baby proof: newborn essentials.

June 10, 2014
When it comes to new motherhood, the learning curve has been steep. That’s to say, it’s sometimes grueling but so swift that I pretty much always have things mostly figured out before I have time to dial the phone and scream Uncle. 

Figuring out what kind of equipment is necessary for the journey can be a daunting process, but if we’re being honest, the stuff also serves as something of an assurance. Even for the minimalists among us, the urge to gather an arsenal of gear to help with the transition can be a powerful force. I liken the process to the first time I packed for a backpacking adventure and found myself with an urgent need to head to the local outfitting store and stock up on long underwear, a dozen pairs of wool socks, and emergency hand warmers for my mid-July weekend away. Thankfully, when it came to newborn essentials, I didn’t have to figure it out all on my own. Here’s a list of five newborn essentials from my sister, Cait, a mama who’s had a little more time on the job:

I should probably start with a disclaimer. When it comes to parenting, “essentials” are in the eye of the beholder. One mama’s trash is another mama’s treasure, etc. And this mama, to be sure, is of the pared down, minimalist, perhaps-overboard-suspicious-of-chemicals sort, which may not be your bag. 


Even so, babies be babies. Our budgets and bugbears may be unique, but our babies are a lot alike. They keep their own schedules; they poop a lot; they wake in the wee hours; they snuffle around on our shoulders like puppies. And there are a few tools that make all that baby business a bit easier. If I’m being totally honest, I know I could have survived the first three months with nothing more than my pair of boobs and a copy of this album playing on repeat. In retrospect, this shortlist of baby paraphernalia made the job that much easier: 


Five Must-Haves For the Early Days


1. Prefolds. We chose to cloth diaper for its gentler environmental footprint, but whether you cover that tiny bum in reusables or disposables, you’re likely to find ample uses for a dozen or so extra all-cotton prefold diapers in the first few months. Reserved as burp cloths, they’re perfect for keeping on a shoulder during postprandial patting; for wiping spit-up and other unmentionables from floors and counters; for lining a bassinet or changing table; and for rolling behind the small of the back or under an elbow for more comfy nursing or feeding sessions. We inherited a stack of these from my sister-in-law in Oregon, and then passed it on to Erin a week or two before Faye was born. They launder easily, get softer with wear, and basically last forever. 


2. Cotton swaddles. A girl could get panicky choosing among the swaddle options on the market. Specifically, this girl. Happily, Oliver’s West-Coast Granny and Connecticut Great-Aunt chose for him the simplest of them all: the basic muslin cotton swaddle. No Velcro, snaps or tabs in sight, and easy as pie to wrap your baby in once you’ve done it a few times. We swaddled Oliver from Day One through his seven-month birthday, and the snug coziness put him right to sleep (usually). Swaddles also come in handy for: the aforementioned impromptu wiping;  privacy while nursing or changing diapers in public; blocking sun from tiny faces; an extra layer if the wind picks up while you’re on the go. You kind of can’t have too many (though we felt well equipped with eight).


3. Sheepie. I remember thinking of sheepskins as slightly creepy when I first encountered them as a young child. And if you’re vegan, these are probably not for you. But Oliver’s beautiful lambskin, a gift from his grandma, has proven one of our most versatile baby items. Tanned without chemicals and using methods the manufacturer vows are environmentally friendly, sheepskins are a natural, old-fashioned alternative to baby mats that contain foam, and that by extension, may have the chemical flame retardants that are linked to health problems. Even better, they’re naturally water repellent and machine-washable because, as the proprietor of our neighborhood laundromat eagerly explained, “sheep live in the jungle… and it rains in the jungle!” In the pre-rolling months, we used ours on the floor for tummy time and naps; now, we use it as an alternative to a foam changing table pad. 


4. Wipes. Before Oliver was born, I lovingly cut up a small pile of well worn and freshly laundered cotton dishcloths to be used as reusable baby wipes. Oh, how I righteously imagined the landfill space I’d be saving by eschewing disposables! Aaaaaand….then Oliver turned out to be the kind of baby who pooped every single time we changed his diaper, upwards of 10 times each day. Those reusable wipes got used exactly once, and we switched to disposable wipes for the long haul. We tried basically every single brand of “natural” baby wipe out there, and finally found our favorite. They’re made with just two ingredients: water and grapefruit seed extract. Unlike the other brands, these didn’t smell like a Sephora outlet (or worse), wad up like tissues, or come out of the package 30 at a time. We use them sparingly and buy in bulk.


