Feel like you’re drowning in a sea of strollers and car seats? Consider this guide the lifeguard on duty. We’ve packed it with practical information and expert input, so you can make smart choices and select gear that suits your budget, style and needs. It’s sure to be a lifesaver, so hang on tight.
Choosing your kiddo’s first set of wheels is no small task. Indeed, there seem to be as many models of strollers as there are cars. Before overwhelming yourself with options, size up your wants and needs. “Knowing your lifestyle will navigate you toward the proper type of stroller for your family,” promises Hollie Schultz of Baby Gizmo.
“Are you a city parent who frequently uses public transportation? Are you a country mom who navigates gravel and uneven terrain often? Are you a suburban, minivan-driving mom who [has space to] haul the biggest possible stroller?” Schultz queries. Answering these questions can help define your needs—like a compact fold, all-terrain tires or car seat compatibility—and narrow the playing field.
Once you’ve determined the deal-breakers, consider convenience factors. “Do you like a big basket? Are snack trays and parent trays a must-have for you?” asks Schultz. If you and your partner are different heights, an adjustable handlebar can ensure you both enjoy a comfortable push. A one-hand fold allows you to collapse the stroller while you have a baby on your hip, an extra-large canopy provides ample sun protection, and a flat recline is ideal for napping on the go.
Height and weight limitations, as well as seat size, will determine how long you’re able to use the product. And the weight of the stroller itself should not be overlooked, as you’ll be acutely aware of it every time you haul it up the subway stairs or heave it into the trunk of your car.
Decide whether you want one stroller that can do it all or multiple strollers that are tailored to specific activities (say a jogging stroller for outdoor adventures and an umbrella stroller for travel). Then go to the store, push the floor models around, and get a sense for how they work in person. While reading reviews can certainly help steer you toward good choices, they’re no stand-in for firsthand interaction.
Most parents opt for an infant car seat, also known as a bucket seat or pumpkin seat, for the first six months to a year (depending on baby’s size). An infant car seat works with a base that stays in the car, so it can be conveniently clicked in and out. This makes it easy to get baby buckled securely before leaving the house, and it means you don’t necessarily have to wake a sleeping tot when you head into a store or restaurant.
All car seats undergo rigorous testing and are certified safe, but proper usage is imperative. “Car seat misuse is rampant,” warns Jamie Grayson of TheBabyGuyNYC. “Studies suggest 70-80 percent of seats are misused.” Look for a seat with a simple installation process, as well as visible and audible indicators that can confirm the seat is tightened securely and positioned at the right angle.
“A car seat that is easy to install in your vehicle—the right way, every time—is very important,” says Schultz. “Many stores allow you to take car seats out to your car to practice installing and to see if they’re a good fit for you.” Don’t be shy about taking them up on the offer.
Beyond ease of installation, the weight of the seat should factor in. “They all get heavy once a kid hits 20 pounds,” explains Grayson, “so if you start with a lighter seat, it won’t be as bad on your back while you’re carrying it around.” Some handles are more comfortable than others, so sling the seats over your arm to see which feels best to you.
Other noteworthy features include stroller compatibility, which allows you to attach the car seat to your stroller for use as a travel system; a no-rethread harness, which makes it simple to adjust the harness straps to accommodate your growing babe; and the size of the seat and base, which can affect how much room is available for additional back seat passengers. Canopy size and the breathability of the fabric are other traits to bear in mind.
Remember: Baby has to come home from the hospital in a car seat. Grayson recommends looking for a model with a low weight limit in case your bundle weighs fewer than 5 pounds.
In addition to the laundry list of benefits babywearing provides (turn to page 80 for the complete rundown), it also offers the invaluable ability to get things done—even with a baby in arms—thanks to a hands- free hold.
It can take a bit of practice to become comfortable with a carrier, but it’s well worth the effort. Grayson recommends that parents begin with a stretchy wrap. “They are very easy to use, and you won’t have to really worry about sizing between parents,” he says. “While you can use most soft-structured carriers for newborns, I highly recommend buying a separate wrap or newborn-specific carrier for the first six months or so,” agrees Meg Collins of Lucie’s List. (Slings are another newborn-friendly choice.) “It’s such a critical period for mom to regain her confidence about getting back out into the world, and a good baby carrier will give her a ‘Yes, I can’ attitude.”
