Following recall of baby slings, health officials urge parents to use caution

Tuesday, March 30, 2010
Katie Reitman of Jackson and her 4-month-old daughter, Anna, enjoy time together using a Maya Wrap baby sling carrier. (Fred Lynch)

After a recent warning from the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission and a manufacturer's recall of 1 million infant sling carriers, many people are unsure if infant carriers are safe and how they should be used.

Earlier this month the Consumer and Product Safety Commission said it was investigating at least 14 deaths associated with sling carriers, a cloth sling that's placed over the parent's shoulder and cradles a baby. The organization urged caution when using the sling carrier with babies younger than 4 months old.

Brooke Kirby, a health educator at Southeast Missouri Hospital's Wellness Connection and coordinator of Safe Kids Cape Girardeau, said there are two main suffocation threats when using a sling carrier.

"The carrier puts the infant in a curved position where it is hard to breathe. Their head can fall forward and they can't breathe. Also, there are instances where the infant has rolled toward the parent's body and suffocated," Kirby said.

In conjunction with the warning from the CPSC, Kirby recommends that no child younger than 4 months of age be placed in a sling carrier. Children older than 4 months have better control of their neck muscles and are more capable of changing their position, she said.

Dr. James Palen of Cape Girardeau said it is important to keep in mind that newborns are not small children and have specific needs.

"The main thing with really small infants is they have no neck control," he said. "Tucking them into something snug, tucking them in a position with a flexed head affects their ability to breathe."

He said while there is no proof sling carriers smother children, it is important to be cautious.

"You want to be safe," he said. "Unfortunately, especially for new mothers, it is often difficult to know what is safe."

Mothers have many obligations, Palen said, and sling carriers may seem like a good way for the child to be carried, but a safer option may be the stroller.

"Car seats and strollers are heavier, cumbersome and time-consuming, but they are a safer choice. I'd be hesitant to use a sling on a small child. I would use the car seat and stroller combination," Palen said.

For mothers who want to carry their baby in a sling, Palen offered a few recommendations.

"Be sure there is nothing around the child's nose and mouth and that they have room to extend their neck," he said. "They should be in a comfortable position that doesn't restrict movement."

Many parents wear sling carriers while they are busy doing other things, and Palen said a parent can often become distracted.

"When you are carrying the baby in a sling, you are usually doing something else," he said. "Your attention is elsewhere. Who knows how much you're moving the baby into a position he is not used to while you're walking, turning and moving."

Babies in sling carriers should be checked frequently to make sure they are in a comfortable position and that nothing is obstructing their airway.

Christa Turner of Jackson began using a sling carrier with 7-month-old Ozzie when he was a few weeks old. She said she liked being able to tuck him completely into the carrier where he was not open to the frequent touching of strangers when they were in public. She said she always practiced caution when he was in the carrier.

"I didn't put it as tight as it said I could. I made sure that he never looked uncomfortable, and I always had my arm underneath him, supporting him. Even before there was a warning and recall, I was concerned about his safety," Turner said.

Turner said she frequently checked on Ozzie to ensure he was facing up and was never against her body.

Katie Reitman, mother of 4-month-old Anna, has used carriers with all three of her children.

"I have used a sling since birth," the Jackson mother said. "Not all carriers are the same; there are vast differences."

She said she uses different carriers based on the child's age, and always keeps Anna "close enough to kiss."

Reitman uses a Maya Wrap baby sling carrier that holds the baby fully on her chest. She said the main problem with the bag-style sling carriers is they keep the baby really low and only in one position.

"The baby is in the cradle position only. That is good enough when the baby is in your arms, but not good enough for a carrier," she said.

Two months ago the Consumer and Product Safety Commission added infant slings to the list of durable infant products that require a mandatory standard. Until that standard is developed, it advises caution when using the product, particularly in children younger than four months of age.

The CPSC recalled 1 million of the "SlingRider" and "Wendy Bellissimo" baby slings made by Infantino, saying babies could suffocate in the soft fabric.

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