A couple of good friends at work are expecting their first babies in the next few weeks, and we’ve been talking about buying those all-important baby essentials before the big day.  It’s possible to spend an absolute fortune on every baby gizmo and gadget known to mankind, like a friend of mine who bought everything in one toe-curlingly expensive spree at John Lewis a week before the birth, but that doesn’t have to be the case.

Please bear in mind that this post is based entirely on my own opinion (with a bit of received advice thrown in) and there will be parents who disagree with me wholeheartedly.

So, where to shop?  We bought most of our new stuff from Kiddicare.com (by far my favourite retailer), Boots.com (especially great if you join their Parenting Club), Marks & Spencer, amazon.com (if you can forgive them for their tax-dodging, then their ‘subscribe and save’ scheme is good value for ongoing bulk items like nappies and wipes) and Mothercare.  Mothercare are really good for clothes, offer great customer service, and will price match most of the major retailers on high-ticket branded items.  For example, we spoke to their car seat specialist in-store, chose the model we wanted, and at the till they matched the price shown on amazon.com.  We are also lucky enough to live near a Fara secondhand baby shop, and have purchased some really lovely clothes from them.  I know other parents who swear by local NCT secondhand sales, too.

Now, on to the essentials.

It’s worth bearing in mind that people are extraordinarily generous when it comes to new babies.  We were inundated with gifts of new and nearly new things when she was born.  So unless you are particularly wedded to, for example, the fetching green tartan knickerbocker and cardigan set that you’ve seen in JoJo Maman Bebe, you might want to wait.  All we really needed for the first few weeks were some long-sleeved and short-sleeved vests and some babygros/sleepsuits.  Not to put too fine a point on it, everything gets covered in sick and poo anyway.  Personally I really like the packs of M&S vests and sleepsuits because they’re great value, good quality and survive multiple washing.

You can never, ever have too many muslins.  I’d say ten at a minimum, twenty if you don’t want to be forever searching for a clean one.  Not only are they perfect for endless mop-ups, but a friend told me that they’re one of the best things for teething babies to gnaw on.

Nappies are astonishingly expensive.  I had lofty ideas about using the washable ones with liners, but must confess that after a day or so of using disposables I conceded that it was one more hassle we didn’t need.  For this I apologise unreservedly to the environment (and have redoubled my recycling efforts to compensate).  We tried a few of the branded and non-branded ones and, in my opinion, Pampers are by far the best.  By contrast, my favourite wipes aren’t from a major brand (‘Little Bundles’ sensitive wipes) and are a fraction of the cost, with Sainsbury’s ‘Little Ones’ coming a close second.  Bear in mind that you don’t need wipes to start with and cotton wool pads and warm water will do (unless it’s poo-mageddon, of course, in which case you’ll have to bung them in the bath anyway).  Good quality olive oil is great for any sore or dry patches on their skin.

Unless you love the smell of stale baby faeces, a nappy bin is a great idea.  We were given a Tommee Tippee Sangenic one.  OK, it’s probably not an absolute essential, but I’ve been mighty grateful for it.

You will need a changing bag and mat for when you are out.  There are zillions of branded changing bags on the market.  My issue with those is that they tend to be very expensive and very girly … I like to think that N has ‘new man’ credentials but it’s rather mean to send him off to the loos with a large bag covered in daisies.  We bought a simple satchel-style canvas bag (pockets are useful) from M&S and it’s served us very well.  That said, I’ve just bought a pair of ‘hamster bags’ which can either be carried over your shoulder or clipped to the side of a buggy which may supercede our current bag.  If they’re good, I would probably have used something like that from the outset.

Probably my favourite and most useful item is my Skip Hop Pronto changing mat.  It’s a mat with a removable nappy pocket and wipes pocket attached, with an additional external zip pocket that could hold, say, a wallet and mobile phone.  When rolled up it’s not much bigger than a large clutch bag.  It will hold about six nappies, which is enough for a normal day, and we never leave home without it.  Bearing in mind that a lot of venues have inadequate or dirty changing facilities, it’s great to have something clean and comfortable that can be rolled out almost anywhere.  I love the design and practicality of this and can’t recommend this more highly.

For feeding, I bought a Tommee Tippee set that had several bottles, a steam steriliser and a bottle warmer.  The steriliser is brilliant and we still use it now.  With a bit of creative thinking it will fit other bottles too.  The bottle warmer seemed a luxury at the time, but turned out to be incredibly convenient.  Heating bottles in the microwave isn’t advisable (you can get hot spots) and faffing about with boiling water is a pain (and quite tricky if you’re holding a baby that you’d rather not scald).

We used the Tommee Tippee bottles to begin with, but quickly ended up getting Dr Brown’s bottles (the anti-colic ones) because poor little M was taking in so much air that she was in a lot of pain.  These bottles are a bit fiddly to wash, but the milk flow is beautifully smooth and bubble-free.  Again, we still use them now, although over time we have migrated from stage 1 teats (perfect for the first few months) to Boots’ own-label wide-necked ‘variflow’ teats that fit perfectly and allow for faster flow as their consumption increases.

