The Only Things Your Baby Needs


Jail is an interesting place to observe parenting in practice. I’ve been alternately appalled and impressed by the methods mothers employ to placate and distract their youngsters during the interminable process of waiting in line to visit a friend in jail. Moms can’t let their child run around or throw a tantrum for fear of losing the opportunity to visit their incarcerated loved one. Neither can corporal punishment be doled out lest authorities accuse these women of abuse. Between shushings, treats from the minimal resources available are doled out generously (everything must pass through the metal detector after all) as is affectionate touch and genuine attention. One recent visit to the jail led me to consider what is actually necessary for raising children.
I decided to Google baby necessities, and I came across an article titled, “The Only Five Things You Need for a Baby.” I was fascinated to see her list of essentials: car seat, crib, stroller, bouncy seat and baby bottles.
So much is said about culture and socioeconomic status in those choices. What material belongings do mothers from other cultures deem necessary? While I’ve seen books that deal with what people in various countries eat or own, I’ve never seen one dedicated to the material aspect of raising kids. Any publishers out there? Ahem. Even here in the States indispensible parenting items are in flux so each family has to create its own standards. When I think about the families I’ve nannied for over the years, I remembered those who had forgone a crib, similar to the Montessori school I worked at for two years— we used mats on the floor. Some families preferred a sling to another carrier like a stroller. I’ve known plenty of people who managed without a bouncy seat. And if the baby breastfeeds exclusively, bottles aren’t really necessary in theory, although that makes outside childcare challenging.
In the comments section of the “Five Things” article, people included additions to the list: a pacifier,  portacrib (both I would say are superfluous, especially after seeing the mothers at the prison), a rocking chair, baby monitor and high chair. Basic clothing wasn’t included among the necessities—that is also a cultural construct. I’ve seen almost naked babies the world over. Clothing is itself relative. Is it possible that even five items are above and beyond what’s crucial?
Continuing my search for baby necessities, I discovered lists so brief they didn’t need all five spaces: diapers, clothes/blankets, sling/carrier and car seat. I was impressed that fat cat Americans can actually prioritize very well. Another list focused on where to skimp then splurge when it comes to infants, ranking breast pumps, organic baby food and wooden toys over fancy strollers. And I’m inclined to agree. My own strategy is to take the baby to the local thrift store and let him test the toys; I observe what holds his interest over a minute or two.
As both the aforementioned lists are oriented toward infants, I looked up what parents really need for toddlers. The same helpful “Five Things” author had compiled a list that included a car seat and stroller but now also suggested sippy cups, potty and crayons. I have to give it to her for the crayons because they focus on children’s creative as opposed to material needs. Many of the mothers I saw in line at jail handed out crayons to keep their children entertained. The potty could be removed if parents went whole hog on elimination communication, which is what the rest of the world does. From my time working as a Montessori teacher, I know the community disapproves of sippy cups wholesale. When it comes down to it, children can flourish without a lot of what we deem essential.
Parents can let their toddler eat with adult-sized utensils (antique silverware is tiny anyway) and diapers can be changed on a towel on the bed instead of a special mat or table. Parents don’t even have to invest in a home library as long as frequent trips to the library mean books are always on hand. Crayons, though, as a mode of self-expression, are paramount even with the risk to the walls.
Everyone knows that baby will inevitably still lust after your cell phone and keys no matter how many other toys are within easy reach. A used calculator or remote without the batteries instantly becomes a favored toy. Kitchen utensils hold unprecedented appeal.  When I have kids, my plan is to invest in a large set of Tupperware and call it a day. “Keep one end full and the other end dry,” said one contributor, condensing the matter into its most basic elements. What would be on your list?


  1. The bare essentials for a baby are I think Mum and a sling. Everything else is an extra depending on your situation and wants. I’ve written an article on thinking about what you actually want or need. For me personally the list was a few baby suits, at least one sling, a set of cloth nappies, reusable wipes, a waterproof sheet for a changing mat, nappy bucket and because we do travel by car sometimes a car seat. There is a brilliant book, sadly out of print called Baby Wisdom, written by Deborah Jackson which looks at childcare through out the world and starts with a chapter looking at this very issue.

  2. Very interesting post! I agree that that list reveals the excess that we live in. These are the essentials for my family:

    1) breast
    2) cloth diapers/wraps
    3) blankets to swaddle
    4) sling
    5) car seat

    We always washed her bum in the sink, so no need for wipes. For the first few months she really didn’t need clothes… she was content to be swaddled in blankets most of the time. She took a shower or bath with me, so no need for a special tub. She co-slept with us, so no crib, baby monitor or special mattress. (Besides, in our 1 bdrm apartment, a baby monitor would have been silly). She was too little for a stroller. Our lack of ‘stuff’ made it easy for us to travel with her to Southern Europe and China.

    Here is my list for her as a toddler:

    1) a couple sets of clothes
    2) potty
    3) healthy snacks (banana, grapes, cheese)
    4) cloth diapers and wraps (just in case!)
    5) car seat

    The snacks prove to be wonderful bribes. She pretty much can walk anywhere and hold my hand, so no use for sling or stroller. She can use the toilet, but her little potty allows her to go on her own without my assistance. I also like to still put a diaper on her when we go out, even though she will use public restrooms. Car seat is a ‘must’ in the US.


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