Instructional videos are hugely helpful and widely available online, says Grayson, who also recommends contacting your local Babywearing International chapter for help.
Don’t think you’ll need (or want) just one carrier, though. “It’s common for people to have multiple carriers for various needs,” Grayson explains. After the wrap, he likes to introduce a soft-structured carrier, which can provide additional support for bigger babes, as well as for mama’s back.
Different carriers can be used in different positions, so think about whether you want to be able to hold baby on your front facing inward or outward, on your hip or on your back. If you intend to use the carrier from birth, look for an option that can be used with an infant insert or that boasts a low weight minimum.
Planning to share babywearing duties with your partner? Choose a carrier that’s guy-friendly in terms of style and size. And for the sake of both mom and dad, the less complicated, the better.
Although their lifespan is short, “an infant tub is essential in the first half-year,” maintains Collins. “A kitchen sink is a perfectly suitable bathing venue, but only after 6 months of age when baby can sit up unassisted. Until then, it’s extremely difficult to wash your baby and keep him from going under at the same time.”
Some tubs are designed for multiple stages, so you can use it from the time baby’s umbilical cord falls off through the toddler years. “Look for one with a sling or hammock for the newborn days, which can be removed when outgrown,” Collins says.
Think about where you want to use the tub, advises Lindsey Krummenacher of The Wise Baby. If you’re planning to use it anywhere other than a full-sized bathtub, “measure to make sure your preferred tub will fit.” Worried about an aching back from bending over? Pick a product that can be used in the kitchen or bathroom sink.
Also think about where the tub will be stored, Krummenacher says. Choose a tub that can be hung on the back of the bathroom door if space is a concern.
Aesthetics will no doubt play a role in your highchair selection, as it will be a fixture in your kitchen for a least a couple years. Styles range from sleek to handsome to traditional, but even the best-looking seats must also be practical in order to truly win a parent’s approval. “The No. 1 highchair feature that parents need to keep in mind is how easy it is to clean,” says Schultz. Early eaters are messy, so steer clear of cracks and crevices and instead go for wipeability.
Krummenacher reminds parents to think about a chair’s ability to grow with their child. “Many of the popular highchairs on the market have a suggested minimum age of 6 months,” she says. “These days babies start solids as early as 4 months, so think about how you might bridge that gap when choosing your highchair.” As your baby grows, some chairs offer the option to convert to boosters or toddler seats.
Parents should consider whether they want a highchair that stands alone or pulls up to the family table. What you choose will likely be based on how much real estate you have available and how often you anticipate eating meals alongside your munchkin.
“Tray size isn’t super important,” notes Schultz, “but having one that can easily be removed with one hand is.” It might not seem pertinent as an expectant parent, but you’ll quickly come to appreciate it when you begin using the chair. Think about it: You’ll likely have only one arm free to remove the tray because, the majority of the time, baby will be occupying the other.
“Reclining seats are fabulous for when your little one falls asleep mid-meal or wants to lie back with a bottle,” says Schultz. “And if you’re short on space, a foldable highchair is great.” But neither is essential, she adds—they’re simply icing on the cake.
Bassinets & co-sleeping devices
The safest place for baby to sleep is in her own sleep space in the same room as mom and dad, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. For this reason, many parents use a bassinet or co-sleeping device for baby’s first weeks or months of life.
“I used a play yard with a bassinet feature with all three of my kids,” says Schultz, who likes that she could use the play yard function after her babies had outgrown the bassinet. “It’s all about versatility with me.”
Krummenacher touts an inclined sleeper/lounger as “a new mom’s best friend.” “It’s a perfect place for newborns to rest,” she says. “The incline is great for babies with acid reflux … and it’s completely portable.” Parents can move it from room to room, and it can easily be folded and packed up for trips to Grandma’s. “My girls slept exclusively in theirs during their first weeks at home, and it was a lifesaver.”
Bassinets and sleepers have a small footprint, especially compared to a crib, so it’s easy to find space for one in mom and dad’s room. Co-sleeping devices pull up to—and often attach to—the adult bed, keeping baby extra close and accessible for nighttime feeding and soothing. For exhausted postpartum mamas, the proximity can’t be beat.
