What DOES the Baby Need?

She says she remembers when car seats lifted the child to the level of the window instead of securing them to the seat. The seats were no sturdier than high chair seats, she says, and two curved metal bars simply hung the baby’s seat over the backrest.
Baby baths. Swings. Playpens. Playmats. Monitors. Changing tables. Baby-wipe warmers. Baby perfumes. Baby perfumes?

The amount of baby gear available to parents today is enough to shock your great-grandmother right out of her shoes. The number of products targeted at parents is comparable with the amount of free advice.

Well, almost.

Still, the assortment of things for infants and toddlers can be mind-blowing. How do you decide what you and your baby need? “The first thing you need is a car seat,” says Barbara Morgan, who has owned The Kidz Shoppe in San Jose, Calif., for more than 10 years. “If you don’t have clothes, you can wrap them in towels. But you can’t take them home from the hospital without a car seat.”

Getting Started

Your philosophy and your budget are going to be the starting point for thinking about your needs. Some parents avoid anything that comes between them and their babies: playpens, cribs, swings, and even strollers are eschewed so that the baby can be held as much as possible.

Other parents, however, think that gear and gadgets make baby-rearing easier. Especially if one parent is frequently home alone, it can be necessary to put the baby down in something safe and confining. And of course, your budget and living space may help inspire you to a less-stuff philosophy.

What You Can't Live Without

Unless you’re lucky enough to be surrounded by a gaggle of other young parents, the Internet continues to be a great source of advice about current products. Scrolling through archives of chat rooms and message boards can give you a pretty good idea of what your fellow parents can’t live without. For example:
  1. Stroller – Many infants do well in a sling, but if you’re talking about long walks or shopping, a stroller helps manage all your bundles.
  2. Carrier/Sling – Keeps baby close while keeping hands free.
  3. Floor gym/Playpen – Because sometimes you need to go to the bathroom.
  4. Glider rocker – Mothers swear by these and Morgan says they are very popular.

What You Can Live Without

Then there are also some things that parents generally agree they could have done without.
  1. Baby bathtub – People seem to have trouble with these, either because they are hard to use, hard to store or the baby doesn’t like them. It seems just as easy to take the baby into the bath with you.
  2. Diaper Genie – Although occasionally getting a rave review, most people found these frustrating to operate.
  3. Car bottle warmer – A good idea, but they don’t tend to warm up quickly enough on quick trips.
  4. Changing table – They take up a lot of space and don’t allow for the most versatile storage. Many parents find it just as easy to convert a bureau to a changing table or just change the baby on the floor.
  5. Cradles/Bassinets/Cribs – It could be that the trend toward the family bed is giving people an alternative to cradles and bassinets, but many mothers said they took up too much space and babies were rarely, if ever, happy in them.

Up for Debate

And of course, there is an equally large category of things that divide parental opinion. It’s always important to remember that your choices on gear can come down to personal taste. The personal taste, that is, of the baby.
  1. Bouncer seats and swings – A lot of kids hate them; some love them, but either way, they take up a lot of space.
  2. Pacifiers – Some parents avoid this entirely by never introducing pacifiers. Other parents try endless pacifiers, only to find that their child simply won’t be pacified.
  3. Diaper wipe warmer – Sounds funny and some parents say they aren’t worth space, but others swear that warm wipes make for scream-free changes.

Things Have Changed

Since being a new mother herself 40 years ago, Morgan has watched the baby gear industry. “I’ve seen a lot of changes, and I don’t feel that old,” she says with a laugh. “Just in 40 years, you can look at how technology has changed. We didn’t have cars or freeways that went that fast. Things now are much more about the safety features.”

Now, when people bring used car seats to her consignment shop, she inspects them carefully. She watches the lists of manufacturer recalls and won’t take things that are damaged, dangerous or have outdated designs. She doesn’t take car seats that have been in an accident, even if they appear undamaged, because the stress on the equipment can still make them unsafe.

If you want to check out used and new gear for yourself, the Consumer Product Safety Commission and Consumer Reports are good places to start. Although you do need to pay for a subscription to Consumer Reports, it’s a good resource for all purchases.

Morgan also says the cost of car seats and strollers has increased with the safety requirements. To make it more palatable, manufacturers are combining uses. For example, some seats can be used for infants and toddlers, and others can be used as a car seat, a carriage, and a stroller.

Final Suggestions

One of the benefits of shopping for baby gear is that you know in advance that you’re going to need it. Sort of like eating a snack before you go to the grocery store, you’ll shop better if you use your pregnancy to think about what you need and how you’ll use it.

And don’t forget to:
  1. Ask your friends what tools they couldn’t do without.
  2. Plan the amount of space you have to devote to your baby’s gear.
  3. When you budget, don’t forget to check consignment stores for some of the more expensive and bulky items, such as high chairs and changing tables.
  4. For gear, the baby might reject, like swings, borrow one before buying one.
  5. Buy what you need when you need it. It’s easier and cheaper than buying everything and then disposing of things that don’t work.

About the Author: Mary Kay Dirickson is a freelance writer who works in Seattle and the San Francisco Bay Area.