Baby's First Three Years: The Only Gear You Need

Baby Items you needI have to laugh every time I see someone writing an article about the 10 or 15 or even 20 "must have" items for a baby. Typically, these lists start with heavy, large, relatively expensive products that most children outgrow within a few months, and they finish with the little things you can pick up at a 24-hour grocery store in the middle of the night (and, in my opinion, don't need anyway): diaper cream and teething tablets.

I've had three babies, and I have more than a dozen nieces and nephews, so I've been around the block with what you need -- and what you don't. And with my youngest sister about to give birth on an extremely tight budget, I've come up with a list of just four things you really need.My sister was thrilled to see this list because she's already received all these items as gifts or hand-me-downs. But she's received a lot of the other "must haves," too, and I just shake my head and wish the givers had chosen gift cards or groceries instead because, if she's anything like me, these will go unused.

When I saw this topic in CBS Moneywatch's Family Finance column, at first I thought, great! A kindred spirit! And then I read the list of five items you'll "need" for a toddler. Hmm. Not so kindred. With my third child, I only bought and used three of the five items on the list (and one is "crayons").

After a lot of thought, I narrowed the list of must-have gear for a baby's first three years to only four items. I'm not including clothes and diapers, although I'd like to mention that I don't believe you should buy more than a few onesies and pants before the baby's born -- you can do that afterward. And there are two conditional options: There are a few more things mothers who work away from home and those who will be away from their babies from time to time will most likely need.

These are the items I would consider mostly universal needs:

1. Car seat -- $60 - $200. Even though I transport my children via bike and bus -- we don't own a car for financial and value-driven reasons -- I still keep car seats around to fit all my children. If I were buying car seats today, though, I'd buy one of the ones that's convertible from infant to toddler and can stay rear-facing until a child is at least 35 or 40 pounds. I dream of a future in which far fewer people owned cars and drove more slowly, keeping accidents to a minimum, but even in my eco-utopia, you'd need a seat for your child to fit into the community-shared car when going to visit Grandma and Grandpa. In the normal every day world? I hand off a car seat to my mom or sister when they pick up my children for visits and special outings, or I tote it along if we're renting a car. Everyone needs a car seat, and will, for the foreseeable future.

2. Baby carrier -- $10 (for fabric to make your own) to $100 (if purchasing one ready-made). When I was pregnant with my oldest, my office pitched in to buy me a jogging stroller, and I don't think any gift has ever made me so happy. (It was stolen five years later off our front porch. I later saw the very same model being used as a bike trailer by a man who appeared to be homeless -- and childless.) When my youngest was one, I got rid of our last remaining stroller. By the youngest, I was a complete convert to fabric baby carriers. I suggest a few, though they're so easy to make that (for someone with basic sewing skills) that you might want several.

The pouch-sling style is ideal for infants up to about 15 pounds; once they reach that weight, they're more comfortable in a mei-tai style or Ergo carrier. I've made a bunch of slings for my sisters and myself; we trade amongst ourselves based on the current size of our babies, something I'd suggest doing if you have friends or relatives who also have young children.

I prefer fabric baby carriers to strollers for a bunch of reasons. First, they're more streamlined; there's no maneuvering onto a bus or trying to push your way through a crowded street. Anyone who's ever been at a farmer's market on a sunny day knows how impossible it is to combine strollers and other people's feet and shins without some collateral damage.

Second, keeping baby close to you will (usually) work magic on keeping baby happy -- not to mention locked down. (My oldest was nine months old by the time he learned the art of wriggling out of his straps.) Third, slings are great to have around the house. I've cooked many a dinner with a baby tied to my back, fingers safely away from the chef's knife. It also helps keep baby sleeping peacefully through transitions. Air travel without a baby carrier is way, way more difficult.

If someone gifts you a stroller, take it! You might be one of those moms who can't run unless she has a jogging stroller, or who takes solace in long, long neighborhood walks. But strollers are sturdy and can be found easily on craigslist, in your siblings' garages or at garage sales, so avoid buying these new if you can.

3. Bed and mattress cover -- $100 to $400. We had a crib for our oldest, and we sold it in a spectacular case of ironic timing at a yard sale during which I took a pregnancy test...which came out positive for baby #2. But we were accidental co-sleepers, and that just worked better for our family. It's also great for those who live in small spaces or who are dedicated to low-stuff lifestyles. Once our children got to be two or so, they started in on a "big boy" bed. The best option is something that can be used for several years, like a convertible toddler bed.

Then, don't buy a mattress pad -- buy a mattress cover. I suggest spending big for a really good "puddle guard" type in natural fibers. Your alternate future self -- the one who didn't buy a pad or bought a cheap one that fell apart after six washes -- will come to your actual future self and bow down. It will save you money and your sanity, and both of these things are vital for any parent to conserve.

4. Books -- free to infinity. The biggest expense I have, other than food, shelter and transportation (and oh yes, debts from my spendthrift youth) is books. Kids need books; babies need books. One of my good friends works for the foundation for the local public library. She told me they raise money with the specific goal of replacing board books, those fat-paged baby books, every 10 checkouts. The library believes that even when babies eat books, it helps them learn and become comfortable around books.

So check out books from your library; buy them by the pound at used book sales and in thrift outlets; pick them up in free boxes; spend top dollar to buy them new from the local book store. You pick. Just make sure you have them -- a lot of them -- in your home. Nothing is a better determinant of future academic success for your kids than the number of books in your home.

5 & 6. Glass or BPA-free baby bottles and breast pump (if needed) -- $50 to $400. If you're ever going to spend time away from your baby and you're able to breast feed, you'll need these two necessities. I know it's crazy to believe, but with my youngest, I only used a breast pump twice and bottles three times; I worked from home, and I took him with me when I traveled until he was old enough to use a cup. Obviously, this isn't a choice every parent can make. And pay up for the good breast pump if you'll be working in an office from the time your child is very young; you'll make it up in efficiency for sure.

Off the list: Toys and blankets. Yes, your baby will need blankets, and your toddler will want to play with toys. But don't buy these yourself -- at least, not yet. If your family is anything like mine, a few relatives love nothing better than to make baby blankets by hand. You yourself might take up knitting or quilting as the nesting urge pokes your hormonal buttons. And people will buy you toys. Aunts and uncles and friends and co-workers and bosses and neighbors.

If, for some reason you end up with a six-month-old in a toyless home, take your little one to a friends' house or a boutique toy store and don't buy anything until you see your child play with it and love it. Then you'll know what to buy, and you won't end up with a bunch of useless plastic doodads. Also, babies sometimes prefer real things, like cake pans and yogurt containers and pillows and colanders and vacuum cleaner hoses and canning rings, to toys. You'll strike your head with your hand when you see how much they're entertained and absorbed by these everyday items.
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