When my wife was three months pregnant — before we had told most of our friends we were expecting, but after it was pretty clear the pregnancy would stick — she started making a list of baby gear.
On the list went the obvious nursery staples (diapers, bottles, wipes) along with some higher-end items we’d register for: a matching Ubbi diaper pail and caddy set, a sleek stroller organizer, a $70 Hatch night light that could be controlled remotely via iPhone app and would “make bedtime magically simple,” according to the company’s website.
I didn’t object to any of her choices, but secretly I was skeptical. Didn’t babies survive for thousands of years without any of this stuff? Would our son really suffer if we changed his diapers on an old towel rather than on the $140, Instagram-worthy Keekaroo Peanut changing pad?
Partly, I’m cheap. But I also worried that we were falling for a marketing ploy by Big Baby, which preyed on the anxieties of first-time parents by selling us overpriced junk we didn’t need and wouldn’t use for more than a few months anyway. U.S. parents spend nearly $30 billion a year on baby products, according to an estimate from Grand View Research, a firm that tracks the industry. Much of that money goes for basic necessities like food and diapers, but an increasing number of families have started springing for higher-end luxuries like trendy toy subscriptions, electric wipe warmers and the Snoo, a divisive, $1,500 robotic bassinet that detects crying noises and, in theory, can gently rock a fussy baby back to sleep.
Before having a kid, I had always put high-end baby gear in the same category as high-end pet gear — something that people with extra disposable income bought to show off, but that didn’t matter at all to the actual users (the pets and babies). My career as a tech columnist had made me skeptical of most premium-tier gadgets, especially those with short life spans. And I worried that if we went overboard on baby gear, we’d end up with closets full of unused items — or, worse, with expensive things our kid would get addicted to, which we’d need to pay to replace when they inevitably broke or went missing.
Then there were the stupid, Seussian names of the baby products themselves — Bumbo, Bugaboo, Woombie, WubbaNub, MamaRoo, DockATot — none of which I particularly wanted to say out loud in my own home.
“What if we went the minimalist route?” I asked my wife one night. “No registry, no fancy gear. Just hand-me-downs and whatever’s cheapest, the stuff we absolutely need.”
My wife pretended to take me seriously. But in the end, she politely ignored me. And I’m glad she did. Because today, as the father of a 4-month-old son, I have morphed into a full-fledged Gear Dad.
Becoming a father has changed me in a hundred ways. But among the most visible changes is this: I now care passionately — possibly too passionately — about baby gear.
I can spot an Uppababy Vista V2 stroller at 100 paces. I have strong opinions on bottle-drying racks. (You want the upright OXO one rather than the Boon cactus garden one, which looks cute but takes up too much counter space.)
And if you’re in the market for a changing pad, I’ll regale you with praise for the $140 Keekaroo Peanut, including telling you why its raised edges and waterproof covering make it worth the steep price. (I’ll spare you the graphic details, but let’s just say that in certain diaper cleanup situations, you want to be dealing with lakes, not rivers.)
I got gear-pilled gradually, mostly during a period in my wife’s second trimester when I was feeling particularly anxious and unhelpful. I started spending long hours watching YouTube gear-review videos and wading through expectant-parent Reddit forums. Then, as my obsession deepened, I started researching supply-chain shortages, studying the inventories of online baby retailers and braving the backwaters of used gear on Facebook Marketplace.
In the third trimester, the acquisitions began. We got a great deal on a used Uppababy Vista, the Rolls-Royce of strollers, and chased down a compatible car seat that had been on back order for months. Registry gifts started arriving. A MamaRoo entered our house, followed by a WubbaNub.
At first, I worried that my baby gear fixation was a coping strategy — a misguided attempt to channel my anxiety into something that felt productive. My wife, after all, was the one giving birth. And while I couldn’t fix her pregnancy symptoms, or go to doctor appointments in her place, I could scour a hundred reviews of travel strollers. If I worried about baby gear, I reasoned, she wouldn’t have to.
WubbaNub pacifiers and a Wubbie blanket.Credit…Thomas McDonald
In the third trimester, armed with increasing amounts of baby gear knowledge, I became a one-man Wirecutter — rattling off product features and information about recalls, sending long lists of gear recommendations to other soon-to-be parents, stopping new dads on the street to trade notes on our Ergobaby carriers.
