Ah, the shopping, the shopping. In some countries, at your first ante-natal clinic appointment, the mere act of giving over your name and address means that you will be bombarded with marketing materials asking you to spend your hard earned cash on any number of allegedly essential items. Special sets of headphones to hear the baby’s heartbeat when you are at home resting your pregnant belly. Little sheepskin rugs to put in your stroller that promise that most elusive of states for a new parent, a good night’s sleep. Nifty little devices to heat up baby bottles. Creams, lotions and potions to turn your offspring into a fragrant little bundle that is perpetually smiling, like the child on the side of the non biological soap powder packet you are advised to buy.
It would be lovely if all this worked in making you the perfect parent, and your offspring the perfect child. You don’t really need me to tell you that it never will, of course. So let’s analyse what you do need in order to care for a small person arriving in your home for the first time, with Austerity Housekeeping’s simple layette. Here are the basic requirements, which probably haven’t changed in the last 100 years apart from the introduction of slightly more modern fabrics suitable to machine washing.
6 cotton vests
First layer next to the skin, If you buy plain white ones, they are cheapest and then you will be able to put everything into a light coloured wash. If it’s hot, babies can be left kicking around with just a vest on (or even just a nappy). You might want to buy one pack of vests with poppers that do up underneath the nappy, and another pack that just come down to the top of the nappy, and tie closed with little ribbons. I’ll explain why in a minute.
6 cotton all in one suits
Second layer, on top of the vests. These can be used for day and night, and again, if you buy them in white or light colours, this means that everything can be washed together. Light coloured suits seem to fade less as well, making the suits more suitable for handing down to younger siblings or neighbours’ children.
Comparatively few people understand why these are useful. If you try to imagine the kind of sleep deprivation astronauts and victims of torture experience, you will be approaching the levels of sleep deprivation experienced by large numbers of new parents in the early days. Yet your baby will still need feeding and changing in the middle of the night, often more than once, despite the fact that you feel weak and tearful as you are woken up in disbelief from a deep sleep for the third or fourth time that night. If your baby is wearing a short vest with ribbons and a nightie, all you have to do to change him or her is whip up the bottom half of the outfit and masterfully change one nappy for another. Most parents can practically do this in their sleep. It is infinitely simpler than messing about with poppers and all in one suits. For this reason and this reason alone, I urge everyone to go Victorian and start using baby nighties at bedtime. Plus they look wonderful in family photos.
Get people knitting. Get yourself knitting. Buy some from a Women’s Institute sale, or if you have to, go to a store. These go on top of all in one suits and baby nighties as an extra layer of warmth. They are also quite nostalgically cute at times.
Babies lose a lot of heat through the head, thanks to having hairstyles resembling that of a middle aged man with male pattern baldness a lot of the time (I suppose it’s to avoid mothers having to give birth to someone sporting a ponytail or suchlike, which would be disturbing to say the least). In summer, babies need little cotton sunhats, and in winter warmer ones such as wool or fleece. I know that’s an obvious statement, but it’s in there for the purposes of completeness.
2 pairs of mittens
Useful if you are heading outside in the cold, or if your baby tends to scratch his or her face a lot whilst flailing about. The Edward Scissorhands look is never a good one in the very young.
2 pairs of bootees or socks
Always put on, always lost, so some parents end up going for special leather bootees that stay on more reliably.
These are very lightweight cloths that serve a multitude of purposes. They can mop up bodily fluids emanating from mother and child (and there will be copious amounts of these). They can ensure discretion when breastfeeding (a skilled breastfeeding mother can drape a muslin so nobody need ever know they have their front pulled out ready for action, if that seems to matter at the time). They can act as an impromptu sun shade or sunhat. They can be pulled out of the changing bag to wipe slides when older offspring decide a quick go around the park is essential. They can even make an emergency nappy if you put a plastic supermarket bag over the top and knot it inventively. You need muslins for your own sanity.
Terrific for holding the baby in for photo calls, and as an extra blanket. He or she can also be put down to lie on it and kick around a bit, if the mood takes you.
Coat or outdoor suit
For the first 10 days, babies usually stay at home or very close to home, not least because it avoids them getting colds and bugs from other people, which makes it difficult for them to feed. After that, if it’s cold outside then investment in an outer layer is a good idea. You can usually get ones that resemble ski jackets with legs, or wool ones, and they are readily available second hand as they are not worn for long.
I used disposable nappies, as my children suffered from wet eczema if I used cotton nappies, but other parents swear by reusables. You either need a small pack of newborn sized disposables, or a couple of what they call ‘wraps’ (water resistant outer layers) and a couple of dozen cotton liners to go inside, plus a cheap nappy bucket with a lid to dry pail them until you want to wash them in the machine (essentially that means they don’t need soaking, but you just scrape off the worst excesses into the toilet and leave the cotton liner in the bucket with the lid on until you have collected enough of them together to bung in the washing machine). You also have a choice between disposable wet wipes, or using cheap cotton flannels with a bit of baby soap and water. Some people use baby lotion and cotton wool balls, but I like to hand something substantial in my hand so I feel as though I am doing a thorough job of the wiping. Finally a changing mat is necessary, and a travel version that folds up and goes in your handbag is helpful as well, or a proper changing bag (some stores give these away for free in exchange for your personal data for marketing purposes).