Considering buying a baby carrier to bring your little one along during shopping trips, errands or day hikes? Or maybe you just need two free hands to do, well, just about anything.

In recent years, the federal government has taken steps to improve their safety. In February, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) approved new safety standards for frame child carriers to address issues (like sharp points and the size of leg openings) that led to injuries. The CPSC also has proposed safety standards for soft and sling carriers.

It's impossible to say whether carriers are safer overall than a stroller, according to Sarah A. Denny, MD, a pediatrician at Nationwide Children's Hospital in Columbus, Ohio.

However, under some circumstances carriers can have advantages over other methods of transporting a child. “If someone is pushing a baby in a stroller but doesn't have the baby in the 5-point harness, [the baby] would be much less safe than in a carrier,” says Denny, who is on the Council on Injury, Violence and Poisoning Prevention at the American Academy of Pediatrics.

“Same could be true of someone walking and holding a baby in their arms, she continues. “If they slip on the stairs or trip over a toy, the baby may be at increased risk of falling. No matter how the baby is being carried — arms, stroller or in a baby carrier — it is important to always be thinking about safety first.”

Related: How to Keep Your Kid from Falling Off the Furniture

How do you know whether a frame carrier, soft carrier or sling is right for you? It depends on how big your child is and your personal preference. Here are tips on what safety features to look for in each type.

Frame carriers

Father carrying child in frame carrier(Photo: ffolas/Shutterstock)

Also called backpack carriers, they resemble a hiker's backpack. Constructed of a metal frame and sewn fabric, the child rides just behind the adult's back. They are designed for older kids weighing 16 to 50 pounds who can already sit upright unassisted, according to the CPSC. “Frame carriers are not appropriate for infants,” says Denny.

According to Consumer Reports, desirable features include:

  • Five-point harness or “chest plate” that connects shoulder, thigh and crotch straps for a secure fit
  • Hip belt to keep weight on your hips, instead of shoulders and back
  • Enough padding to separate the frame from the baby
  • Storage pockets for baby and personal items
  • Adjustable straps, buckles and fasteners that you, but not the child, can manipulate
  • Foot stirrups to prevent dangling legs from inhibiting leg circulation
  • Built-in kickstand, to help with loading and unloading

Soft carriers

Father carrying baby in soft carrier(Photo: upthebanner/Shutterstock)

Built for smaller kids who aren't ready for a frame carrier, they let you hold the baby close to your body. Check the model's minimum and maximum allowable weights. Depending upon the model, the baby rides in front of you or on your hip. Some allow you to switch between the two.

According to Consumer Reports, look for one that includes:

  • Head support, because your baby may not yet have neck control
  • Machine-washable fabric, including mesh or insets for air circulation
  • Removable sun cover to protect the baby's skin
  • Leg openings large enough to be comfortable but small enough to prevent the baby from falling through
  • Straps, buckles, fasteners, pockets and waist belt, similar to frame carriers — straps should fit the baby snugly to your body

Small babies lack full neck control, so follow the directions every time the soft carrier is in use, says Denny. “Make sure the baby's face is up and visible, with the nose and mouth free.”

Related: 5 Tips for Swaddling a Newborn

Slings

Baby in a sling (Photo: Viktor Gladkov/Shutterstock)

A sling is like a wearable nest. It has a very simple design, consisting basically of a loop of fabric that you sling over one shoulder while carrying the baby on the other side of your body.

While they can be safe if used properly, you should take certain precautions, according to the Mayo Clinic. For instance, fabric can press against the mouth and nose, or pin the chin to the chest, potentially suffocating the baby. The Consumer Product Safety Commission has warned that the slings pose a significant suffocation hazard for infants under 4 months of age, and Consumer Reports recommends against using them to carry babies for this reason. If you decide to use the sling for an older baby, take these precautions:

  • If your baby was born prematurely or with a birth weight under 5.5 pounds, consult with a doctor before using a sling.
  • Also talk to a doctor if the baby has a cold or other breathing problems.
  • Periodically inspect the sling for rips, tears or other damage.

Buy trusted products

Beware of counterfeit products illegally passed off as brand-name carriers, warns the Baby Carrier Industry Alliance (BCIA). Available online via popular auction sites, they may be constructed with substandard materials and workmanship.

“Our recommendation is always to buy trusted brands from authorized retailers,” says executive director Linnea Catalan.

Under law, a carrier must include a permanently-affixed label with the manufacturer's name, the place and date of manufacture and a model number or other tracking number. It also should have a product registration card, according to the BCIA.

As an added safety measure, check with the CPSC to see if a specific model has ever been recalled.

Related: 5 Dangerous Baby Products to Avoid

David Arv Bragi is a freelance journalist and marketing consultant. He has been writing about health and safety issues since the 1990s and currently lives in Portland, Oregon.