Do as I Say, Not as I Do

It’s shocking how little your new baby needs.

By way of introducing our subject–providing for the material needs of a baby–a caveat: Whatever it is, you don’t need it.

In other words, do as I say, not as I’ve done. It is permissible, I believe, to shop like a mad dog for your first child and, when Daughter No. 1 arrived nearly two years ago, I did. But when my auxiliary daughter appeared on the scene last month, I learned not one lesson from the mistakes of previous rampages.

A sort of shopping psychosis overtakes the mind of a father fresh from the delivery room. It might be rooted in some sort of primal hunter-gatherer-type urge, the kind that afflicts most men when they enter a Price Club (“Of course we need 24 gallons of WD-40, honey. You never know when they’re going to stop making it”). Conquer this urge, and you may graduate the first month of parenthood without fielding a call from an American Express security officer worried about “unusual activity” on your card.

Here, then, a quick guide to what you need and what you don’t. This is, obviously, a subjective guide written by the kind of flawed individual who actually considered buying an electric baby wipe warmer. It is also the briefest of guides–each subcategory of baby products is worthy of book-length discussion. Finally, it is utilitarian: If you are the sort of person who must have a Kate Spade diaper bag knowing full well that a Kate Spade diaper bag is a waste of $250, I can’t help you.

Diapers: Diaper bags are a good place to start, since they are unnecessary: A $20 knapsack and a $2 dry-down–an absorbent, washable pad–are perfectly sufficient substitutes. Diapers are, however, necessary, and I would suggest as a first step the purchase of Price Club diapers, which come in huge cartons and cost about 25 percent less than the equivalent number of Pampers. Warehouse club diapers aren’t as handsome or sturdy-looking as “premium” or “supreme” diapers, but even standard diapers today can absorb the contents of a camel’s hump without leaking. Avoid “premium” diapers that contain emollients or aloe vera, which don’t transfer to the baby’s skin. The only diaper worth paying a premium price for is one that changes itself.

There is no downside (this pun was genuinely unintended) to Price Club baby wipes, whose very inferiority make them a better product. Most premium brands–Huggies, Pampers, and the like–are soaked to an absurd degree with whatever strange chemical cleansers all wipes are soaked in. Price Club wipes, however, are packaged with more modest amounts of cleansing liquid, presumably to save the manufacturer money. Which is fine, because wipes that are too wet must then be followed up with several dry-cloth swipes, which can irritate the skin. As for electric baby wipe warmers, one of which, in my local high-end baby superstore Buy Buy Baby (awful names are a hazard of this trade) sold for $24.99, I have this to say: As much as I want my children to be sheltered from the cruelties of life on earth, I think they should get used to the fact that sometimes their asses will get cold.

One more note, as we leave the diaper department: An indispensable purchase is a Diaper Genie, a brilliant little contraption that is a vast improvement over the open diaper pail. A Diaper Genie (which generally sells for around $25) accepts dirty diapers through a hole on top, and with a few twists of a canister, seals the diapers in plastic and eliminates most of the smell. It does not provide Level 4 biohazard containment–ignore the optimistic “odor-free” claim made on the box–but it will do in most cases.

Clothing: Even if you are only moderately popular and come from a modestly sized family, you will receive, on the birth of your first child, at least $500 worth of Baby Gap clothing. (Which means that a gift of Gap stock, rather than Gap clothing, should be far more welcome.) There are those who decry the style hegemony of Baby Gap, but I am not one of them. The clothing is relatively inexpensive, durable, and returnable. The point is this: There are plenty of places to dump $100 on a pair of awfully cute baby overalls that will be worn exactly three times, but $100 baby overalls, like subzero freezers and Land Rovers, are a sign that you have too much money.

Car safety: On issues of child safety, I take the SDI position, which is to say, there is no such thing as too much defense spending. Hence the Ford Explorer parked outside, which I would upgrade to an Expedition except that I live in a neighborhood filled with Naderite public interest lawyers who would firebomb my house if I drove anything so offensive.

Two tons of metal are not enough to defend your children, however. A maximalist position on safety means only one car seat will do, the Britax. It is more expensive than the run-of-the-mill Century line of car seats (a Britax runs above $200), but it is made of material so hard it would crack your knee if you walked into it, and its belting system is far more encompassing and elaborate than the average car seat’s.

Home safety: Every baby superstore features a section that could be called the Wall of Death. At Buy Buy Baby, the suburban Washington store with which I’m most familiar, the Wall of Death rises 16 feet into the air and stretches 10 feet wide, and every inch of the wall is covered with child safety products, some of which are absolutely useless and most of which I have bought. (I haven’t got around to installing the toilet lid locks yet.) Obviously, outlet guards and rubber padding for low furniture (the “Coffee Tables of Death,” with which most parents are familiar) are necessary, but the Wall of Death preys on parental fear. Hence, a product called “fireplace gas valve safety covers,” whose purpose was too obscure for me to understand, and the VCR Lock, which, according to the packaging, “prevents child from inserting objects into cassette opening.” Another way to prevent a deadly epidemic of object insertions is to move the VCR. Incidentally, the best way to keep a child from drowning in the toilet is to keep an eye on the child or the toilet–excessive reliance on safety products tends toward lower vigilance.

Then there are the baby monitors, arguably a necessity if you live in a big house and can’t hear the baby crying in her room–and also a necessity if you’re interested in intercepting police transmissions–but is the Child View Monitor and Television, for $149.99, really necessary? You can’t even use it to spy on a nanny, since it has no hidden camera capabilities.

Breastpumps: Ask someone else.

Cribs: You can spend $500 (or $1,000) on a crib, or you can spend $200. Spend $200. All cribs do the same thing, which is stand there. All cribs sold in reputable stores meet current safety standards, so no worries in that regard.

Shoes: Payless ShoeSource, or the equivalent, is the way to go. Actually, barefoot is the way to go, but in those places where a small child should wear shoes–such as needle-strewn playgrounds–it is a waste of money to spend more than $10.99 on a pair of shoes. We bought Daughter No. 1 three pairs of $35 shoes, which she outgrew in a month and wore so rarely in that month that, amortized, the shoes cost $10 per wearing, money that could have been better spent on fireplace gas valve safety covers.

T oys: An endless subject, one that I’m hesitant to tackle, and my children aren’t old enough for me to comment on Furby with any authority. One general observation, though: The wrapping paper is always more interesting to a baby than whatever’s inside, so my gift suggestion would be a cardboard box wrapped in bright red paper and filled with Tupperware and wooden spoons. That is, if you can stand the noise produced by wooden spoons hitting Tupperware.

The general subject of toys is a sensitive one in my house, because it is on toys that I am a serial spender. An example: Four days after my second daughter was born, I was dispatched to Buy Buy Baby to find some sort of bassinet accouterment, worth about $9.50. I returned home two hours later with $300 worth of toys, including a stuffed, mounted, furry rhino head that cost $89.99. At the time, I somehow believed that my daughters would grow up healthy and secure if they just had a stuffed, mounted rhino head in their room. I don’t know why I believed this.

The rhino head has since been returned, and I am banned from toy stores until such time as I regain my bearings. It was a foolish purchase, I see now–for $89.99, I could have bought three electric baby wipe warmers. Or one-third of a Kate Spade diaper bag.