilise you and result in a fall. Your body needs to do more work to compensate for this change, and you need to be more aware your movements.

You can see this in practice with hiking rucksacks. Packed the weight into the bottom of the rucksack means the sturdy waistband distributes the weight through your hips. Shoulder straps hold the weight in close to your body, but bear less of the weight.

How does this relate to back carries?

With regards to carrying, the further from your centre of gravity the child sits, the more your centre of gravity is altered. This impacts your stability in certain positions, and which part of your body takes the weight. Your freedom to change position normally can be affected. This can all have a big affect on how carrying their weight feels for your body. A high back carry with a baby weighing a few kilograms may have little impact on your centre of gravity. As your child gains weight carrying them will increasingly affect your centre of gravity. You may find that lower back carries become a more comfortable option.

When back carrying you engage your core muscles to compensate for the weight pulling backwards. The height of the weight and how close to your body it is held affects how much it pulls backwards. This affects how hard and precisely which muscles need to work to support your body. Whether the weight sits at shoulder, rib, waist or hip height affects which muscles you use and how hard they will need to work to keep your body balanced. What works best for you is individual; finding it can take some practice.

Do different carriers carry at different heights?

Yep! Buckle carriers, meh dai and half buckle carriers are designed for lower back carries; the waistband is designed to sit on your hips or waist. Onbuhimo are designed for higher back carries. A woven wrap can do either height depending on the carry you choose; a ruck carry is usually higher than a double hammock carry. Your choice of carrier can certainly affect how easily you can achieve a high back carry.

Does the size of my child affect the height of my back carry?

Yes! Have a look at this image of my back and the length of my dolls – one roughly the size of a 4 month old and one the size of a 12 month old.

I have shown different places where you could put the waistband (or wrap pass) on my back and the distance from there to my shoulders.

When the length from the waistband to your shoulder is shorter than the length of your baby’s back, when you put them in the carrier their bottom will drop lower than the waistband. This has two common effects:

  1. The baby’s weight pulls the waistband diagonally downwards. Unless the waistband is extremely tight, the baby’s weight will push it down your body and pull your baby’s weight through your body rather than evenly distributing it as it does when they sit on the top of the waistband
  2. It will reduce how high up your child’s back the panel comes because some of it length of the panel will be between you and your baby. This can make the carrier less supportive for your baby’s upper back. It can mean that they appear to ‘grow out of’ the carrier much earlier.

The higher the waistband on your body, the greater the likelihood of these two issues. This can be an issue for adults with short torsos carrying an older or taller child as well.

Tips and tricks for a comfy back carry

  1. Try out different carriers, ways of carrying and different heights to find an option to suit you. We have a range of different styles of carriers to hire, or you can access support at your local sling library.
  2. Remember that your growing child will change what feels comfortable for you when carrying. As they grow and change you might need to change how you carry.
  3. Think about how to adjust and tighten your carrier. Different carriers adjust in different ways, sometimes very different. Before tightening you need to move the slack to your tightening system!
  4. Don’t worry if your most comfortable option looks different to someone else’s.
  5. Above all, stay safe! Remember the two key points – your baby is safe and secure.
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