As the Girl Scouts motto goes: Be prepared. The better supplied you are before your baby gets here, the smoother your transition to parenthood will be. What follows is a handy checklist so you can make sure you've got the right stuff in time for your new arrival.
Infant car seat
You won't be able to leave the hospital without an infant car seat. In fact, if you don't have one, the hospital may loan one to you.
Well before your due date, start shopping for a lightweight, rear-facing model designed for infants under 20 pounds. Some car seats are designed to snap out of a base, which allows you to move your sleeping baby without disturbing her. Some designs also fit into wheels that become a stroller, meaning one less transition for the baby.
Consider a convertible seat that can be used for both newborns and toddlers. A convertible seat is designed to face the rear of the car while your baby weighs, at minimum, less than 20 pounds. This is considered the safest position for a small infant, and the only way he or she should ride.
Once your baby is a year old and weighs at least 20 pounds, you can turn the seat around so that it faces forward. However, some rear-facing seats are designed to convert into seats that hold kids up to 35 pounds, and the American Academy of Pediatrics advises using a rear-facing seat as long as possible.
Bear in mind that a convertible seat will last longer but isn't as portable as an infant seat. Regardless of which type you opt for, read the instructions provided with your car seat and once it's installed, go to your local National Highway Traffic Safety Administration inspection location. They will check to see that your car seat has been properly installed. According to a study by the National Safe Kids Campaign, 85 percent of child car seats are installed incorrectly.
During the first few weeks, it's best to have plenty of easily accessible garments: gowns with gathered bottoms, "onesies," one-piece, stretchy suits with snaps on the fronts and bottoms that open for easy diaper access, and undershirts with wide head and armholes.
The onesie is a modern miracle for new moms and dads. It doesn't ride up, it's easy to access, and it keeps your baby snug and comfy. Look for soft, roomy one-piece cotton outfits and choose sizes at least three months older than your infant's age, unless your baby is premature or particularly small. She will grow into and out of clothing before you can blink, in some cases even before she gets to wear it! This is why used clothes are a great idea, especially in the first few months.
Only buy clothing that lets you get to your baby's diaper in seconds, so look for snaps around the crotch or completely down the leg. Check to make sure these fasteners are sturdy enough to hold your baby and her diaper. And choose fabrics with sensitive skin in mind. Avoid scratchy or rough material and bulky seams. Cotton is your best bet: It feels good on your baby's skin and breathes well, which minimizes heat rash.
Even a baby needs seasonal extras. She'll need a knit cotton cap, even in summer, for the first couple of months. Even when she's a few weeks old, she'll need a broad-brimmed sun hat (legionnaire's hats that cover neck and ears are best) in summer and a warm, woolly, or fleecy hat that covers ears in the winter. In winter, mittens for babies (forget gloves) and a bunting or baby bag with zipper or hood will work well.
Crib and bedding
If possible, buy a new crib -- older cribs, beautiful as they are, may not meet current safety standards. If you do borrow a crib or buy one secondhand, make sure that it is clean, safe, and sturdy, and that the slats are no more than 2 3/8 inches apart so your baby's head or body can't slip through. In addition, the corner posts should not be higher than 1/16th of an inch (so your baby's clothes can't get caught on it), and the headboard and footboard should not have any decorative cutouts.
You'll also need a mattress that is firm, easy to clean, and fits snugly so that your baby won't get trapped in the gap between the mattress and the crib. Look for a flannel-backed, waterproof mattress protector (cooler and more comfy than plain plastic or rubber covers) and a couple of fitted sheets.
There's no need -- and in fact it can be a suffocation risk -- to put a pillow, comforter, blanket, or stuffed animal in an infant's crib. If you're concerned about keeping baby warm, try zipping him up in a fleecy sleep sack.
If you must use a blanket, place your baby with his feet at the foot of the crib, tuck a thin blanket around the mattress, covering him only as high as his chest.
As for bumper pads, the jury is still out. The Consumer Product Safety Commission recommends that parents refrain from putting any soft objects in the crib, including bumper pads. However, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) and the National Safety Council have deemed them safe, as long as they're removed once the baby is able to pull up and stand.
Diaper changing station
A changing table (or a padded mat on the floor) will help with diaper duty. Make sure the changing table is secure by placing it against a wall (not a window), so there's no danger of your baby falling.
Choose a sturdy, stable piece of furniture with a 2-inch-tall guardrail around all four sides. If your changing table or dresser does not have guardrails, look for a concave changing pad in which the middle is slightly lower than the sides. The changing pad must also have a safety belt. Secure the changing pad to the table using the fasteners provided.