Even though she won’t likely sleep in it right away, parents usually have the crib ready well before baby’s arrival. It’s this pièce de résistance that makes the nursery look like, well, a nursery. And the process of assembling and positioning the crib is often what makes the whole we’re-having-a-baby thing seem real.
When purchasing a crib, “Safety should be the No. 1 consideration,” says Krummenacher. “But with the rules and regulations in the marketplace today, almost all cribs are universally safe when used correctly.” As long as you’re buying a new crib from a trusted vendor (and not a drop-side crib from a tag sale), your crib will meet safety guidelines, and you can rest easy.
Cribs are available in a variety of styles—from timeless and traditional to modern and minimalist—and can set the tone for baby’s room. Have fun finding the one you love!
Although the sleeping space in a crib is standardized, the furniture itself can be sizable or streamlined, so take the nursery’s square footage into account as you make your selection. Mini cribs are also available and are a wise buy for city dwellers. Keep in mind, though, that baby will outgrow it faster.
Convertible cribs offer the option to transform into a toddler bed when your tot is ready to make the transition. Although you could wait to buy the conversion kit until you need it, you’d be wise to buy it with the crib, in case the model is discontinued.
Crib mattresses receive little fanfare—after all, they mostly look the same and will be covered by a crib sheet anyway—but they’re deserving of some attention (and dollars). “To me, the mattress is one of the top products to invest in,” says Grayson. “Better mattresses are made with better materials —end of story.”
Babies spend a lot of time sleeping (up to 18 hours a day as newborns!), which can amount to a lot of hours logged in their cribs, up close and personal with their mattresses, so make sure you’re comfortable with the materials used inside. Flame-retardants, synthetic latex and polyurethanes are generally best avoided. Certifications like Oeko-Tex Standard 100, Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) and GREENGUARD Certification are reputable and reassuring.
The mattress should be firm and fit inside the crib without any gaps on the sides. If you can fit more than two fingers between the mattress and the crib, the combination is not safe for sleeping.
Travel beds & play yards
Whether you plan to travel across the country or across town, a travel bed can provide a portable place for baby to rest. “If you’re a road-tripper, look for ease of setting up primarily,” advises Corrine Stokoe of Mint Arrow. “But if you know you’ll be flying a lot, look for something lightweight. You won’t want to lug a super heavy travel crib along with all your other luggage and gear through the airport.” The size of the collapsed product matters, too, especially if you’ll need to fit it in a packed trunk or overhead bin.
While play yards can be used for travel, they tend to be a little bulkier. (Most families find they work best in a two-story house, serving as a secondary baby station on the level without the nursery.) Choose one that’s decked out with all the bells and whistles to enjoy a bassinet, changing center, extra storage and more.
If you anticipate only needing a safe, contained place for baby to play once she’s on the move, a pared down option can offer ample room and serve you well, whether in the family room, the backyard or at the beach.
A diaper bag will be one of your most used—and most publicly used—pieces of baby gear as you’re unlikely to leave the house without it. It’s definitely more for mom than it is for baby, so don’t think it has to be pink, blue or cutesy.
“I recommend mom think of her diaper bag as her new ‘it’ accessory,” says Schultz. “Make your choice like you would your handbag.” If you love a leather tote, look for a similar style that’s made for baby’s belongings. If you prefer a pop of color and a little hardware, rest assured there’s a bag out there to please.
“Fashion is more important than I would’ve guessed in the beginning,” admits Stokoe. “If you choose a bag for function over fashion, but you aren’t in love with it, you’re probably not going to use it very much.”
Looks aside, there are practical considerations, of course. “The most important features in a diaper bag are durability and washability,” says Collins. “Your diaper bag will take a lot of abuse, so … find one that’s built to last. And because all manner of fluids will be spilled on your bag at some point or another, look for one that washes easily, especially on the inside.”
Plenty of pockets can help with organization (though too many could be difficult to keep up with), and a light-colored interior prevents the black hole effect. A zippered top stops items from falling out. (“The diaper bag I originally purchased didn’t have a zipper, and it drove me crazy how often all the contents would spill out in the car,” shares Stokoe.) A bag that starts off heavy will become even more so when filled with baby essentials, so aim to begin with one that’s lightweight.
