Exactly what do babies need? A reader, who is expecting baby #1, recently posed this question to me and I’m so glad he did because it got me thinking!
As Mr. Frugalwoods and I prepared for the arrival of Babywoods, I frequently came across two diametrically opposed adages: 1) babies don’t need anything, and 2) babies need a million products in order to survive/be happy little humans. Hmmm, thought I, clearly there is a middle group here, which Mr. FW and I endeavored to stake out.
Even if you’re not about to have a kid, I wager you’ll be invited to a baby shower at some point in your life. And so, here’s a list of stuff the parents-to-be will actually use.
The Middle Ground Of Baby Stuff
As previously confessed, I’m not an uber minimalist. Actually, my minimalist friends would assert that I’m not a minimalist at all (but it’s an aspiration of mine! which I totally fail at!). At any rate, while it’s certainly possible to raise baby with nothing more than diapers and a blanket, we decided that wasn’t the route for us. However, we also didn’t want to fall victim to the preposterous marketing intended to terrify expectant parents into buying bunches of baby contraptions and accouterments (for more on this topic, check out Fighting Back Against The Baby Industrial Complex).
Something I didn’t fully appreciate before having Babywoods is that the early months (well, probably the next 18 years too) are all about two things: eating and sleeping.
These two facets of life dominate nearly every decision we make in our parenting. Because when baby eats and sleeps well, the whole family eats and sleeps well. It’s all about the zzz’s and the yums. Everything else is tertiary at best. To that end, the vast majority of products we’ve found indispensable are in service of those two preeminent goals.
Before we venture any farther down this rosy little path, let’s have a disclaimer: every baby is different, every family is different, and never has it ever been more important to hoe your own row and do what works for you than it is with parenting. To say there’s no one right way to bring up baby is the understatement of a lifetime. So I in no way prescribe or dispense parenting advice. Rather, I’m here to share how our little family navigated infant-hood quite frugally indeed.
Baby Goal #1: Eating!
Oh yes, we all gotta eat and babies eat basically non-stop (ok not really, but sometimes it feels like it). Our experience has only been with breastfeeding, so I can’t speak to the intricacies of formula feeding. We were extremely fortunate that Babywoods was a champion breastfeeder from the start, despite her rather traumatic birth and subsequent weeklong stay in the NICU. I’m tremendously grateful for the lactation assistance I received in the hospital as that early support was crucial in getting us off to a great start with breastfeeding.
For us, breastfeeding was a major aspiration both for the health benefits (for baby and mom) as well as the savings (formula can get quite pricey). If you want to breastfeed, I strongly encourage you to give it a shot and to seek out advice from certified lactation consultants.
The initial weeks of life with baby are rough. I’m not gonna sugar coat it for you. Everyone is hungry and sleep-deprived and totally unsure of their surroundings. Suddenly there’s a tiny human in your home who demands, like, A LOT of attention. And you’re feeding them from your body! Bizarre! But also amazing!
I found that after about a month, our breastfeeding routine became significantly easier and now at 15 weeks out, it’s second nature. We nurse anywhere (in Home Depot, on a hike in the woods, while out walking Frugal Hound, etc) with no problem, which is something I couldn’t even imagine in those first few days of trying to get the hang of it. In the beginning, it took both me and Mr. FW to get Babywoods into position to nurse and was a whole huge production lasting almost an hour.
Fast forward to last week when I nursed Babywoods in her carrier while on a walk with a friend and Frugal Hound on the busy streets of Cambridge and… not a single person noticed. I share this because it took me many, many weeks to gain confidence and comfort with breastfeeding. It’s a learning process for both mom and baby, and it’ll take you both some time to adjust. Thus, don’t be hard on yourself if it doesn’t work out immediately. And for some folks, breastfeeding isn’t possible, which is why there are so many good formula options out there. Either way, your kid is going to eat and be just fine.
Here are the supplies I’ve found immensely useful in feeding Babywoods:
“My Brest Friend” breastfeeding pillow (yes, that is its actual name and yes, I can’t believe someone was that clever… it’s a level we should all aspire to). This handy contraption straps around my waist and allows me to breastfeed (almost) hands-free, which is awesome since baby usually wants to eat when we eat :). It’s also a convenient shelf for Babywoods to nap on while nestled up against me (bonus: I can get work done while she snoozes… such as writing this post!). Huge thanks to my sister for passing hers down to me!