During diaper changes, use the safety belt while also keeping one hand on the baby for extra security. Keep all changing equipment -- diapers, wipes, and other accessories -- within easy arm's reach for you but out of your baby's way.
If you use a padded mat at your diaper changing post, just make sure it's covered with something that's easy to wash. You may also need a diaper pail (or two if you're going to wash your own diapers so you can separate the wet from the soiled). Get something that has a good seal on it so your nursery doesn't start to smell. If you use a diaper service, they usually provide a pail.
If you're using disposable diapers, you may want to check out the range of pails and deodorizers available at baby stores so you won't have to take a trip to the trash after every diaper change.
You may already have some of these items in your medicine cabinet or first-aid kit, but it's smart to group medical supplies together in a bag or box so you can grab them when you need to deal with common baby ailments such as diaper rash, fevers, and the sniffles. Just make sure to keep these supplies out of baby's reach.
Items to have on hand include: a digital thermometer, baby nail clippers, a nasal aspirator bulb syringe (often given to moms at the time of delivery), cotton swabs, a medicine dropper, diaper rash cream, petroleum jelly, antibacterial ointment, an assortment of bandage strips and gauze pads, and a first-aid guide.
Look for models that can both fold flat for newborns and for napping older babies as well as convert to an upright, seated position, for when your baby can sit up. A hood offers good protection from the elements -- especially sun. Look for reliable safety belts. According to the Nemours Foundation, the safest design is the "T" restraint, in which a buckle connects the crotch strap and waist belts.
Also, check the stroller for stability by pressing down lightly upon the handles -- it should resist tipping backward. Maneuverability is important too. You should be able to steer the stroller in a straight line with one hand. The handlebars should be waist-high or slightly lower. If you or your partner are tall, see if a stroller you like can be fitted with handle extenders to reduce back strain when you're strolling.
There are models for just about every type of terrain, so think about how you'll use it before buying. Many people have more than one stroller for different situations -- a lightweight one for going about town or going on trips and another sturdier one for jogging.
You don't need much. During your baby's newborn days, you'll want to give sponge baths until the umbilical cord falls off and, if you have a circumcised boy, wait until the circumcision heals.
For sponge-bathing a newborn, you'll need a few basics: thick towels upon which to place the baby, soft washcloths, a basin or clean sink, mild baby soap and shampoo, and a hooded baby towel. Once he's ready for a bath in the baby tub, you can use a plastic baby bathtub or the kitchen sink, as long as the faucet is the kind that can swing out of the way. A large sink lined with a towel or rubber mat, or a plastic tub equipped with a large sponge that props up your baby is a good choice for the first six months or so when your baby can't sit up on her own.
Never leave your baby unattended in the bath, even when he or she can sit up. And avoid baby bath rings -- they can be a drowning hazard if they tip over or trap a baby underneath. A baby can drown in only a couple of inches of water.
Contrary to what you may see in advertising for baby products, your infant does not ordinarily need any special lotions, oils, or powders. If your baby's skin is very dry, you may want to apply some nonperfumed baby moisturizer or oil after bath. Look for lotions specifically designed for infant skin, because they typically contain ingredients that are gentle on delicate skin. Avoid any products with perfumes or chemicals that can cause irritation.
Before you bathe your baby, have a towel, washcloth, mild baby shampoo, and soap on hand. Afterwards, you may want to use infant nail clippers (nails are easier to trim after soaking in water), diaper rash ointment (if needed), and a soft-bristled hairbrush or comb (assuming your newborn has any hair). You'll also want to have a cup near the tub for rinsing hair and for pouring water over your baby to keep her warm.
The following items are not strictly necessary but are nice to have:
A rocking chair
A rocking chair or glider is a lovely extra that allows you or your partner to sit in comfort while feeding or soothing your baby. The rocking motion has the added benefit of sending your child (and maybe you, too) to sleep. (If you want a gliding rocker, be sure to get one with wooden platform side rather than stiles with gaps that a little hand or foot could get mashed in).
Depending on how easily your baby sleeps, you might also consider getting a baby swing. The swings, which operate on a timer, have been known to induce sleep in some of the fussiest babies, who won't be awake to protest as you move them to the crib.
Some parents swear by the comfort a baby monitor brings, knowing they can hear baby if they're in another room in the house. Other parents have small homes, babies with loud cries, or both, so a monitor isn't on their must-have list. A good item to borrow, if you can, to see if it's something you'll use.