5. Onesies. I didn’t know that “Onesies” were a brand-name until Oliver was born, since the name is now emblematic of this baby wardrobe essential. And to be sure, Oliver wore all manner of snap-up one-pieces in his infancy, most of them beautiful gifts from friends and relatives. My favorite for their gender neutrality, economy and simplicity turned out to be the white Gerber Onesies. The newborn size is, strangely, the highest-quality (the cotton is thicker and softer than in the larger incarnations), and they come in organic cotton, if that’s something you’re into. They also run a bit small, which was perfect for our little peanut. Still, any brand will do. Just keep a half-dozen on rotation (if not more). Oliver enjoyed working (pooping) through at least two a day in months one through three. 


Other essentials? Since our apartment is teeny-tiny and we live a ten-minute walk from all crucial amenities, we spent the first six months doing without most of what the infant-industrial-complex deems indispensable—including a crib, a stroller, a bouncy chair, a baby gym, a pack-n-play, a highchair, a pacifier, a car seat and a baby monitor—and we didn’t miss these items at all. If you live in a more spacious abode (not hard), have to drive to get places (likely), or just plain love shopping for baby gear (understandable), you may need or want these items. Lest you think we were strangely spartan (read: crazy) in the early months, rest assured that we did also find the following helpful, though they’re not listed above: a baby carrier; a cloth diaper service; a manual breast pump (I froze surplus milk in small Mason jars); coconut oil; a basketful of baby blankets; and coffee. Lots of coffee.

What about you guys? What are the must-haves on your lists?

PS. The links in this post were updated before the birth of Erin’s second child (January 2017).

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  • Reply sk June 10, 2014 at 2:12 pm

    This is a good list! I could have written a very similar one. So much depends on the particular baby, it seems. For us, our now-almost-two-year-old was a once-every-three-days pooper (still kind of is, we're working on it!) so we were good with the cloth wipes I made. I would also add a wrap for baby-wearing– like the Maya or similar, that works for tiny babe. And I remember being very very attached to the My Breast Friend pillow. I used to wear that thing around the house like an inter-tube 🙂 I've since given it away, and I'm going to try nursing baby #2 without it. We'll see.

    • Reply Caitlin June 13, 2014 at 2:49 pm

      Yes, baby wraps or soft carriers are crucial! Thanks for sharing! ~Caitlin

  • Reply Karen - Quilts...etc. June 10, 2014 at 2:21 pm

    although my baby years are very far behind me it is so nice to read of new mothers using cloth diapers as I did – disposables came in to fashion a year or so after and I most likely couldn't have afforded to buy them. We didn't have much money so baby items were kept to what was needed – diapers were washed at home in hot water, clean up was done with dish cloths or diapers cut up to use as rags – I did have a bouncy chair and a crib – other than that the floor was the play pen with a quilt for baby to lay on and play on – toys were kept to a minimum as I knew the baby would outgrow them quickly and I didn't have the money. I find it amazing what is "needed" for baby now and how much money the baby industry makes off of new parents – I think people always need to keep in mind that baby outgrows things very quickly. My two sisters and I were in the baby years at the same time and we were constantly sending boxes in the mail going between 3 states of what we no longer needed but one of the others did need.

    • Reply Caitlin June 13, 2014 at 2:50 pm

      You're so right: Erin and I are already seeing the benefits of having babies at the same time; we get to trade gear and re-use those items that are crucial for one baby one-month and obsolete the next! Thanks for reading! ~Caitlin

  • Reply emma summer June 10, 2014 at 2:23 pm

    I would have to include a baby carrier but everything you listed above were well worn in my house. I need to hear more about machine washing sheepskin! I tried once with kookaburra soap on gentle and it was a disaster!

