What a New Baby Really Needs
Babies are big business. Nobody wants to be a bad parent, so there is great pressure to be sure you have not just the essentials, but the best essentials for your new baby. If you're a first-time parent, you have no experience to guide you. The helpful salesperson at the local Baby-Mega-Super-Store will be more than happy to provide you with a mile-long list of what, you're assured, are really and truly the essentials.
Well, I'm here to tell you different.
My fourth child is scheduled to make her appearance in just a couple of months. My oldest child is not yet five years old. For the last several years of my life, I've been a card-carrying, dues-paid, full-fledged member of the baby club. Many of those "essentials" you see for sale just turn into extraneous stuff that you have to keep cleaning, moving, and, at times, paying for. Save yourself some money and space, and stock up only on what you'll actually use. Here's my list of needs. (See also: Which Baby Products Are a Waste of Money?)
A Place to Sleep
A decent crib, a good mattress, and enough bedding to keep baby comfortable are essential. You don't, however, have to buy a crib new to get a good one. Search your local classifieds for a used crib; just make sure you get one that isn't more than five years old. It should be sturdy, with small spaces between the slats and all hardware intact. Most cribs that have been made within the last five years convert easily into toddler beds.
Salespeople at the Big Baby Box Store will scare you with talk of scoliosis and try to get you to buy the premium mattress for your crib. I bought the mid-grade; it's obviously firmer and nicer than the cheapest option, but it's also as firm and nice as I need it to be for peace of mind.
As far as what to put on the mattress, keep it simple. Bumper pads are not necessary and can even be a suffocation hazard. Same goes for big, fluffy comforters, pillows, stuffed animals, or piles of blankets. For the first six months or so, you'll want to have a mattress cover, five crib sheets (frequent spit-ups and diaper incidents make extras really nice to have around), and a couple of lightweight blankets. When the weather is cool, dress baby warmly so she won't get cold during nap time and night time.
A Place to Play
For the first several months of your baby's life, mobility won't be an option for him. This means, basically, that you can plop him down on a blanket, and he's not going anywhere. This also means that baby doesn't really need a swing, a bouncer, a play center, a play pen, a walker, a baby papasan, or any of the other play area options out there.
The caveat on this is when your baby does start to get mobile. Rolling, scooting, and then crawling will introduce a whole new world of possibilities. At that point, it's nice to have one or two confined play areas handy, so you can keep your baby entertained and safe while you need to do something else. But you don't need all the options.
Before you buy, test out what your friends have; go have a play date and put your baby in your friend's swing. If he's screaming in five minutes, don't spend $100 on a swing. If he's happy, it might be worth the investment. I've had the best response from my children with a very basic baby swing, a little reclined baby seat, and a Pack 'n Play that serves as a confined play area and can be moved to any room of the house, the yard, a friend's house, or Nana's house.
A Way to Travel
A safe car seat and a sturdy stroller are investments worth making for your new baby. You'll get the best deal on new items by purchasing a car seat/stroller combination; those will start at about $150 new and go up from there. The same advice applies to car seats and strollers as to cribs. If you're purchasing used, make sure the car seat/stroller isn't over five years old, and inspect it thoroughly to be sure it's in good condition.
The only other "travel" item I've used over the years is a front-pack baby carrier. I got a good brand, and it's lasted through heavy use with three babies. These seem to be mainly a matter of personal preference, however; if you can't picture yourself walking around with a baby strapped to your chest, don't buy one.
Brand-new babies, prone to random bouts of spitting up and explosive diapers, can go through quite a few outfits in a day. Stock up on essentials that are comfortable for your baby and easy to get on and off: ruffles, ribbons, bows, zippers, buttons, and extra clothing "decor" tend to make the dressing process complicated and long (not fun when your baby is screaming), and, generally, the more "stuff" on an outfit, the less comfortable your baby will be in it.
Cotton onesies are perfect for a simple outfit at home or for layering. Purchase coordinated pants or skirts, and you've got an easy-on, easy-off outfit. Plan on your baby going through five outfits a day, decide how often you want to do laundry, and then purchase enough clothes to work it out. Shopping resale, getting hand-me-downs from friends, and hitting the clearance racks on a regular basis will allow you to build up a cute and more-than-adequate wardrobe with minimal expense.
Diapers: essential. Wipes: essential. Diaper cream of some kind: essential. Bag to carry it in when you go somewhere: essential.
Coordinated changing pad and wipe holder? Not essential. Wipes warmer? Not essential. Complicated diaper disposal system? Not essential. Reuse all those plastic bags you bring home from the grocery store, tie up the stinky diapers in a bag, and empty the trash can every day. It's much simpler and much cheaper than dealing with some glorified trash can that requires a particular size and brand of bags.
As far as the brand of diapers go, some babies are more sensitive than others. My oldest, a girl, could wear almost any type of diaper and not seem to care. No rashes, no itching, no nothing. I usually ended up with the store-brand from Target or a similar place. The very, very cheap diapers will just cause explosions to happen more frequently. That's not worth saving $1, so find your middle ground. For my second, a boy, I ended up sticking with Pampers or Huggies; anything else made him break out in a rash. Start with the pricier brand, and experiment by buying a very small package of store-brand diapers.
By now you've probably caught on to the fact that I'm rather minimalist when it comes to "gear," right? So you won't be surprised that a baby bathtub is not on my list of essentials. I received one as a gift with my first child. I never used it. I always did baths in the kitchen sink, with plenty of towels nearby, a bar of Burt's Bees Baby Soap, and some lotion. You will need some basic grooming supplies, such as baby nail clippers and a soft brush; you'll often find a little kit sold in the baby section, and for $15 to $20, it's a good way to get those essential supplies. Buy good quality, and they will last.
The thing to remember with bathing your baby is that baby's skin is sensitive. You don't need to glop on product after product. Warm water and a soft cloth will clean up almost anything that gets to baby. Add a gentle soap or cleanser and some sort of moisturizer, and you've got what you need. Don't worry; the expenditures for bubble bath will come later, when your little girl decides a bath is incomplete without mile-high mounds of bubbles.
If you're nursing, then, well, you are the essential item in question. A breast pump will be important if you plan on going back to work or going out on a date before your baby is weaned. A simple hand-operated breast pump is more than adequate if you'll be staying home and just need to be able to pump for the occasional night out or appointment without baby. If you're going to be working and need to pump frequently, splurge for a good breast pump such as a Medela. These are pricey, but for something you'll use that often, it's worth spending for quality. Medela has rental programs, and you might also find a used pump (you buy new cups, so it's not gross).
For bottle-feeding, the only essentials are your choice of formula and an adequate supply of bottles. An adequate supply doesn't mean you need 25 of every size. You need enough to get you through a day, really. You don't want to leave dirty bottles sitting around; plan on washing them nightly, at a minimum, and that way you'll always have enough for the next feeding.
For the other parents out there, have I missed anything? What items did you find essential for your first six months with baby?