A wearable, front-pack, soft carrier can be wonderful for bonding and soothing, and it allows you or your partner to go about your daily life with your baby on board and your hands free for other activities. Be sure that it's fastened properly at all times, that his face isn't obstructed by your back, and that he doesn't seem too hot or too cold.
Baby slings are good for nursing and snuggling, but the Consumer Product Safety Commission recommends not using one until your baby is at least four months old and to consult your pediatrician about using one with babies who are preemies, twins, in delicate health or who are underweight. Infants who are only a few months old cannot control their heads because of weak neck muscles, and the CPSC warns that the slings fabric can press against an infant's nose and mouth, blocking the baby's breathing and rapidly suffocating him.
Small babies can also suffocate if their head is pushed against their chest in the sling, making it hard to breathe. If you carry your older baby in a sling, make sure you read the instructions, carry your baby in the sling in the position that you would hold him in your arms, and ensure his face is not covered up or mashed up against your chest or the fabric. You should also be able to kiss the top of his head.
When your baby is bigger -- and able to hold his head up -- you may want to consider the option of carrying her in a designed-for-baby backpack.
These can be invaluable for when you need to dash to the bathroom, pick-up the phone, or just give your arms a break. A bouncy seat is a handy device to have around when you need to put baby down for a minute or two. Look for designs that recline slightly and allow your baby to rock gently. Some come equipped with a bar of toys for added entertainment. Never let your baby sleep there or stay in the bouncy seat (or baby swing) when you're out of the room for an extended period, though, as his head could hang down in a way that makes it hard to breathe.
Although it's tempting to run to a toy store and come home laden with goodies, newborns really don't need much to be entertained. Since an infant can't hold things or sit up, he's really most interested in things that he can either look at or listen to. Good choices for a new baby include a mobile for above the changing table, preferably one with high-contrast colors and patterns, because these are the easiest to see. An unbreakable mirror you can attach to the side of his crib or hang near her changing table will also provide amusement, long before she realizes that reflection is really her.
Ways to make music
Try lullabies and other mellow tunes. A music box or wind chimes are a welcome way to soothe a little soul. Soft sock and wrist rattles can provide endless entertainment as your baby's movements make noise. She'll enjoy watching and listening to what you can do with sensory toys such as hand-held soft cloth characters that squeak or cloth books with vivid contrast colors that rustle or feel silky to touch. When she's a bit bigger, she'll try to bat at these playthings herself.
American Academy of Pediatrics. Caring For Your Baby and Young Child: Birth to Age 5. Bantam Books, 5th Edition. 2009.
CPSC Warns of Drowning Hazard With Baby Bath Seats or Rings, Consumer Product Safety Commission, 2010.
Infant Deaths Prompt CPSC Warning About Sling Carriers for Babies, Consumer Product Safety Commission, March 12, 2010.
American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. Planning Your Pregnancy and Birth. Third Edition. pages 251-257.
Yale-New Haven Children's Hospital. Infant and child car seats. http://www.ynhh.org/pediatrics/prevention/infant_car_seats.html
Murkoff, Heidi. What To Expect When You're Expecting. 4th ed. Workman Publishing. 2008.
American Academy of Pediatrics. Car Safety Seats: Information for Families for 2010. http://www.healthychildren.org/English/safety-prevention/on-the-go/pages/Car-Safety-Seats-Information-for-Families-2010.aspx
Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles. Child Safety Seat Statistics. http://www.dmv.state.va.us/webdoc/general/safety/childsafety/stats.asp
Simkin, Penny. Pregnancy, Childbirth, and the Newborn. Meadowbrook Press. 2001.
Nemours Foundation. Choosing Safe Baby Products. February 2010 http://www.kidshealth.org/parent/pregnancy_newborn/home/products.html
Mayo Clinic. Baby bath basics. April 2009 http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/healthy-baby/PR00041
Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. Bathing and Skin Care. http://www.chop.edu/consumer/your_child/condition_section_index.jsp
Consumer Product Safety Commission. Crib Safety Tips, Use Your Crib Safely. http://www.cpsc.gov/cpscpub/pubs/5030.html
National Safety Council. Crib Safety Tips. http://www.nsc.org/library/facts/cribtips.htm
American Academy of Pediatrics. Choosing a Crib. June 2010 http://www.healthychildren.org/english/safety-prevention/at-home/Pages/Choosing-a-Crib.aspx
Mayo Clinic. Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. June 2009