    • Reply Caitlin June 13, 2014 at 2:50 pm

      Oh no, Emma! Sorry to hear about your sheepskin! Our great luck may be because ours is relatively short-haired, as opposed to the longer-haired versions? We wash ours at the laundromat in a high-capacity washer, all by itself. We use the cold water setting and a cold rinse, and load the washer with a capful of a gentle, non-toxic powder detergent called Charlie's Soap Laundry Powder. One container literally lasts 6 months or more…and we use it for all other machine-washed laundry, and in the sink for hand-washing diaper covers, too! Better luck next time! ~Caitlin

  • Reply Fey June 10, 2014 at 3:55 pm

    Totally agree with the five you listed above! I didn't have the sheepie but it sure sounds a lot better than the foam I had. For wipes, I remember using gauze and sometimes soft Viva papertowel wet with pure water to clean up my child.

    • Reply Caitlin June 13, 2014 at 2:51 pm

      Yes, gauze is really lovely, too, and easy to squeeze into small pockets when you're on the go. Thanks for reading, Fey! ~Caitlin

  • Reply moni.zuza June 10, 2014 at 4:03 pm

    I would highly recommend the Tidy Tot diapers. Unlike cotton, which gets stinky with time, the hemp diapers don't. Also, they have this awesome corn starch flushable component which makes the poopy diapers infinitely easier to deal with!

    • Reply Caitlin June 13, 2014 at 2:52 pm

      We'll have to check out the Tiny Tots! Now that Oliver's older, we do use the Real Nappies Diaper Liners, and you're right: they make changing poop diapers so much easier! An essential, for sure, for the 6-months+ stage. (Stay tuned!) ~Caitlin

  • Reply Anna June 10, 2014 at 4:56 pm

    We ended up with a lot of baby stuff because we have friends with slightly older children than ours, but we still skipped some of the things that the stores tell you are essential. No pack-n-play, for example, even though people keep telling me we should have one. No bottle warmer or sterilizer (big pot full of water on stove works for that). Our daughter's outgrown the baby bath, the baby gym, and the bouncy chair (baby to toddler size chairs only work if your kid can't wriggle out of them by the time they're seven months old), so those are getting re-homed or returned to their former owners. Most of the extra baby clothes have already been passed on to a friend with a newborn.

    I've discovered that even cloth diapers come with gadgets that aren't necessary. The one that baffles me is the diaper sprayer. We just use the toilet to rinse out the diapers before we wash them.

    • Reply Caitlin June 13, 2014 at 2:52 pm

      Hi Anna! Totally agree! I have to chuckle at the diaper sprayer, too. Thanks for reading! 🙂 ~Caitlin

  • Reply Tara T. R. June 10, 2014 at 10:23 pm

    Hi Erin and Caitlin!

    I have a question for you that's semi-unrelated. With the mention of white cloth diapers, white swaddles, and white cotton Onesies, I'm thinking that you guys probably have great recommendations for natural solutions for keeping white laundry white! I don't have a baby, but I do have a husband, and I've found that man sweat tends to seriously discolor white laundry. I use communal laundry machines with automated cycles, so I can't do anything that involves soaking for long periods of time. I've resorted to hot water and Tide with bleach alternative (plus Tide booster packets), which has been working well…but I know that those chemicals can't be good for us. Would love any tips that I can also use when we (hopefully) have a bebe of our own one day!

    • Reply Caitlin June 13, 2014 at 2:54 pm

      Hi Tara! Great question! As I mentioned above, we use Charlie's Soap Laundry Powder for all of our laundry–including baby laundry, hand-washables and regular machine-washing our clothes–and it has served us really well. It's cheap, nontoxic, fragrance-free…and it works! We also are at the mercy of commercial machines at the laundromat, so we don't use any special settings except for cool wash and rinse. Our diaper service also recommends a nontoxic cleaner for whites (and stains) called Oxy-Boost. I've never tried it, but they swear by it, and say it keeps whites white and lifts stains from colors. Maybe it will work for you! But let me be clear: there are some stains that can't be removed (or at least not with nontoxic cleaners)! We've had amazing luck keeping swaddles and diapers pretty much stain-free, but there are certain Onesies that are now lovely cleaning rags. 🙂 ~Caitlin

  • Reply Brooke Manolis June 11, 2014 at 1:29 am

    This is definitely helpful and many of these items are either already in my possession or I've been looking into them! Thanks for sharing!

    • Reply Caitlin June 13, 2014 at 2:54 pm

      Thanks for reading! ~Caitlin

  • Reply The Collector June 11, 2014 at 6:44 am

    I love this. It is SOOOO great! What did you use the coconut oil for? On the baby?