I’m going to write a separate post on the subject of feeding, because we had some issues with that, but I’ll just make a quick observation about formula.  You may intend to breastfeed exclusively for as long as possible.  I certainly did.  However, it makes sense to have some formula at home, just in case.  You can get little cartons of pre-mixed Aptamil, if you don’t want to buy a huge tub of powder, and having a couple of those in the cupboard will prevent a midnight dash to the chemist when you’re exhausted, you have no more milk and the baby is screaming blue murder.  70p well spent, in my opinion.

I mentioned in the previous post that I found the whole issue of sleep very nerve-wracking.  That fear was alleviated by a few purchases.  Our baby monitor is excellent.  It is a Tomy one with a sensor pad that goes under the mattress and monitors the baby’s breathing.  I think you can get the pad to fit with any of their monitors (and I’m sure other brands make them too).  For me this was a better choice than a video monitor (I would’ve sat up all night staring at it).

Sleeping bags are a truly wonderful invention, and the Kiddicare ‘Funky Friends’ and ‘O Baby’ ones are fabulous.  They’re comfy and cosy, wash really well, and mean that the baby can’t slip under the covers.  If you need additional covers, go for cellular blankets.  Ours came from Mothercare.

I wasn’t going to buy a Moses basket (I thought the pram bassinet would suffice to start with) and then we were given one.  As it transpired, it was brilliant to be able to carry her around without waking her up.  She slept in it really well.  I also realised that our pram bassinet wouldn’t sit flat anywhere apart from in its own wheel base, so it would have been impossible to move around indoors with ease.  After a few weeks she was already getting too big for the basket, so we migrated her to a travel cot which we set up beside our bed.  Given that the recommendation is that they stay in your room for 6 months, you need something fairly substantial.  We went for the Graco Contour cot that has a bassinet that fits in the top for when they are small.  The bassinet makes all the difference (trust me, your spine will thank you).  It was fantastic while it was her permanent bed, and it’s still great as a travel cot.  You can get a very fancy one that vibrates, but we didn’t bother … she’s a baby, not a cocktail.  The only thing to be wary of is the mattress.  It’s like a thin piece of lino and I wouldn’t dream of putting her on it.  I bought the mattresses for her travel cot and cot-bed from babywise.co.uk and am delighted with both.  They are good quality and really comfortable.

We decided on a cot-bed rather than a cot as it lasts until they’re a few years old.  I strongly recommend that you get one that has three mattress levels, and a drop side (think of that spine again!).  We got a Saplings Stephanie pine one from Boots.com and I have absolutely no complaints.  It was even easy to assemble.  Please remember that cot bumpers are not recommended as they’re dangerous (they’re also unbearably twee, but that’s just a personal thing!).

I’m sure entire blogs have been devoted to the subject of buggies, prams and travel systems.  We looked at a few models and eventually bought a Bugaboo Cameleon secondhand from a friend.  It was wonderful while she was in the bassinet (for which I bought a new mattress from from babymattressesonline.co.uk) because it’s so big and sturdy and safe.  Increasingly it has become too bulky and unwieldy for my liking, and I’ve contemplated pushing it into the Thames on more than one occasion (minus the baby, of course), but it’s all about personal preference.  A lot of people go for the Bugaboo Bee which is smaller, lighter and more compact, so it will last much longer, whereas I have conceded defeat and ordered a Maclaren Techno stroller.

Some brands come with a footmuff already (Bugaboo don’t, and their branded ones are extortionately expensive) but, if not, Buggy Snuggles are lovely and fit most buggies.  Our little monkey looks so cozy in hers that I get actively jealous.

We bought the Maxi Cosi Cabriofix car seat (rear-facing) with the FamilyFix Isofix base.  Both are easy to install and simple to use.  My only gripe with the car seat is that you cannot move the carry handle forwards or backwards with one hand; you need to release the clips on both sides do to it.  If I ruled the world, all baby items would be required by law to be operable with one hand only!  Other than that it’s brilliant, and she is very comfortable in it.  It’s also very straightforward to secure it with a seatbelt if you’re in a taxi, for example.  Because our M is quite a little baby, we’re only thinking about replacing it with the next model now.

I mentioned Gina Ford and Tracy Hogg books in the previous post.  In addition, Dr Miriam Stoppard’s ‘Complete Baby & Childcare’ is a great one-stop reference guide to the early months and years.

I think that’s about it in terms of essentials.  I could wax lyrical about baby bouncers and inflatable play nest rings (both very useful if you want to, for instance, go to the loo), bath seats (not very helpful in the bath but useful as a kind of ‘towel seat’ in which to plonk the baby afterwards and wrap them up), bumbos (M loathed hers) and all sorts of things, but I’d be here all night.  Happy shopping.