- Nursing bras or nursing tank tops. These things are essential in my opinion. Makes life more comfortable for mom and more convenient for everyone. I’m partial to my hand-me-down nursing tank tops, which I wear layered under another shirt or cardigan. This assembly allows me to breastfeed anywhere with relative ease since I don’t have to undress in order to feed her–barely an inch of skin shows, which is superb in cold weather!
A breast pump. As far as I know, all health insurances are required to supply breast pumps for free. I needed a prescription from my OB, but then the pump itself was free. And, to have a back-up, I got a second pump as a hand-me-down for free. Have no fear about getting a used pump since you can wash and disinfect all of the parts that touch skin or milk. The pump itself is simply a little motor.
- Milk storage bottles or bags. You need some way to store and freeze extra breast milk. I’ve been using little breastmilk bags that my friend L (mother of an adorable boy) handed down to me, but you could also freeze in bottles (although that takes up more freezer space).
- Bottles. Although Babywoods eats only breastmilk, we give her one bottle of pumped milk per day so that she’s accustomed to eating in that way. This allows me the freedom to be away from her for several hours and gives Mr. FW the opportunity to feed her. Yes, we got our slow flow bottles as hand-me-downs and have no qualms about it at all (pop ’em in the dishwasher and, voila! they’re sanitized).
- Lanolin. I found lanolin cream very soothing especially at the beginning of our breastfeeding journey. Thankfully, the hospital provided quite a few little sample sized tubes and my wise sister, mother of three, sent me several tubes as a gift. I’m partial to lanolin as it doesn’t have to be washed off before baby eats.
- Vitamin D drops. My pediatrician advised that since Babywoods is exclusively breastfed, we should give her a drop of Vitamin D every day and so, we do! Protip: drop the Vitamin D on your nipple right before nursing–trying to administer directly into a baby’s mouth is hilarious but completely ineffectual.
- Books and resources I found helpful: The Womanly Art Of Breastfeeding, Mayo Clinic Guide to Your Baby’s First Year: From Doctors Who Are Parents, Too!, Kelly Mom: Parenting and Breastfeeding
Baby Goal #2: Sleeping!
Never in my life have I devoted so much time and energy to thinking about sleep! Rest is imperative for babies and parents and it feels so elusive in those nascent newborn weeks. Mr. FW and I are tremendously grateful that we’ve settled into a really nice sleeping routine with Babywoods (though I imagine it’ll continue to evolve as she develops and changes). As with all things baby-related, flexibility is key!
We started out with Babywoods sleeping in a bassinet next to our bed. While this was necessary for the early weeks when she was eating almost every 2 hours, we quickly realized that none of us were sleeping well with this arrangement. For some families, co-sleeping is ideal and for others, it’s not. Our experience of sleep is based on what we discovered works best for the three of us, but your baby may have divergent opinions on the matter!
Here’s what we employ to facilitate good sleep:
The “Miracle Swaddle“ which swaddles baby tightly to comfort them and also prevent the flying hands and startle of the newborn Moro reflex. You can also use a plain old blanket to swaddle bebe, but Babywoods is a contortionist escape artist and while in the hospital was forever worming her hands out the top of the swaddle and then accidentally hitting herself in the face… so, we find the baby straightjacket approach of the Miracle Swaddle to be, well, miraculous.
- A white noise machine. Babies are accustomed to the wonderful wooshing noises that accompany them in the womb and thus, the quiet environment of a house is often not conducive to sleep. A white noise machine provides the reassuring woosh they love. Sidenote: this is why the “shhhh” sound is often so effective in soothing baby.
- Something for baby to sleep in. Babywoods started off in a bassinet next to our bed and then transferred to a crib in her own room at 10 weeks old and has been sleeping amazingly well since then (knock on wood and fingers crossed this continues!!). Everyone finds the path to sleep that works best for their family, so you may not need a crib at all. A great option for a bassinet is a pack-n-play, which can be used in different configurations as baby gets older.
Pacifiers. Babywoods is a baby who adores nonnutritive sucking (in other words, sucking not only for food) and so a pacifier is a marvelous soother for her. We weren’t going to use pacifiers, but after both having our arms go numb while holding our fingers out for her to suck, we got some pacifiers.
