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Is All That Baby Gear Really Necessary?

Parents-to-be are confronted with many items of baby gear that are presented by the industry and our culture as "must-have" items: cribs, baby swings and bouncers, playpens, strollers, bottles and bottle-warmers, pacifiers, mobiles, and more. It can be a daunting task to decide whether each of these items is truly necessary and useful, especially for a new or expectant parent with little experience in the care of an infant. Yet most of the baby items sold today are not only unnecessary and expensive, but harmful. They are all substitutes for the more natural and beneficial things that only parents can give. Such items as swings and bouncers take the place of parent-and-baby play. Formula, bottles, and bottle warmers substitute for breast­feeding. Pacifiers take the place of nursing for comfort. Cribs take the place of co-sleeping, playpens take the place of holding, and strollers substitute for carrying.

Many of these items came about during the 1940's and 1950's, when our culture, focusing on post-war "modernization", saw mothering as yet another occupation that could benefit from modern inventions. While new household gadgets, such as dishwashers, vacuum cleaners, and washing machines have made housework easier, parenting-related items have only made life more difficult for both parents and children. It's far more likely that a child will look forward to sleeping next to a parent than sleeping alone in a crib, making bedtime a pleasure for everyone, instead of the most dreaded time of day.

Because our Stone Age babies with instinctual knowledge of their true needs expect natural, age-old approaches, substitute approaches will inevitably be resisted, leading to repeated conflicts. Such conflicts endanger the parent-baby relationship, and to what purpose? I feel deep sadness when I read about well-meaning but misinformed parents letting their baby "cry it out" in a crib. Not only is this process painful for all concerned, it accomplishes nothing worthwhile, and gives many harmful messages to the baby: that no one can be counted on in times of need, that they are not worth caring about, and - worst of all - that it's OK to disregard another person's needs and feelings as long as one holds the power in that relationship. These harmful messages can remain within the child as a general life philosophy long after the specific experiences have been forgotten.

Which items are truly useful and beneficial for new parents? Not very many: a king-size bed (or futons covering the bedroom floor) for cosleeping, a comfortable sling for carrying your baby, a breast­feeding pillow and footstool to make nursing easier, a nursing necklace (if needed), and, especially, heartfelt books, magazines, and articles on attachment parenting. As Marilyn Hogan wrote, "Baby equipment should only be used to enhance the bond between parents and baby." Unfortunately, many items on the market today can only damage that relationship.

Babies who are simply trying hard to have their legitimate needs met deserve much more. Fortunately, those needs - loving attention, breast­feeding, co-sleeping, and carrying, cost nothing at all to give, yet are the most important gifts of all.

Further reading:

Spanish translation

Hungarian translation

Adapted from Jan Hunt's column in the Mothering website "Ask the Experts" section.

Jan Hunt, M.Sc. is a parenting counselor, director of The Natural Child Project and author of The Natural Child: Parenting from the Heart and A Gift for Baby.