Flexible friends – how slings can help balance needs in early family life


In this post, I’d like to explore another important theme from my research with sling users – and that’s the question of how slings can be used flexibly to ease some of the tensions that can develop in the family when young children are around.

Very often, our expectations about what parenting will be like don’t turn out to bear any resemblance to the reality of that experience. And that can sometimes be a bit of a shock to the system. Take sleep for example. Partially based on what I’d heard from friends and relatives (though probably also due to my own total ignorance of babies!), I think that pre-parenthood, I assumed that my son would be sleeping through the night by 6 months old. Now, of course some babies do happily sleep through the night from a relatively young age with no persuading. But mine? Well, errr, try adding another two years onto that figure and you might be closer to the truth… And I know he was not the only one to do that!

I think similarly mistaken assumptions are made about a child’s capability to move independently. We might assume that it is easier to get out and about with an older toddler or pre-schooler since these children do not have the same intense physical needs for milk and sleep as a young baby and they can now walk independently, perhaps for some considerable distance. However, while there’s undoubtedly some truth in that, it’s not necessarily accurate to assume that an older child is always a more mobile child.

Why? Well, my research suggests a number of explanations for this. Firstly, as children grow, they naturally become more active in the journey-making process, often expressing strong feelings about when and how they travel and how much (or how little!) they feel about walking on a given day. How many of us have been seduced into going out for a walk with our seemingly independent and energetic child who is adamant that they want to walk (or scoot, or cycle) – only to discover that, 15 minutes later and a fair way from home, they suddenly announce they are tired and refuse to move from the spot? This has happened to me more times than I can remember and it’s a great example of where a sling can be helpful, since, as Anthea explained to me during the research: “I can’t carry a pram in my handbag!”.

Just been running around – but now he’s up and safe for the road!

A sling that has been clipped round your waist or discretely packed away somewhere can be a lifesaver in these kinds of situations and this is why experienced sling users will often continue to take one with them even when their child is long-past using one regularly as a means of transport. And, of course, slings aren’t just handy in cases of ‘journey refusal’: even if a child is walking reliably, there can be times when it feels more appropriate to pop them in a sling for a few minutes – for example, when there is a busy road nearby or you’re needing to get somewhere on time.

My research shows how young children’s feelings, interests and capabilities shift constantly during the early years of family life and, as a result, families are constantly having to come up with creative – and often negotiated – solutions to ensure that everyone can get where they want to as safely and easily as possible. This can mean that your mobility may go down for a period as your children grow, even with the help of a sling or a pushchair. For example, several families taking part in my research had children who went through phases of resisting pram or sling and being really intent on moving independently. James and Thirza, who enjoyed hillwalking as a family, thus found there was a period when they were restricted to shorter walks that were “a walkable distance for a fairly robust four year old”  until their daughter was able to walk longer distances of her own accord. (Interestingly, this was in complete contrast to their son, who was very happy to still be carried at this age – again, showing how individual children can be!)

In many cases, though, a sling can be a useful and flexible tool that can help balance the needs of different family members as children grow. For example, in this lovely example about the journey to preschool with her three year-old son, Abi reveals how she uses a sling to respond to the physical and emotional work of being mobile with a young child in a way which attempts to balance everyone’s needs:

“Sometimes I have the mental energy to let Arthur walk or scoot or ride his bike.  And sometimes I either don’t have that mental energy or I just want to make sure we get there quickly. And so it’s like ‘I just want to go in a straight line to get there today so you’re coming in a sling’… It’s really nice actually when he does come in a sling because we just have cuddles and chat and it’s really nice to reconnect when he’s been at pre-school all morning. We came home from pre-school today and we nipped into the new ice-cream shop… And ate ice-cream together in the sling having a chat on the way home.”

Here, a sling gives Abi some flexibility by allowing her to swap some of the emotional work of parenting (the need to keep her child safe in a busy street and get somewhere on time) for the physical work of carrying him, enabling the journey to be completed while also developing their relationship. 

Incidentally, if you’re interested in these ideas about the emotional and physical work of parenting and how slings play into this, you might also be interested in this earlier blog post on carrying older children.

When a new baby arrives

Keeping the whole family happy

This balancing of needs can also be vital for everyone during the arrival of a new baby. Again, very interestingly, some of the parents I interviewed found that the real challenge to their mobility came not with their first baby but their second – particularly if there was a relatively small age gap and number two arrived before number one was reliably walking. In this case, parents often felt very concerned about their ability to manage both practically and emotionally. Here, again, slings came into their own as a flexible tool that could be used to balance the needs of the whole family.

This example from Clare shows how using a sling was crucial in enabling her to be available – both physically and emotionally – for her older daughter and, how this was also personally important in how she felt about becoming a mum for the second time:

“With a second child, I felt really guilty before she was born that this was going to ruin my relationship with Rowan, she’s going to be jealous that I’m tied up with the baby all the time. But actually I’m not tied up with the baby all the time because I can breastfeed in the sling if I want to so it doesn’t have to slow us down.  I can be sitting down, use the sling to support her when I’m breastfeeding sitting down, so that I’ve got a hand free to read a book to Rowan. And then the rest of the time Rowan can be climbing on a climbing frame and I’ve got two hands to help her if I need to.  Hold her hands across the road… if I was trying to push a pram I’d just really struggle with a toddler that wants to walk.” (Clare)

Again, this example shows beautifully the fluid work of parenting which involves eyes, hands, hearts and minds – and how the sling enables these to be balanced from moment to moment to accommodate the necessary changes as a family grows.

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