- Frugal hack: babies sleep best in rooms that are cool, dark, and have ambient white noise. We take care of the cool via our naturally frugal thermostat setting (and our New England climate), and the white noise machine does the trick as far as sound in concerned. However, we discovered that the regular blinds in Babywoods’ room do nothing to block out sunlight. And our baby won’t sleep with the sun streaming in. Solution? I covered her windows with paper bags. Not perhaps the most visually appealing solution, but it 100% works and it was 100% free.
- Books I found indispensable: The Happiest Baby On The Block, Solve Your Child’s Sleep Problems, Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child
Other Baby Goals
Once we get past the absolutely imperative and paramount goals #1 and #2, there are other things that babies like to do–especially as they get older!
Going out and about
Having the ability to go out and about with Babywoods is a priority for us and we’ve found several mechanisms that make our jaunts possible.
- A baby carrier. Baby-wearing was transformational for us. Babywoods loves being snuggled up next to me or Mr. FW and nothing facilitates that better than popping her into a carrier strapped to our chests. I wear Babywoods around the house, when we go hiking and snowshoeing, when running errands, at church, on walks… basically anytime we go out, Babywoods is being worn. Mr. and Mrs. 1500 very kindly sent us their Ergo carrier now that their kiddos are too big to be carried and we LOVE it. Is there a word stronger than love? If there is, then that’s how I feel about the Ergo. The other carrier I similarly adore is the Moby wrap, which my sister handed down to me.
- A car seat. This is a legal necessity if you wish to drive with baby. We did indeed get ours as a hand-me-down from my friend J. The myth that you can’t get a used car seat is just that–a myth. As long as the seat hasn’t been in an accident and still meets current safety regulations, a used seat is perfectly fine.
Around the house:
If I’m not wearing Babywoods or holding her in my lap, I’ve found it’s very nice to have safe (and fun!) places to set her down, particularly when we want to do chores or take a shower.
A swing or bouncy seat. Although these aren’t strictly necessities, our buzzy rocker (which I found for free by the side of the road) is fabulous. And, Babywoods enjoys batting at toys hung from the bar above the seat, so it’s a win-win.
- A play mat. Again, not obligatory, but it is quite delightful. Babywoods is amused by her hand-me-down jungle play mat, from which dangly toys hang. She kicks, plays, and rolls like a fiend on there.
- Frugal hack: I utilize our bassinet mattress as a portable baby pad–I set it on the floor in whatever room I’m in so that Babywoods can watch what I’m doing. Works well in the basement, the bathroom, the kitchen, etc… easier than carrying a baby swing around and it provides more padding than a blanket.
Consumables and health care:
Babies also require a few items in the hygiene and personal care department. Although we didn’t have a baby shower, our parents very generously offered to buy us a few things for Babywoods and so, I asked them for the following:
- Diaper rash healing cream and zinc oxide paste. I didn’t realize that these are actually two different things until after Babywoods was born and got some gnarly diaper rash while in the hospital for her weeklong NICU stay. Thankfully, my mom and dad did know this and kindly got us both.
Baby wash. My in-laws got us a bath set of washes and lotions with which we cleanse our baby. I think you can use anything mild to wash a baby, but you do need something because they get stinky (at least Babywoods does).
- Diapers and wipes. I’ve already written extensively about our decision to use disposables and my friend Kalie offers the counterpoint on how to use cloth diapers.
- Thermometer. I got a hand-me-down baby thermometer and I will say, you want to have this before you bring baby home from the hospital because there’s nothing like knowing whether your child actually has a fever or if you’ve just overdressed them in too many clothes (uh, the latter would be the case with us… ).
- Nail clippers. A necessity! Especially if you’re breastfeeding, baby claws in your chest are not pleasant. And wow do they grow fast. Babywoods sports some epic baby talons, which I cut and file every few days. I swear by these nail clippers, which my parents kindly gifted to us. Sidenote: Babywoods is so prone to scratching my chest while eating that Mr. FW researched it and apparently, babies do this instinctually as a remnant of our ape ancestors–she’s looking for fur to cling to so she doesn’t fall out of a tree!
- Rags. Our rags and burp cloths get almost constant use (thanks to Babywoods’ prolific spitting… ). There’s no need to buy fancy or cute “baby” rags, any old squares of cloth will do. Some of our favorite rags are old t-shirts that I cut into wide strips.
