What things do you need, when you have a baby or are about to have a baby? Last week, the Wall Street Journal reported that Amazon has been making money by inserting unrequested items into people’s baby registries, marked only by an easily missed gray “Sponsored” label, so that friends and family end up buying products the new parents never wanted.
The scam worked, in part, because Amazon was cashing in on an existing state of churn and confusion. There are too many baby things to keep track of. A friend of mine, who is expecting his first child next year, told me that all the recent parents he knows are “desperate to unload stuff on us,” handing gear off by the bagful.
Most no-longer-new parents have those bags piled up somewhere, the outflow from what had been a frantic, and mostly misguided, intake process. The question of what the baby needs seems unimaginably complicated when you first encounter it. Perhaps you have asked it and have been rewarded with a six-page single-spaced checklist of gear that someone, somewhere, deemed essential for baby-having. Gear you may never have thought about one way or another before: A nursing pillow! A wipes warmer! A video baby monitor!
How do you sort through it all? First step back and ask the deeper question: What does a baby need? This is the question from which clarity follows. What a baby needs is to get over being a baby.
The having of a baby is so valorized—Aww, look at the baby!—that it becomes easy to think about the baby, and to shop for the baby’s equipment, as if the baby is an end unto itself. It is not. A baby is a transient stage of human development. Yes, it is soft and mostly cuddly and you are wired to find its babyness appealing despite all its shortcomings of brains and personality. But the baby is trying to move on.
This means that all the baby gear you buy will, by definition, rapidly become obsolete. This will happen fast, faster than you can imagine. When I first proposed writing about this problem, I had a baby around the house. Other things came up. That baby is now a person who reads and writes and plays guitar and has strong opinions about automobiles and branded sportswear.
If you are waiting to have a baby, you are going through the slowest nine months of your life right now, so the news that you won’t need any of this crap in a year and a half does not sink in properly with you. Nevertheless, it’s true: you won’t need any of this crap in a year and a half.
Do not worry about furnishing “the baby’s nursery.” Designating a room of your home to be “the baby’s nursery” is only marginally less pointless than deciding to call your living room “the Christmas room,” painting it red and green, and bolting a permanent tree stand to the floor. Unless you have a lot of house and are planning to have a lot of babies, the nursery will soon be a plain old bedroom, occupied by a plain old child.
So you don’t need to construct a fully stocked baby environment. The baby won’t even remember it if you do! If Amazon really were committed, as it told the Journal, to “constantly experimenting with new ways to improve the shopping experiences,” it would start deleting items from people’s baby registries, not adding more.
You just need enough equipment to help the baby sleep and eat and defecate and move along to not being a baby anymore. Nor is there any point in making that equipment fancy. In Finland, they send parents home from the hospital with a cardboard box full of standard-issue baby gear, and when the gear has been unpacked, the baby sleeps in the cardboard box. This is an excellent and enviable solution.
Don’t invest in anything more complicated than that. There was a story in the New York Times a few years ago—when that last baby of ours was still a baby—about people who were driven by fears of exposure to toxic household chemicals. It contained this anecdote:
Laura MacCleery discovered that it’s not cheap to buy a chemical-free bassinet. “We had it made with nontreated wood, by Amish people,” she said. “I think it was 400 bucks.” The organic mattress was hand-stitched.
“And then the baby was born large,” Ms. MacCleery said. “She was like 8 pounds 10 ounces.”
Maya outgrew the nontoxic bassinet in a month.
If that large, but not extraordinarily large, baby had been a wholly ordinary 50th percentile baby, the bassinet might have lasted two months instead of one month before becoming useless. Either way, it was not worth $400. It was not even worth $40. Our first baby weighed about five pounds when he came home, and he went straight into a full-sized crib.
That baby happened to have been born at the wrong time and in the wrong country, which meant we had acquired absolutely no baby gear for him at all. Having a premature baby in a foreign country is the sort of experience that is serious enough that the actual emotions get filed away in the background, for later reference; during the month the baby spent in the hospital, the only time I remember feeling actively overwhelmed was when I left the hospital and took a trip to the baby-goods floor of a department store. There were pacifiers and suction bulbs and…bibs? Maybe? On some level halfway up my brain, I understood that none of it truly mattered, not in any life-or-death way, and trying to think about it locked me up with an anxiety rapidly rising to panic. I don’t even know if I bought anything before I fled.
We did, at some point, buy the crib. A crib is worth getting. The baby needs to sleep somewhere without falling out. I know upper-middle-class people who never bothered buying anything more than a portable travel crib for their infant. You could do that, if you’re feeling extra austere, but travel cribs are a little low to the ground and it’s hard to haul an infant up out of one day after day. So it’s OK to get a real crib. But make it simple. Do not be beguiled by heirloom-quality carpentry. You do not want an heirloom, remember? In 18 months, this thing will just be in the way.
I was partial to the Ikea Gulliver, a case study in adequate design. It is sturdy and lightweight and can be adjusted to half-depth at first and to full depth when the baby gets big enough to haul itself upright and fall out. It’s not perfect; at the halfway setting, our heavy and active second baby would flop around in it and the masonite base would rub against the rails and become a giant sounding board. So I wrapped an old towel around the bottom and the creaking stopped. The next thing the baby would sleep in was a bunk bed, because by then he was a child.
