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.

Diapering Supplies

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.

Bathing Supplies

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.

Feeding Supplies

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?

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Guest's picture

I'm surprised and disappointed that you didn't mention cloth diapering, which is a great way to save money when you have a baby--especially if you plan to have more than one--and keeps a lot of diapers out of the landfill. Cloth diapers have come a long way. It does require an upfront investment and there is more work with cloth in terms of increased laundry, but cloth diapering really pays off financially over the 2-3 years that your child will be in diapers. There are great sites to learn more: cottonbabies.com, greenmountaindiapers.com and lots of others.

Annie Mueller's picture

Hi there, sorry to disappoint! I did think about cloth diapering, but decided not to go into it since I've not done cloth diapering myself so don't have any experience to recommend what you really need or don't. I have several friends how have done cloth diapering and highly recommend it. I'm considering it for my next baby (due in May)...
Thanks for sharing these resources for cloth diapering so other readers can gain that information, too. Maybe in a few months I'll have some experience there and be able to write about it.

Andrea Karim's picture

I'm always surprised at the stuff people think is necessary for a baby, but I suppose after a while, it's less a matter of necessity and more a matter of convenience. Not because parents are lazy, but because they are exhausted! :)

Annie Mueller's picture

So true, Andrea - a swing or play seat that keeps baby happy for 20 - 30 minutes is a life saver for exhausted Mamas. Of course, if it doesn't work, it's just a waste of money...

Guest's picture

It definitely pays to shop around, and not be afraid of certain "used" items. I just picked up a Maclaren stroller that is $300 on Amazon for $24 at a rummage sale that is held annually in our area. Sure, I had to wash the fabric, and wipe the whole thing down with Clorox wipes, but I would have probably done that anyway. Clearance is another great option - our brand new car seat was 75% off at Target last summer (before we were even expecting, but were trying). I had actually bought a car seat/stroller combination like I had with the first two kids, but returned it (since I hadn't opened it) when I found the car seat alone two weeks later for 75% off. Family is another great resource - I sold our swing a few years ago (it went through massive amounts of batteries every three days), and am borrowing my sister's this time around (that plugs into the wall - ya!!!), and my MIL sent over a high chair that she doesn't want to store at her house anymore that is in fabulous shape!

Annie Mueller's picture

Hi Mandy, great point about family being a resource. My sister let me use her Medela breast pump with my first two babies, then I gave it back to her when she had her 3rd. She also passed on a Pack'n'Play, and my sister-in-law loaned me her bassinet... I've also had friends pass baby gear on, which can be hugely helpful - from gently used clothes to maternity wear to high chairs, cribs, blankets, and play stuff. I always love seeing the cycle of "giving" that happens - when I'm done, I pass it on to someone else and we all save money and create less waste.

Guest's picture

I could have written this myself (my oldest of three turns 5 on Friday.) Some of the extras are fun or make life easier, but I would say 99% of the stuff you said you don't need - you really don't!

The one thing I would splurge on buying new is a car seat. Once a car seat has been in a wreck, it can look perfectly fine but still have weak stress points. That means your baby wouldn't be as safe in a crash. That's why insurance companies will pay to replace your car seat if it's been in an accident.

Also, they expire. The expiration date can be found on one of the stickers on the base of the seat. The plastic starts to wear and weaken after a couple years, and safety features improve over time, so it's important to get a car seat that is not expired!

We picked up a travel system at Target for $100 5 years ago and used it for all three kids (the seat expires in July) It was well worth the money!

Annie Mueller's picture

Candice, great point about the possibility of weak stress points from wrecks... And the expiration dates are important, which is why I recommend only purchasing a used one (if you go that route) 5 years old or newer. Used car seats can still be a good way to go if you can get a newer one from a trusted source (friend/family member).
We bought ours new and used it for our first three as well, and it lasted through with no problems. My sister gave me the "next step up" car seat (forward facing) which was just a couple of years old, so we didn't have to spend for that.
For baby 4, I'll have to buy new and will probably go with the travel system option (I was just looking at one at Target).

Guest's picture

you forgot to mention cloth diapers! they save you tons of money (plus the environment and your own baby's tush!) :)

Annie Mueller's picture

Tami, I'd welcome any comments you have on what you need for cloth diapering (how many, covers, other supplies); I haven't done cloth diapering myself, so didn't feel like I could provide an experienced viewpoint on it. But thanks for bringing it up!

Guest's picture

I love this article. I have a one-year-old and I am Ttotally with you.
I want to also add there is actually no need for a crib or toddler bed. We did co-sleeping in our bed until our son was 10 months and then he slept on a regular full mattress.
Dr. Sears has some excellent information on safely co-sleeping and the benefits it brings to your child. We got a crib as a gift and used it like your experience with a tub.

Guest's picture

I'm with you on that Shannon! So many people argue the dangers of co-sleeping without understanding the full truth. To co-sleep safely, you must stay drug and alcohol free until your child has his or her own bed. It's always a parent under the influence after a party that makes the news with a tragic story. When done right, co-sleeping is the best thing for your family.

Annie Mueller's picture

Thanks, Shannon - I really appreciate your input here, in fact, I'm thinking this might be a great option for my 4th. I wasn't in a hurry to go get another crib & was planning on baby 4 being in the room with us for at least a few months. I love the simplicity.

Guest's picture

A child who doesn't sleep in a safe crib is at risk of SIDS. While it may be less expensive, it's certainly doesn't outweigh the cost of a child potentially dying from SIDS.


Guest's picture

Another benefit of using cloth diapers is that babies tend to break out with fewer rashes. Between changing them more often because cloth doesn't hold as much liquid, the fact that the wet isn't held up against their skin by the fabric, and that there isn't anything weird chemical wise in a cloth diaper, it seems to cut down on the number and severity of rashes. My second broke out whenever I used disposable, no matter what the brand but with cloth she had no problems.

Annie Mueller's picture

I'm finding myself more and more convinced about cloth diapering... Thanks for your input on this, Debbie.

Guest's picture

I agree that you just need a sturdy crib and it doesn't have to be new. However, make sure you do not buy the drop-side cribs. They were recently outlawed due to the high number of infant fatalities. You can read about it here: http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/40678788/ns/health-kids_and_parenting/. I also advise any mom, new or not, to sign up for Amazon Mom - you can save 30% on diapers and wipes with their subscribe and save feature, with free 2-day shipping! I didn't find out about that until my daughter was about 18 months old and I wish I had known about it sooner!

Annie Mueller's picture

That's right, Crystal, thanks for clarifying the crib-safety issue. You can still find plenty of good-brand, used cribs, not very old, and if you do a thorough inspection (and, of course, make sure it's not a drop-side) then you can end up with a high-quality crib for a small investment.
I just heard about the Amazon Mom club myself... if I don't go with cloth diapering for my next, I'm definitely joining! I love the discount + getting them delivered to my door.

Guest's picture

Having 8 children with another one on the way, I always laugh when I hear how "expensive" children are. What nonsense! You're right on target with what you wrote. A few basic supplies are really all that are necessary. Even if buying all the bells and whistles can be fun with your first pregnancy, they're simply not necessary and tend to just end up clutter that stresses you out.

Guest's picture

Hi everyone, I think that site has some really useful information and it is good to see someone else that agrees that things for your little ones dont have to cost the earth to be suitable - a baby grow brought from somewhere likeASDA/Walmart is just as good as the top designer brands and more likely to last the test of a baby lol (this is my experience). Also if you shop around abit and dont impulse buy then generally you can get a really good deal - myself and my wife got a full sterliser set with bottles and bottle warmer for 75% off the original price by just looking around before buying,