THE BAG BABIES

When push comes to shove, is it better to carry your baby? Our panel tries five ways to leave your hands free

PARENTS are divided on the subject of baby carriers; some swear by them, claiming that they are indispensable for that all-important bonding with Mum or Dad, leading to a happier and more developed baby - not to mention leaving the parent's hands free for other things. Others fail to get on with all the belts, buckles and straps and are quite satisfied with a buggy, thank you very much.

For those who do appreciate the benefits of a carrier, we asked a panel of testers to try out five. Different types are appropriate for babies of different ages or weights. For example, back carriers are suitable for older babies, while little ones need front slings. Some models claim to be suitable for a wide range of ages.

We asked our panellists, who have babies ranging from two to 15 months, to consider some of the most important points when buying a carrier. These included: what support do they give the baby? How easy are they to put on and off, and pop the baby in and out of, and how comfortable are they to carry?

THE PANEL

Justine Picardie, Independent on Sunday columnist, mother of Thomas, 15 months; Karin Schamroth, speech therapist, mother of Daniela, four months; Isabel Lloyd, editor, mother of Jack, 10 months; Nick Trend, freelance journalist, father of Eleanor, two weeks.

THE TEST

The panellists gave the carriers marks for how comfortable they are, how much support they give the baby, how convenient they are to use, how attractive they look and value for money.

***TOMY DREAM RIDER

pounds 49.99, six months to 212 years

This carrier, worn on the parent's back, is suitable for older babies. With its metal frame, back support and hip belt, it somewhat ressembles a rucksack. Isabel Lloyd said: "It was a right palaver getting Jack into the safety harness: the result was one cross, slightly panicky baby. But he seemed happy enough once we were moving. I, however, felt like one of those Euro-teens who block up the escalators at Tottenham Court Road tube station with their giant backpacks. This would be fine on busy high streets, but is unwieldy on buses or tubes."

Justine Picardie recommended it for situations where pushing a buggy would not be feasible, such as a beach or a cliff walk. But, she added, "unless you have a very strong neck and back, it does become uncomfortable once the baby is over a year or so - despite the super-duper padding."

**TOMY TURNAROUND

pounds 19.99, newborn to 9 months, up to 21lbs

This carrier, which is borne on the parent's chest, can be turned around so that it faces either inwards for tiny babies, or, for older babies, the outside world. It has a bib, to stop the baby dribbling on the carrier's clothes, and a zip down the middle, to allow trouble-free access for breast feeding.

Our parents, however, didn't find it very comfortable. "It puts a strain on the shoulders," said Karin Schamroth. "Even for a small baby it's not something to use for a long time. Good points, though, are the turnaround feature, the dribble guard, and easy access for feeding. It's also easy to use - just pop the baby in and out."

Nick Trend echoed Karin Schamroth's comment: "This one is the simplest of the lot to use; you just drop the baby in. It's also quite easy to adjust. But it seemed rather small - I can't imagine that a bouncing six- month-old baby would sit very comfortably in it."

****HUGGABABY

pounds 29.95 incl p&p, newborn to18 months

The Huggababy was recently adapted by a mother, Margaret Hastings, from an American design and operates on similar principles to the slings worn by women in traditional societies.

It consists of a piece of cloth with padded shoulder straps and rings to fasten it, and can hold the baby in a number of different positions, including slung on the hip. The Huggababy was a popular choice, though some of the panel thought the on-the-hip position could be a strain for the carrier.

"Jack was very happy in this. But it didn't offer enough support for the back and put a big strain on one shoulder," said Isabel Lloyd. "With a child of Jack's weight - 231bs - you'd need to be fit. Only for the muscular." Justine Picardie found it useful to be able to carry her son on her hip when he was teething and would not be put down. "It enabled me to cook a meal and keep him quiet for some time. My neck got very sore after a while - but then it does usually when I hold him. Invaluable for a smaller baby, I'm sure." Karin Schamroth much preferred this to the conventional baby carriers, though it couldn't match her favourite, the Wilkinet.

*****WILKINET

pounds 28.95 incl p&p, newborn to 30lbs

This, our panel's overall favourite, was also a mother's invention, dating from the early 1980s. Like the Huggababy, it is based on traditional methods of carrying babies and can be used to hold the infant in various positions, but it looks rather strange, with two five-foot long straps to wind around, binding it to the body. Some of the panel found it daunting at first. "When unpacked, it looks like a Spider Thing from Planet X and appears intimidatingly complicated to put on. But once you're used to it, it's fairly straightforward," said Isabel Lloyd. "It's very comfortable for parent and baby and far better than any other front-carrying sling I've tried." The inventor, Sally Wilkins, who has eight children, says that the Wilkinet can be used with a baby up to 30lbs, but Isabel Lloyd thought her 23 pounder was getting a bit big.

Justine Picardie was flummoxed at first, too, though when she did get it on, she found it very comfortable. Karin Schamroth, who uses one herself, is a fan: "It's very comfortable after many hours of walking, and there are no buckles to fiddle with. It needs about a week to get used to slinging it all around," she said.

*INFANTINO LI'L TRAVELLER FROM INDEX

pounds 14.99, newborn to 9 months, up to 21lbs

This colourful carrier got below average marks, particularly for comfort. Karin Schamroth commented: "The straps cut into the shoulders. The waist belt is a good idea, but I didn't find it effective. Buckles were fiddly and the carrier wasn't easy to adjust. On the plus side, it was light but supportive for the child, the leg openings are well padded, and it has a dribble guard and a zip for easy breast-feeding."

Nick Trend, while not swept off his feet by any of the carriers ("I'd be happier with a pram"), voted this his least favourite. "I could not get the balance right. The straps were too short, and I felt like a top- heavy kangaroo. The baby also seemed a bit nervous; she wasn't sure whether to lie back and relax, or try to lean forward and peer round the edge."

STOCKISTS: Wilkinet, available by mail order: 01239 831246; Huggababy, available by mail order: 0181-292 6030; Tomy: 01703 872267; Index: 0645 444444.

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