While you’re buying furniture, how about a changing table? No, no, no. But it converts into a dresser! No. Get a dresser, then. You’ll always need a place to put the child’s clothes. You will not need a special elevated surface, with built-in safety harnesses and equipment caddies, to change the baby’s diapers on. All a changing table will do is add height and distance when pee or poop or a not-yet-secured baby go flying over the edge.
All you need is the changing pad people put on top of their changing tables. Any cheap changing pad, vinyl over foam rubber. Here’s one. Do not buy a pretty cloth cover for it. It is the worst possible thing to put absorbent cloth onto. You will have plenty of necessary cloth items around that you will have to wash pee and poop out of. Don’t get another one. When you need to change the baby’s diaper, put the vinyl-coated foam pad on the floor and put the baby on the pad. If the baby rolls off, it’s a two-inch drop. When you’re finished, remove the baby, wipe off the vinyl, stand up, and kick the pad out of the way underneath the crib.
As for the diaper—among the products Amazon stuck into the registries was the Diaper Genie. Do not buy a Diaper Genie or any other miracle diaper-processing invention. Diapers don’t smell especially bad till the solid food starts, and when that time comes, the last thing you want to do is try to suppress the smell for some later processing. Get a box of small plastic garbage bags, in case you run out of old grocery bags, and tie each dirty diaper inside one and throw it away when it comes. If your garbage is somehow half a mile away or you’re only allowed to take it out on Tuesdays, get an ordinary trashcan with a lid.
You may hear something about how you need to buy a glider. This is a sort of orthopedic armchair designed to scoot back and forth on a flat line while you rock your angry or despairing infant, or while you feed it. No. Do not buy this. It’s furniture. The baby will be in high school and you will still have this … thing, for rocking babies to sleep.
You absolutely do need a comfortable chair to sit in while feeding the baby. So if you don’t have one, get an armchair, a real one, that you will keep using after the nursing days are over. Preferably in a darkish, patterned fabric. It will get milk and vomit stains on it, but that’s OK, because trashing the upholstery is one thing that the child will keep on doing long after it has stopped breastfeeding.
A breastfeeding pillow is helpful if a baby is breastfeeding. Breastfeeding pillows come in different shapes and configurations that you can’t properly evaluate until you know the ergonomics of the particular baby you’ve ended up with. The bottom-of-the-line U-shaped Boppy pillow works until you decide what other features you might need, and even if it gets demoted from being the feeding pillow, it makes a useful bolster for stabilizing the baby when you leave it on the floor.
Once the baby moves around more, the next step in stashing it somewhere secure is a cheap wire-frame bouncy chair. Some of them come with archways of dangling toys for the baby to play with, which will mostly get in the way of the motion of dumping the baby into the chair or scooping it out. Eventually the baby will gain too much upper-body mass and strength and power for the bouncy chair, and it will be time to give up on that, which means it may very well be the first piece of baby gear that you notice has completed its life cycle and been made obsolescent by the baby. You won’t mind, because it will have delivered enough use and value.
If you’re one of the many people who have many valid reasons for feeding a baby with a bottle, you may hear about needing a bottle warmer. Ignore it. Treat yourself to a nice, fast electric kettle. When the water boils, pour a mug half-full of it and drop in the bottle. In a minute or two, squirt a drop on the inside of your wrist to make sure it’s not too hot. Put some instant coffee in a second mug to help you get through the early mornings.
When the baby gets old enough to eat from things other than nipples, it will need a high chair. High chairs are incredibly cumbersome and disgusting. The more features they have, the more disgusting they become. Get the minimum high chair you can get away with. We had too much high chair, and I was perpetually envious of the white plastic Ikea high chairs we got in restaurants.
Some people swear baby swings are perfect keeping infants calm and distracted. Those people are correct—about their own babies. A crucial principle of baby gear is that different babies prefer different things, or have different needs. Many babies hate swings. Other babies dislike swings when they are small enough to be put in them, but love to push the swings around when they are older. Don’t buy a swing; borrow one from a friend whose baby outgrew it or never liked it, so you can test it on your baby and help your friend feel better about having bought it in the first place.
Another thing some babies love and some babies hate is swaddling, but swaddling blankets are worth having either way. If a baby despises being straitjacketed by a blanket, it can turn the tables and grab hold of the blanket, and thereby have its first real prized possession. One way or another, it’s soothing. Get a stack of cotton knit ones, like heavy stretchy t-shirt fabric, in redundant colors or patterns, so the child can lose or wear out a few.
Nothing will stop you from buying baby clothing, of course, but it’s dumb and symbolic and gets outgrown immediately. Especially newborn outfits. The satisfaction of an adorable newborn outfit is completely canceled out by the dismay at realizing the kid put it on once and can’t ever wear it again. And baby shoes! The true story of “For Sale: Baby shoes, never worn” is that somebody gave the parents the shoes and they were a little too big, so they put them aside and then found them three weeks later, by which time they were too small. What your newborn really needs is a bunch of plain white onesies in the 18-month size, to have on hand when the novelty has completely worn off.
What else? A whole lot of dish towels for the baby to burp on, and for cleaning up spills. Tiny nail clippers for the incredibly tiny fingernails, and reading glasses for you to clip the tiny nails if you’re over 40. A butt thermometer for taking reliable and accurate temperature readings, and a fast temple thermometer for when you and the baby have gotten used to the baby being sick and just want a general idea of how the fever is going.
Oh and diapers. Not too many cases at once. They outgrow those fast, too.