Our lovely little girl celebrated her first birthday at the weekend.  On the one hand I’m staggered by how quickly that birthday has come around and yet, on the other, it’s hard to remember a time when she wasn’t part of our lives.  Watching our great big girl tucking into her birthday cake gave me cause to reflect on how far she (and we) have come in that first year.  However organised or prepared we thought we were, nothing really made us feel ready for that terrifying walk from the post-natal ward to the hospital car park.

I think that sums up the early days for me: the fact that we had this vulnerable, fragile and terribly precious person in our care.  Of course we were delighted with her, and over the moon to be parents, but it didn’t alter the fact that we arrived home with that all-too-familiar sense of ‘what the hell do we do now?’  Well, we did what every new parent does, we got on with it and learnt as we went.  Some things were immediately successful, some quite the opposite, but we got there.

I should say that I was lucky to have come out of the birth relatively unscathed (apart from some minor internal grazing).  This meant that I was in good physical shape for the challenges of the early days.  A word of warning, though.  I was told ‘you will bleed for a few days after the birth’.  That translated as ‘you will be like a leaky bucket for several weeks’.  Not a problem, and easier than dealing with, say, a caesarean, but I wish I’d been a little better prepared for that.  Other than feeling a little woozy sometimes in the first week, and having to retreat for a warm bath and a lie down, I was fine.

I knew I wanted to get her into some sort of routine.  I personally think that if you have no routine at all, you will go stark raving mad.  Several friends had waxed lyrical about Gina Ford, and an equal number of them had spoken of her as some kind of parenting antichrist.  Personally, I found a lot of her advice very useful (especially in terms of baby essentials and items to avoid), but her actual routine is far too didactic for me.  There are also a few things that I have to disagree with; she insists, for example, that a baby is always put to sleep in a pitch black and silent room, whereas I’m rather pleased that our baby will happily doze off in a noisy pub in broad daylight.

I actually found Tracy Hogg’s ‘Secrets Of The Baby Whisperer’ much more helpful.  Her ‘E.A.S.Y.’ schedule is more of a pattern than a routine, and it really worked for us.  To be honest, we didn’t have to try very hard.  M’s natural pattern seemed to match the ‘E.A.S.Y’ one very well.  It gave our days (and nights) some structure and made us feel that we had some semblance of control.  I don’t think chaos would’ve been good for M or for us.  The way we approached it was by getting the evening routine sorted out first.  After a few weeks we were bathing her regularly at 7pm and putting her down by about 7.15.  Having a regular bedtime led quite quickly to regular waking (1am and 7am, eventually).  Daily bathing did dry her skin out, however, so we now bathe her every other day.

The scariest thing of all, for me, was sleep.  I’m certain that the fear of SIDS means that all new parents are concerned about the potential hazards of putting a baby down, whether for a quick daytime nap or at night.  In the first few weeks she either slept in her bassinet (if we were out) or her Moses basket (indoors during the day and beside our bed at night).  For her night-time sleep we had (and still use) a baby monitor with a mat that goes under the mattress to keep tabs on the baby’s breathing.  At the beginning I would barely take my eyes off of the monitor but now I simply keep one ear open for its reassuring ‘tick … tick … tick’.  We also put her in a sleeping bag from the outset (having decided against swaddling) because that eliminated any issues with her becoming tangled in sheets or blankets.

It’s easy to become quite agoraphobic with a newborn.  I think there are two reasons for this.  Firstly, going out requires lots of preparation (gone are the days when I’d just check my pockets for wallet, keys and phone before leaving the house).  Secondly, it’s much easier to deal with problems (leaky nappies, wet clothes, vomiting, endless crying) if you are safely behind your front door.  The first issue can be dealt with on a very practical level.  We bought a bag (a very plain and unisex one, so N wouldn’t feel daft carrying it) and kept it permanently stocked.  It was always in her buggy and contained a changing mat, nappies, wipes, a change of clothes, a muslin, a pre-measured bottle of water, formula and hand sanitiser.  As she’s got older, it now contains things like snacks, a drink, suncream and Calpol.  This means that you can leave the house at five minutes notice.  That leaves the second issue and, frankly, there’s no easy fix.  You just have to take the bull by the horns and get out there.  N noticed that I was staying in a lot and he would ask me every morning what my plans were for the day and encourage me to go out.  Also, one of my NCT friends set up a Whatsapp group for all of us and we would constantly chatter about what we could do, where we could go, when we could meet.  It didn’t have to be anything major.  I made a point, for example, of always taking M for a long afternoon walk around the Common.  That was our routine for months, and I really enjoyed it.

Very soon, and relatively easily, everything became second nature.  As she has grown her routine has changed (she now only naps twice a day, for example, and I think that will decrease to one nap quite soon) but a lot of the basic principles we employed at the very beginning still hold true.  We tried to tread a line between her needs and our wants.  Did we get it right?  She’s a happy, contented little thing, so I like to think that we did.