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How to buy baby essentials

The Times
Do we really need banana-holders and automatic pram-rockers, asks mum of four Helena Pozniak, or has the baby-kit market just gone potty?


Leafing through the pages of a baby catalogue brings me out in a cold sweat reminiscent of my first reading of Gina Ford's book Contented Little Baby. Four children down the line (they’re now 7, 5, 4 and 10 months), I’m split between fascination and dismay at the array of products; there’s so much I didn’t even know I needed. Maybe the reason my baby doesn’t sleep is because he has never had an automated pram rocker or customised matching sheets. In fact, he’s lucky if he gets his own pyjamas.

Over the seven years since we started having children, the baby market appears to have gone berserk. The website thinkbaby.co.uk offers a whopping 58 sub-categories of baby products. Buggies (sorry, travel systems) top £500 and there’s a solution for every nonproblem. Worried that a banana will bruise en route? Don’t worry, use a plastic banana-shaped holder. Concerned that your infant’s toes will chill between the bath and bedroom? Pop on a pair of luxury bath slippers. Baby screaming during nappy changes? You need wipe warmers, madam.

As a nation, last year we spent £20 million a week on baby products, according to the Office for National Statistics. “The baby market is subject to fashion like any other market,” says Keely Paice, the founder of Babyplanners (www.babyplanners.co.uk), a service advising new parents according to their circumstances. “Pushchairs look different but they still do the same thing they’ve always done. But, as a first-time parent, you may not have a frame of reference and you might be vulnerable to exploitation. And when you are furiously nesting, you behave as if the shops will be shut the day after the baby’s born.”

There is an undeniable retail thrill that afflicts mothers-to-be. It’s more than wanton consumerism; this may be the only time in your life you can get excited by the prospect of paper pants and night-lights, so why not milk it? As we tend to have our first child later in life, the unprecedented combination of maternity leave and disposable income can prove a heady mix, but it’s just a phase and you know you’ll come out of it. All well and good, says Debra Stottor, the editor of Junior Pregnancy & Baby magazine. “But this thinking can govern your life. You spend your hard-earned income on things you don’t need because you feel it shows that you care. You find yourself spending money in lieu of doing anything.”

Maybe the baby market is particularly busy, says Julie White, the founder of Truly Madly Baby (www.trulymadlybaby.co.uk), because of a glut of professional women who are keen to redirect their energies and solve problems. Online and through a national network, she advises and sells nonhigh street baby products. “Often mums don’t want to go back to the rat race but want to do things with their talents. Every now and then a mum will invent a gem of a product, but there’s a lot of stuff that doesn’t make it. Let’s face it, our grandmas didn’t have any of this stuff. An awful lot of instinct gets lost with new products. You must ask, does it fulfil a need?”

My mother-in-law agrees. In her day, when mums expected to remain at home until school years, she says there was less need (or cash) for whizzy “mum-on-the-go” gadgets and fancy baby toys. One of her most useful items was a playpen, in which she put herself to avoid her three young children as she did the ironing. A straw poll of my “baby friends” – all now veteran mothers – shows that each of us has bought products over the years that have proved useless: from gigantic musical swinging chairs to “stay put” bowls that, pulled hard enough, catapult food, Wallace & Gromit-style, over the walls.

Camille (not her real name), now 42, remembers the kick she got from endless purchases for the birth of her daughter, now 7. She’d left a vibrant job to commit to a shaky relationship and an uncertain new role as mother. “It was my ignorance that drove me to buy stuff more than anything,” she says. “Although I did want her to look smart, and to have the best because I never had it as a child. What’s more, I was so depressed that I found comfort shopping for her when she was born. It gave me confidence when people complimented my baby, her clothes and her stuff. I felt good after I bought something awesome for my child.”

So how to avoid foolish purchases? Apart from a penchant for baby seats (we have five), I’ve finally managed to hone our baby gear to the bare minimum but it’s only after years of trial and error. These days you can glean valuable information from online communities such as Mumsnet.com or pick the brains of the likes of Babyplanners. I’d have avoided shelling out for new when I could have borrowed or found secondhand, and not bought outsize items that have no place in a narrow terraced house.

And I’d have waited until the baby arrived to decide what extras we required. “Look at your individual needs,” says Paice. “If you’re in a one-bed flat, you don’t need a Moses basket or a monitor. But if you have a large rambling home, both could be useful.” Although happy to advise clients on pukka buggies and bespoke bean bags if necessary, Babyplanners advocates a minimal list for the first few weeks. “You really need only clothes and towels, muslins, a made-up cot, nail scissors and a bath support,” says Paice.

“No matter how sleep-deprived you feel, you can still tell the difference between tepid and scalding water, so don’t even think about getting a bath thermometer.”

There are first-time mums, such as Mel Owen-Browne, who have the presence of mind to know their practical limitations and seek advice. “We went to John Lewis, which has a ridiculously long list for newborns. I told their nursery adviser I didn’t want anything that I didn’t need in the first six weeks. We have little space, and I don’t want bright plastic or anything that looks hideous. They then gave brilliant advice. But if I’d been in my early twenties rather than late thirties with the benefit of friends with children, I’d have been less aware.”

And while it’s easy to laugh at the gimmicks and gizmos, don’t forget that were it not for the likes of disposable bibs and nifty travel seats, our lives would be a lot more housebound and, I suspect, a lot less fun.

Mildred Masheder, 90, a parenting author who had her children more than 50 years ago, remembers a solitary start to motherhood and a life dominated by boiling terry-towelling nappies, and prams so huge you wouldn’t dream of putting them in a car. “I remember I felt very lonely then. But I see parents these days submitted to enormous pressure of marketing from every angle.”

And I guarantee that for any product I declare useless in my lists (above), there’s someone who will swear she can’t live without it. Some nonessentials are so heart-meltingly attractive or so darn ingenious that you justify the extravagance. From soft leather shoes to detachable ice-cube holders, lambswool hoodies to towelling ponchos, these products scream “buy me”, even to hardened cynics like me.

Yes, I know great-grandma Pozniak brought up her children without a pink Bumbo and no child ever died from lack of foot-finders, but these products are just so much fun. Now, where was that catalogue again?

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