Members of the meet-up group Los Angeles Crunchy Parents wear their babies during a hike in Griffith Park. They are, from left: Amanda Gates with Daphne in a hiking carrier; Jean Lee with Noelle in a Mei Tai carrier; Brettney Perr with Solace in a Metrowrap carrier; Melissa Burch with Marcus in a Beco carrier; Laura Brown with Chandler in a Mei Tai carrier; Erin Demos with Tristan in an Ergo carrier; and Hilary Asher with Pilot in an Ergo carrier. (Anne Cusack / Los Angeles Times)

Since the birth of her son a year ago, Lesley Doyle has become something of a baby carrier fanatic. She has a growing collection of carriers (10 at last count) that allow her to strap her son to her front, side and back so she can hold him hands free. She reads message boards to learn about new carriers, and she occasionally hosts "baby wearing" workshops in her Los Angeles home. Recently, she won a contest for designing a pattern for a baby-wearing carrier.

"I'm not buying fancy shoes anymore," she said. "Instead, I"m buying $120 wraps."

Over the last few years, there has been a dizzying proliferation of baby carriers on the market. For some, the choices are so overwhelming they turn to a consultant: Megan Davidson, a doula in New York, will show up with an oversized roller bag filled with 40 carriers, ready to show off their attributes and help parents learn to "wear" their babies.

"Some people know they want a one-shoulder carrier or a two-shoulder carrier. Some people want hip support. Others like more skin-to-skin contact," she said. "I think everyone is looking for a carrier that feels good on them and makes their baby happy, but the answer to that equation is different for everybody."

Experts in baby-wearing carriers may become more popular since the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission recently issued a warning that some carriers, if used incorrectly, may lead to infant death.

"When I teach a class, we talk about what kinds of positions are safe ways to put a baby in and about being able to see babies' airways," Davidson said. "Some pouches and slings I've worked with I really can't get a baby positioned in it in a way I find to be safe, so I don't have them on my list that I recommend."

On a recent afternoon, Doyle's son was strapped to her back in a striped wrap from the German company Girasol, which has its wraps woven in Guatamala.

"It's a shorty wrap -- 2.6, which means it's 2.6 meters," she said. "We kind of geek out over this stuff."

Doyle was ordering lunch at the Trails Cafe, where about a dozen of the Los Angeles Crunchy Parents meet-up group had assembled after a hike in Griffith Park. There were almost as many types of carriers there as there were moms. Among the brands on display: a stretchy green camoflauge MetroWrap with a bedazzled skull and crossbones on the front, a Peanut Shell nonadjustable sling, a homemade sling with Vespas on it and several Ergos -- a soft-structured carrier that looks like a canvas backpack and has become the top dog among carriers.

"I didn't even want the boring old Ergo," said Hilary Asher, who scored her stylish gray Ergo with stars on it through Craigslist. "A lot of people are anti-Ergo because it's such a brand. But this just works."

The Ergo, which hit the market in January 2003, was a baby wearing game changer. Denise and Alan Fields, authors of the bestselling "Baby Bargains" book heralded its ascension in the book's 2007 edition. "The Baby Bjorn was the top carrier pick in the last several editions of our book, but we have crowned a new winner this time out," they wrote. "Given the reader raves on the Ergo, we will give it our top recommendation."

Jamie Grayson, a baby planner and columnist for StrollerTraffic

.com, refers to himself as one of the original "Ergo-heads" in New York. The Ergo is the carrier he most often recommends to his clients, even though other carriers may be cuter, he said.

The Ergo can be worn in two ways: Younger babies are usually held in front, positioned upright on the parent's chest facing inward. As children get older, they move to the back, which is like putting them in a little backpack. A basic Ergo costs $105, but the prettier patterns cost a little extra. If you buy an "infant insert" (an additional $18 to $38), you can begin using the Ergo almost as soon as your baby is born, and according to the company, it can hold toddlers up to 40 pounds. However, Grayson says it can actually hold more than that. "I've held a 5-year-old in that thing," he said.

In 2007, Parenting magazine put the Ergo on its list of the best 20 products developed in the last 20 years. Company sales jumped 97% from 2007 to 2008, then increased 54% from 2008 to 2009. The Ergo appeals to parents who are drawn to the idea of attachment parenting -- holding or wearing a baby as much as possible to forge a strong bond and keep babies content. Also, creator Karin Frost had two clever innovations: The Ergo has a thick belt, so the weight rests on the wearer's hips rather than the shoulders, as it did with the Bjorn and the Snugli. She also put five business cards in the pocket of each Ergo. So, if someone asks you about your Ergo, you can just hand him or her a card. It's not surprising that the company credits its growth in sales to word of mouth.

"When we first started, I used to go to the airport and hand out Ergo cards," said Sydney Seaver, who has worked for the Hawaii-based company as Frost's assistant since 2005. "Now every mother I see has one, or if they don't and I ask them about the Ergo they say, 'Yes, I have one at home.' "

The Ergo, and the other soft structured carriers like it, could technically take a baby through the first two to three years of life, but for today's parent, one carrier is rarely enough.

"Recommending one carrier to a mom is almost impossible," said Laura Brown, who founded Los Angeles Crunchy Parents and often fields new moms' questions about baby wearing. "It's like saying here is one type of shoe. You don't always want to wear stilettos to the park."

Brown, who has a 14-month-old son and another baby on the way, says she has about 10 carriers at home. She used the stretchy Moby Wrap when her boy was born, but he quickly grew out of it. She bought the Ergo and liked it for a time. She puts her son in a sling for quick trips to the coffee shop or the post office and has recently been getting into woven wraps, long strips of cotton, linen or hemp fabric that can be tied in a variety of ways. Brown likes the Mei Tai, another soft-structured carrier with adjustable straps, and a new carrier called Oh Snap. The Oh Snap looks similar to the Ergo but allows parents to select from 200 fabrics.

"I think the future is that people will pay for custom," she said. "I like the Ergo, but it's not the prettiest thing in some ways. The woven wraps are gorgeous, they are conversation pieces. People love to talk about them."

Doyle puts it this way: "We're girls, and we like pretty things."