A carrier or sling makes life with a baby much easier. 'Wearing' your baby on your chest, you can zip up and down escalators and staircases, through crowded stations, airports or shopping centres, all blissfully pushchair free.
If you need to nip somewhere by car or public transport and get around once there, you won't have to lift your baby's pushchair in and out of the car or bus/train or faff about folding and unfolding it. Just pop the sling or carrier on and and you're both good to go.
And this isn't just about convenience for parents - most babies love being taken about in a carrier. If they're over-tired and fractious, the movement, combined with the warmth from your body, can be wonderfully calming. Meanwhile if they're awake and alert, they will get a better view of the world than from low down in a pushchair - and indeed far more coo-ing over and adoration from passing grown-ups!
Things to consider when shopping:
1. Slings and carriers do the same job and the terms are often used interchangeably but strictly speaking, slings are less structured and more 'fabricy', whilst carriers have more buckles and straps and a padded, shaped 'seat' for the baby to sit in, usually in an upright position.
2. You need your sling or carrier to be relatively easy to use. And we say relatively, as few are a complete doddle at first. Persevere through the first couple of times and it should be worthwhile though.
Look for demo videos online, as they can be more illuminating than print instructions and the first time, use the sling or carrier when there is a second adult around to help get your baby in and out.
3. Comfort for your baby is obviously crucial – the sling or carrier must be sufficiently supportive, especially for newborns. If you can walk around without feeling the need to keep a hand on your baby, it should be about right. Think about whether you'd prefer the more horizontal carrying positions some slings offer, over the upright ones of carriers.
4. Comfort for the grown-up – anything that concentrates weight on your upper back and shoulders, or is one-sided will be hard to use once your baby gets heavier. Look for wide shoulder straps and adjustability.
5. Linked to this, check the recommended age/weight range for the sling or carrier as this will determine its longevity. If you'd like it to last into the toddler years, choose one with several carrying positions – newborns are best going on your front facing in, older babies and toddlers will want to face outwards so they have something to look at. You can buy back only carriers but one which can be used both front and back should offer the best value for money.
6. As with almost every baby product that involves any sort of fabric, make sure the carrier or sling is machine washable. They often get dribbled, puked on or possibly worse...(think leaky nappies). Some come with 'dribble bibs' included, or at extra cost. These can be worthwhile, although you could just stick a muslin cloth over the fabric by your baby's mouth if he or she is a dribbler.
7. Winter covers are handy if you'll be a regular carrier user – the alternatives are to drape a blanket over your baby (but it might well fall off, and you can guarantee when it does it'll drop into the nearest puddle), to try and get your coat over him or her (tricky) or to dress him or her in a snowsuit (but this could be too hot with your body heat as well).
8. It's useful to be able to pack the carrier or sling down relatively small, so you can squeeze it into a suitcase when travelling, or shove it in a bag.
9. You get what you pay for to an extent with carriers. Instead of purchasing a cheaper one, it might be worth buying second-hand – you can often pick up lightly used carriers on Ebay and most can be machine washed before use.
Five best buys:
1. Babybjorn Active, £89.99 from Babybjorn.co.uk
Probably the most popular baby carrier brand and for good reason. Babybjorn's carriers are all fairly easy to get on and your baby into and they're comfortable and adjustable. They also tend to feel quite secure - you're unlikely to feel the need to keep a hand on your baby on top of the carrier.
There's a somewhat bewildering range of carrier options from the brand - we've gone for the 'Active' version because it's a good all-rounder with decent back support, enabling you to carry your baby for longer without getting achy.
Good for: A safe bet for parents who aren't 100% sure about using a carrier – easy to get your head around.
Not so good for: They're a little pricey compared to some (but hold their value well if you sell them on second-hand afterwards). Some parents aren't keen on the vertical carry position for their newborns.
2. Manduca baby carrier, £99 from Cheekyrascals.co.uk
Hugely popular in Germany, the Manduca has only recently arrived in Britain but has already received positive reviews. It's very similar to our old favourite the Ergo carrier, but instead of requiring a separate insert (at extra cost) to make it supportive enough for a newborn, this is included and integral to the Manduca's design.
It performs well as a front carrier for younger ones but really comes into its own when your baby gets heavier and you can switch them to a piggyback-style position - you can use it long after most standard front carriers have been outgrown.
There's a sleep hood to support little heads if they doze off and, unlike most back only carriers, which are seriously bulky, this packs down enough to fit in a (largish) changing bag.
Good for: Longevity as it's suitable for newborns right through to fairly heavy toddlers.
Not so good for: It's a bit of a juggling act to get older babies and toddlers into the back carrying position (but you do get used to it).
3. Moby, currently £39.95 (£42.95 from October 2011) from Slumber-roo.co.uk
If you'd prefer a traditional-style, fabric sling to a more structured carrier, the Moby is one of the best. Stretchy cotton wraps around the wearer to create a snug and supportive hold - particularly good for newborns, including those who were premature.
According to the company, it can be used for children weighing up to 35lb but by that size, most children won't need carrying.
Good for: Being especially comfortable and supportive for newborns. Packs up small and weighs just 2lbs.
Not so good for: With over five metres of fabric to wrap around yourself, getting it on the first couple of times can be overwhelming (there are some good demo videos on YouTube).
4. Bushbaby Micro+, £95 fromBush-baby.com
If you've got an older baby or toddler and are planning some serious hiking, rather than a mere amble round the local shops, you'll both be better off with a proper, structured back carrier. This is ultra-comfortable, with a fleece-lined, well-padded seat and fleecey pillow for your child and thick, adjustable backpack-style straps and lumbar support for you. Suitable for children aged six months to three years and wearers ranging in height from 5ft to 6ft.
Good for: Full days carrying toddlers up hill and down dale.
Not so good for: Whilst it's not too bad for a structured back carrier, this is still bulky and not the sort of thing you'd pop your child into for a trip to the shops. Only serious hikers will be able to justify the expense.
5. Hippychick Hipseat, £39.99 from Hippychick.com
A slightly strange but none-the-less useful contraption which is akin to a large belt with a little seat for your baby or toddler to perch on. Designed for those occasions when you're just making a short trip somewhere and taking a pushchair would be a pain. It's extremely easy to get on and can be used for babies who can sit up to toddlers.
Good for: Very quick trips when you want to grab your baby and go.
Not so good for: Hands free usage - you need to keep one arm around your baby or toddler so you won't be as free as you would with them in a proper carrier.