The answer to this question comes in two parts;
- When they are developmentally ready
- When they physically big enough to fit facing forward in the carrier you have for them
This can vary a lot from child to child so I will discuss both in depth below to enable you to judge for yourself when your baby is ready. Parents often ask me for an age, but because babies develop and grow at different rates there isn't a magical age where all babies all suddenly overnight become ready to face outwards! For most babies this is somewhere between 4-5 months, but equally some babies won't be ready until nearer 6 months. Better to know what we are looking for developmentally and in terms of physical fit and be led by your baby.
It is also worth considering the pros and cons of forward facing too, this position more than any other comes with distinct factors for consideration. You can read more about the facts surrounding carrying babies outward facing here.
In terms of developmental readiness, what we are looking for here is primarily neck strength - they need to have excellent head control and upper body strength. The reason for this is simply because when forward facing the carrier is unable to provide any head support. And because they are facing outwards their head and uppermost torso isn’t even supported by your body either. So they must be able to hold their heads up themselves for the full duration you will be wearing them outwards.
I often encourage parents to think about how they naturally hold babies in arms, and then see if a baby carrier can be used to emulate and replace their arms. But it worth realising that you can hold your baby in arms looking outward much earlier than you can use a sling. This is because you naturally will hold your arms in a way that supports their head if they need it. And your arms are responsive, so if baby starts to tire or starts to slump - your arms will automatically respond to this and adjust the support for baby or automatically turn them inwards. Next time you are holding baby like this, do think about how long you hold them facing outward. How long can they hold their own head for? How steady is their head? Do you use your arms or body to help stabilise?
It is important to realise that carrier can not be used to support their head while forward facing without risking impinging on their airway. So developmentally they need to have rock solid head control. I remember my daughter went through a distinct ‘nodding dog’ stage where she could mostly hold her own head but she looked a little bit like one of those nodding dogs. I could quite happily hold her looking outwards in arms but she wasn't strong enough to do this in a carrier. It was a few more weeks until she reached rock solid.
The other developmental sign to look for is time spent awake. As I mentioned this position relies on baby supporting their own head - which is something they need to be awake to do (even fully grown adults will lose tone and their head will loll if they fall asleep sitting up!). So if you are planning to go out for 30 minutes wearing your baby outward facing, you need to know that they will be happy to remain to stay awake that whole 30 minutes. Or be prepared to stop and change them to inward facing long before they start to get sleepy. Hence, ideally we are looking for babies who have reached an awake cycle of at least 2 hours to give you a decent 30 minutes or so within that awake cycle where they are the most awake and inquisitive to forward face.
Typically babies will reach these developmental considerations somewhere between 4 and 5 months. It is extremely rare a baby is genuinely ready before 4 months.
As well as being developmentally ready, baby also needs to physically be large enough to fit forward facing in the carrier you have for them. Their head needs to be able to clear the top of the carrier (so they can breathe!) and they need to be able to do this without over extending their back. They need to be able to sit comfortably in the carrier, with their weight on their bottom, legs comfortably supported and not overly splayed out. When they are able to do this will depend on their size (primarily their torso height and inner leg length) and the carrier you have.
There is a HUGE variation between different carrier brands. Some like the Lillebaby Complete and Beco 8 are huge. Great if you have a child tracking on the upper centiles for weight and height because it will continue fitting them longer, but frustrating if you have a smaller framed baby as it could be at least 6 months (maybe more) before baby fits. Others, like the Izmi Baby carrier will fit much much sooner, even for babies who are right on the lowest centiles (I once got a great facing outward carrying on a 6 month old who was born early so while 6 months old and developmentally ready, was still the size of an average 2.5 month old!). The Beco Gemini is another good one for fitting babies slightly earlier if they are ready. Carriers like the Ergo Omni 360 and the Tula Explore are much more in the middle, most children will start fit well in these somewhere between 4-5 months.
But my baby really hates being held inward and wants to forward face already!!!
This the the really hard bit. The fact that most babies will hit what I call "nosy baby phase" long before they are ready to be carried outwards in a carrier. Generally, nosy baby phase starts right around the time the huge developmental leap that happens at the end of the fourth trimester. As baby transitions from a sleepy newborn into a much more awake, more alert and far more interested in the world baby. And as baby become more interested they will start to strain to see more and might start fighting a carrier if it is impairing their view. Typically this starts happening around 12 weeks or so.
And parents will start finding they hold baby looking outward in their arms and/or on their hip more and more. But for all the reasons above discussed above, baby is not yet ready to be carried forward facing in a baby carrier. I honestly understand why parents feel frustrated! So what are the options?
The first is to see if you can tweak the fit on your current baby carrier to give them a better view. For a stretchy wrap this might be twisting the straps near the shoulder to safely move the fabric further from baby's face, giving them clearer sight lines. For a buckle carrier or meh dai this might be fitting it slightly differently so the panel doesn't come up as high, or so a strap isn't sitting across baby's field of view.
The second, and arguably more successful thing to try is a Hip Carry. Hip carries can be a fantastic solution as they give exactly the same view outwards as carrying forward facing, but without any of the cons. Baby can safely fall asleep or get tired in this position because their head can be supported in this position - both by the carrier and because baby's head will naturally rest against their parents body in this position. It also overcomes worries of overstimulation, as baby can turn their head away as they are starting to become tired. Even once baby is ready to forward face - this is a hugely useful position to know for those times when baby is tired but fighting sleep! And many of the carriers that offer forward facing, offer a hip carry too so you can use either depending on which one works for you and baby on any given day!
Once Baby is ready - how do I carry them forward facing?
Once baby is ready, here is how to position them in an outward facing carry