As annoying as it made me, I liked knowing about baby gear. My wife liked me knowing about baby gear. And I found, to my surprise, that learning about baby gear was forcing me to learn about babies themselves — what they like, what they dislike, what ages they grow into and out of certain behaviors. As the due date approached, I felt more prepared and less hapless than many of the other expectant first-time dads I met in our birthing classes, many of whom had outsourced the gear decisions to their wives.
And when my wife finally went into labor, three weeks early, I was ready. I drove her to the hospital confidently, well-stocked bags in tow, not worrying once about whether the car seat was properly installed.
Since our son’s birth, I’ve found that my interest in his gear has made me a better, more capable parent. I can field his pediatrician’s questions about formula types and nipple sizes without breaking a sweat, and I know exactly how many diapers to pack for a three-day trip. I’ve read the user’s manuals and watched the YouTube tutorials, and I can operate, clean and adjust the vast majority of our baby gear without any help. (No weaponized incompetence here!)
I’ve also become well versed in what gear not to buy. I’m a staunch believer that parents should spend as little money as possible on baby clothing, for example, and no money at all on things that are designed to be peed, pooped, vomited or spilled on, including bibs and burp cloths. (An old dish towel works fine.) I wouldn’t buy the fancy, Montessori-style wooden toys that are all the rage in Brooklyn and Berkeley these days. And while I don’t begrudge anyone for putting a priority on convenience, I think any parents who pay $300 for the Baby Brezza Formula Pro Advanced — a Wi-Fi-enabled, Keurig-style machine that mixes and warms formula bottles for you with the press of a button — should have their taxes raised.
Gear can’t solve every parenting problem, of course. It can’t quiet a colicky baby, teach a toddler to walk or help a picky eater clean her plate. And families that can’t afford tons of gear, or choose to spend their money in other ways, will no doubt raise perfectly healthy, happy babies without it.
But there is something satisfying about giving into the gear itch, just a little. Because gear is, frankly, tremendous. It represents our progress as a species — each pacifier, diaper pail and bottle brush an expression of the Promethean itch to harness technology to bring order to a chaotic universe. And for new parents — a group with plenty of chaos in their lives — having the right gear can help us feel more in control, less at fate’s mercy.
In my research, I’ve learned that good baby gear falls into three basic categories.
One is the gear you don’t actually pay for. I can’t say enough good things, for example, about the Snoo bassinet our friends lent to us, mostly because I didn’t shell out $1,500 for it myself. And you’ll never hear me complain about the bags of clothes we got as hand-me-downs from our friends — even the onesie that reads, “I’M CUTE, MOM’S CUTE, DAD’S LUCKY.”
The second category of good baby gear is the stuff that you pay dearly for but that meaningfully reduces stress and/or preserves sanity for at least one parent.
Did we need the slim, battery-operated Elvie portable breast pump? Strictly speaking, no. My wife already had a normal breast pump, lent to us by the hospital. But the portable pump radically improved her life during the first few months by allowing us to drive to the beach or take a walk in the park, without worrying about staying close to a power outlet.
Be careful with this category, though, because not everything that is sold as a convenience actually relieves stress. We decided, for example, not to buy the Owlet Smart Sock, a $250 wearable baby monitor that sends your child’s heart rate and oxygen levels to an iPhone app. Why? Because having access to that information would have turned us into psychopaths who checked our phones every two minutes to make sure our sleeping baby was still alive.
The third type of worthwhile baby gear is the fun, frivolous stuff that doesn’t cost too much and brings you joy as a parent. The $4 pack of bath toys I bought for my son at Target fit this category. So did the $7 onesie that looks like a crab, complete with little crab feet, which he wore exactly twice before outgrowing it. Neither was a necessity, but they didn’t break the bank, and if they made us smile during the hard, tearful first weeks of parenthood … well, that’s worth something.
Do you need WubbaNubs and MamaRoos to be a good parent? Absolutely not. Am I a sucker lured in by the baby-industrial complex? Possibly. But I’ve come to see our baby gear as a valuable set of tools — to keep my son entertained and comfortable, of course, but also to help me become the kind of present, attentive dad I want to be. And when my son is older, I’ll give his baby gear away to other anxious first-time parents, looking for their own paths through parenthood.