Designs with multiple carrying styles are a plus. For example, backpacks can be a convenient option if you’re wearing baby on your front, but a messenger-style bag provides easier access if you’re constantly reaching for snacks or a sippy cup.
Keep in mind that you could carry your diaper bag for up to three years (per child), so it’s worth investing in a bag you love.
Under the Affordable Care Act, most nursing moms are eligible for breastfeeding support, counseling and equipment through their insurance —and that includes a free breast pump. Check with your provider to find out what kind of pump coverage your plan offers, and get your doctor’s recommendation as well. Many insurance providers will cover what your doctor deems medically necessary.
“Look for something you can pump both sides with, especially if you plan on pumping exclusively or even frequently,” suggests Stokoe. A double electric breast pump fits the bill perfectly and is a good choice for moms who intend to continue breastfeeding after returning to work. These work- horses express both breasts simultaneously for the most efficient milk retrieval. Extras to look for include a tote, cooler bag and bottles, which make it easy to transport everything to and from the office.
An occasional pumper—perhaps a stay-at-home-mom who is away from her baby only a few hours a week—might be able to make do with a single electric pump, which boasts a significantly smaller price tag than a double electric. A single electric can express only one breast at a time; however, it can be used while baby feeds from the other side. Manual breast pumps are highly effective—if labor intensive—and are ideal for engorgement relief. They’re very affordable and a handy low-tech tool to have for pumping emergencies.
Rockers & gliders
Whether you choose a rocker, a glider or even an armchair, you’ll be spending substantial time in it as you feed, cuddle and soothe your little one. “If you can afford a rocker or glider, great! You’ll both enjoy the soothing motion it offers,” says Collins. “However, a simple club chair can also do the trick— as long as it’s comfortable.”
Make sure you and your partner both sit in the chair to ensure the backrest is high enough to be supportive and the seat is not so deep your feet can’t touch the floor. A glider that’s too plush may be hard to get out of (especially with a sleeping baby in your arms), but a too-hard rocker will be apparent when you’re nursing for an hour at a time. It’s perfectly acceptable to channel Goldilocks and get picky. In this scenario, “just right” really is key.
The ability to recline is welcome, as is a footrest or separate ottoman. “Arm rests are a must for nursing or feeding,” Collins adds.
Remember, she says, “It’s a chair you’ll use for years (and perhaps for multiple children), so look for one that will last.”
Bouncers, swings, activity centers, doorway jumpers and the like all fall into the entertainers category, and for many parents, they can be a godsend.
“For the 0-6 month phase, it’s really helpful to have a safe [place] where baby can entertain herself or grab a nap, so you can get things done,” says Collins.
But is a swing preferable to a bouncer? Or a rocker to a lounger? It all depends on your baby. Because it’s impossible to predict what your little one will like, start with practical measures. Swings tend to take up more room, so space constraints might influence your decision. “Make sure [the entertainer] is lightweight and portable, so you can move it from room to room,” suggests Collins.
It’s generally wise to start with one option and then add to your collection as needed. The exception, Collins says: “If you have a two-story house, get one for each floor, so you don’t have to schlep it up and down the stairs—especially if you’ve had a C-section.”
Depending on personal preference, you may opt for a high-tech entertainer that’s battery-powered and compatible with your smartphone, or you might go with something a little quieter that’s moved by baby’s kicks or a gentle push.
Most reclined entertainers (including bouncers, loungers and swings) will be used for the first six months or so. “After 6 months, baby will enjoy upright delights, such as a saucer or doorway jumper,” says Collins. “They’re not totally necessary, but the more tools you have in your arsenal, the better.
MEET THE EXPERTS
Jamie Grayson, also known as TheBabyGuyNYC, is an actor-turned-baby-gear-guru who speaks at parenting events around the country.
Hollie Schultz is a mom of three and the founder of Baby Gizmo, a real-world product testing and research coalition of moms, pediatricians and child development experts.
Meg Collins is a mom of two and the editor of Lucie’s List, a site for new moms that covers all the things she wishes someone had told her as a first-time mama.
Lindsey Krummenacher is a mom of two and founder of The Wise Baby, a virtual gear and registry resource for savvy parents.
Corrine Stokoe is a mom of one (with another on the way!) and the founder of Mint Arrow, a high-end deal site that curates the best buys for your buck.
Guide to Gear
Image: Wedig & Laxton