- A book I found very helpful: Heading Home With Your Newborn: From Birth to Reality
Babies need some clothes, especially if you have a winter baby in a cold climate like we did. But, they don’t need tons of clothes, nor do they require the variety of sartorial options we adults enjoy. Although I have adorable dresses, pants, sweaters, and tops that I received as hand-me-downs and although it is fun to dress Babywoods up on occasion, these types of clothes aren’t fundamental. Here’s what you do need:
- Onesies. These are exactly what they sound like: one-piece outfits that snap or zip up the front. Perfect for everyday wear–it’s what Babywoods is in 99% of the time. In terms of sizes, Babywoods was a peanut and wore the newborn size for about a month, after which she transitioned into the 0-3 months size. At 4 months old, she’s starting to wear the 3-6 months size. But, baby can always wear onesies that are a tad too big, so err on the side of larger.
- Hats. If in a cold climate, hats are beneficial when you go strolling around outdoors. The hospital will give you a hat or two for free as well.
- Bibs. These aren’t a necessity per se, but Babywoods is a ‘happy spitter’ meaning she spits up all the time and isn’t bothered by it at all. Bibs help keep her onesies clean so I don’t have to change her outfit 900 times a day.
How We Furnished Her Nursery for $20
Since we decided to go the second-hand and hand-me-down route for all of Babywoods’ paraphernalia, we’ve spent next to nothing on her thus far in life (aside from our $450 co-payment for her birth and diapers from Costco).
Several keys to our success in this endeavor:
- Don’t be picky. We took whatever people offered us. Color, style, and condition didn’t matter. Plenty of Babywoods’ hand-me-downs came pre-stained, pre-faded, and a bit banged up. But who cares!
- Start early. I began the process of collecting baby gear well in advance of her birth (actually I started before we even got pregnant). People want to get rid of things on their timeline, not on yours.
- Be grateful. No matter the condition or color, be grateful because… it’s free!!!
Our sources for hand-me-downs:
The Buy Nothing Project. I cannot possibly express enough gratitude and awe over the amazingness that is the Buy Nothing Project. It’s an international organization with local branches that facilitate neighbors giving away items to one another completely free of charge. I’ve given away a ton of stuff via the BNP and in turn received an enormous amount of baby paraphernalia. Check here to see if there’s a chapter in your area and if not, consider starting one.
- Friends, family, and acquaintances. We put the word out that we would happily take anyone’s cast-off baby articles and wow did folks come through! Anything we received that we don’t need, I pass along to other parents through the Buy Nothing Project.
- Parent list-serves. There are several parent email list-serves that I’m a member of, through which people offer items for sale and for free. Ask other parents in your area if there are list-serves or forums you can join.
- The side of the road. Trash finds apply here too! I found several items for her by the side of the road, which I happily scooped up. Everything for babies is washable and so there’s nothing to fear in taking used things.
- Garage sales. A fabulous source for baby stuffs! People are usually chomping at the bit to unload unwanted baby accouterments and will typically offer you a discount if you buy in bulk. This is how I procured a veritable mountain of clothes for a cool $10.
Kids’ clothing exchanges. My friend C (a frugal and wise mother of twins) introduced me to this awesome spot in Cambridge where you can swap baby clothes your kid has outgrown for outfits that do fit–all completely free. Genius idea and I believe they exist in other cities as well.
- Thrift stores. I actually have not been impressed with Goodwill’s prices or selection of baby products, but, I have heard that consignment stores specifically for kids are ideal spots for discount finds.
- Craigslist. We haven’t needed to purchase anything for Babywoods on Craigslist yet, but, it’s a fantastic repository for all things used.
The only products we’ve purchased new for Babywoods are consumables (i.e. diapers) and health care items (i.e. Vitamin D drops). And, my in-laws sent us some gorgeous outfits for her, which we greatly appreciate. Every single other thing in her nursery is used.
Babies: Not Inherently Expensive
Baby-rearing is one of those life occasions that our culture tells us is inherently expensive. But to this I cry folly! Aside from finding free and cheap items, babies can also get by with far less than is marketed for them. The media trots out every conceivable trope to make parents feel incredibly guilt-ridden if they don’t buy the latest, greatest, and priciest of gear for their little one. But buying stuff does not equal a happy and enriching childhood. And material goods don’t–on their own–enable children to grow and thrive. But having parents who aren’t burdened by debt and over-spending? Now there’s something a kid can take to the bank.