    • Reply Caitlin June 13, 2014 at 2:55 pm

      Yes! We use coconut oil on the bum…and we've never had diaper rash! (Maybe we've just been crazy-lucky, but I swear by the coconut oil). It's also useful for tiny chapped cheeks in the cold or when babies are teething, or to rehydrate dry patches on elbows or knees. And we use it as a mild post-scrape rub now that Oliver's a toddler, because it has antiseptic properties, too! ~Caitlin

  • Reply DontBlameTheKids June 11, 2014 at 12:57 pm

    Coconut oil is amazing. My babies had very sensitive skin, and it really helped. My other essential isn't really "gear," but it makes nursing a whole lot easier: Camisoles. I wear them under everything. That way I could just lift my shirt, pull down the cami neckline, and everything stayed covered. I nursed everywhere, and no one ever bothered me about it.

    • Reply Caitlin June 13, 2014 at 2:53 pm

      Yay for coconut oil! And yes: camis. I did this, too! Thanks for sharing! ~Caitlin

  • Reply Anonymous June 11, 2014 at 8:45 pm

    Erin, I would love to see a tour of your apartment post-baby, and your take on what baby things are necessary. Do you have a crib? What have you been able to do without? How did you avoid the influx of heinous plastic space takers?

  • Reply Anonymous June 12, 2014 at 1:07 pm

    I'd be also interested in the answer to Tara's question regarding natural whiteners.

    +Congrats to the bebe and the family, to the (relatively) new apartment, to the blog, to the posts of both of you and to the photoes of all of you and to the great comments from your readers!!!
    The very very best wishes to all of you, Ildi

    (ps. in Hungarian "leaves" and "letters" are the same word: "levelek", thus your blog title is a play with words in a word by word translation 🙂

    • Reply Caitlin June 13, 2014 at 2:55 pm

      Thanks for reading Ildi! So fun to hear about the Hungarian translation! ~Caitlin

  • Reply Idle Wife June 13, 2014 at 12:54 pm

    We bought absolutely nothing before our baby arrived. Thankfully, we moved to Finland in my last trimester so we were eligible to get the care package they give to new moms. It includes pretty much everything a person could need and the box it all comes in has a little mattress to act as the baby's first bed. It's probably about the most clever idea ever and perfect for our small apartment!

    We did break down and buy the baby bjorn bouncy chair. I definitely couldn't live without it since my sweets never liked being in a body carrier. I was doing a lot of stuff one-handed before so this has been a real life saver for us!

    I like your list of baby essentials. I would also like to add that if people don't want to cloth diaper, there are some pretty good natural eco diapers available these days. I really like the Naty brand. They work great and they also look great (no annoying cartoon characters).

    We've also since purchased a few minimal toys from IKEA (they actually have some nice options that aren't battery operated or ugly to look at). Now that she's learning what her hands are for, she's really enjoyed the added stimulation (=more videos for us)!

    • Reply Caitlin June 13, 2014 at 2:56 pm

      I'm so in awe of the Finnish care package! And yes, we use the Naty diapers, too, when we go on long trips away from home with Oliver! They work great. Thanks for sharing! ~Caitlin

  • Reply Anonymous June 17, 2014 at 7:14 am

    What covers do you use with your prefolds?

  • Reply Caitlin June 18, 2014 at 7:30 pm

    Erin and I both use the Real Nappies covers, available here ( as well as on sites like Amazon.

  • Reply Alyssa November 7, 2014 at 3:56 pm

    Hi! I would like to know what you use to wash your lambskin-charlie's soap as well? I just bought one for my newborn and would like to wash it first, but I've been confused about what to use. Do you just wash it on a gentle cycle and hang dry or do you dry it as well? Thanks!

  • Reply shannon January 16, 2016 at 8:00 pm

    Late to the party here, but a small sheepskin rug just for keeping babies comfy on hard surfaces is completely brilliant. And it can be used for other purposes after the baby years!

    • Reply Erin Boyle January 17, 2016 at 10:58 am


  • Reply Jess September 11, 2017 at 4:10 am

    Scrolling through your “Baby proof” series as I’m expecting a first baby myself for January. I currently live in Cambodia, where the weather is (very) hot and (very) humid. Do you have any extra advice gained from your hot New York summers? Are swaddles useful in a hot climate? I have a really hard time finding info and advice on little ones in tropical countries…

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