In the months before the birth of my first child just over a year ago, I often lay awake at night letting parenting anxieties swirl. Chief among these was a decision that now seems trivial but at the time seemed crucial: What should our baby sleep in?
The best option, according to the online sources I consulted, was the Snoo—a $1,695 “smart” bassinet that responds to a baby’s cries with soothing rocking motions. I could have taken this recommendation and moved on; instead, I dwelled. Buying the “world’s smartest and safest baby bed,” as the Snoo claims to be, did seem like the responsible choice. But generations of babies have slept fine without a Snoo, so surely we didn’t really need it. Then again, now that such a thing exists, shouldn’t I take advantage of it? But was spending that much money financially irresponsible, given my budget? And was it even really the best option out there, anyway? Could there be something even better?
Almost every potential baby purchase consumed me in this way. I studied reviews of strollers that sold for more than a grand, and dragged my partner to a big-box store to sit in various nursery gliders, testing them for comfort and fit. Unsure of which pacifiers or swaddles to get, I added sample boxes to my registry so that my newborn could try a host of options, and I could assess which she liked best. Apparently, the modern baby is a product reviewer in her own right. Before this, I’d found little need to scour the internet for the world’s finest tweezers or the toaster to rule all toasters. But this time felt different. I was responsible for another person, and even a binkie felt painfully consequential.
Although people have always been able to consult their friends, sales clerks, and even magazines about products, the internet has introduced a new slate of resources—such as recommendation lists, comment sections, and Amazon reviews—telling you what you should and shouldn’t buy. We are living in an age of optimization. For parents, the pressure is even more intense. When you have a baby on the way, buying a stroller doesn’t feel like just buying a stroller; it feels like a measure of your value as a parent and your child’s future success—or lack thereof.
Steven Abelowitz, a pediatrician with Coastal Kids in Orange County, told me that he’s seen new-parent anxiety worsen in recent years among his patients. Parents may have always wanted to do everything possible for their child, but social media has intensified that desire while also making the process of choosing what’s best more overwhelming. Almost immediately after I learned I was expecting, my Instagram feed was flooded with baby products. Videos for fancy diapers promised better sleep—a prospect that seriously tempted me during the peak of my exhaustion, even though the diapers cost twice as much as Pampers. The website for one high-tech baby monitor claimed to let parents “track the health, wellness, and development of their baby,” leading me to wonder if I’d be depriving our child of good health without it.
New parents are especially vulnerable to this type of messaging, because child-rearing feels—and is—incredibly high stakes. Describing products as “essentials” or “must haves” can make parents feel that their children can’t thrive without them. Even worse, it equates certain kinds of consumption with responsible parenting.
Take toys, for example. After I got pregnant, among the first Instagram ads I saw were for high-end toy subscriptions such as Lovevery, which claimed to deliver “stage-based play essentials for your child’s developing brain”; the version for infants comes every two months and costs $80 a box. On reading this, I immediately felt guilty about not having the kit. Other companies sold beautifully crafted toys marketed as part of the Montessori or Waldorf schools of early-childhood education, sometimes for more than $100 an item. The accounts of wealthy families showed items like these displayed in pristine nurseries, tantalizing me with a lifestyle that felt just out of my grasp.
The illusion that choosing a fancy plaything (or any other baby product) could help your child lures in many parents. “Companies know we’re stressed, and they play on that,” Hayley DeRoche, a parent and TikToker who’s known for mocking toy ads, told me. The products promise a shimmer of control over a process that’s filled with uncertainty. I may not be able to shield our child from bullies and climate disaster, or pay private-school tuition, but a $96 stacking rainbow? That’s (more) within my reach.
The underlying assumption for many parents is that if they follow the right consumption formula, they can ensure their child’s success—the idea that “if you just put in the right inputs, you’ll get the right outputs,” as Sarah Jaffe, the author of Wanting What’s Best: Parenting, Privilege, and Building a Just World, put it to me. Indeed, channeling generalized parenting worries into a manageable focal point, such as picking the right bassinet, can offer relief, as can relying on the judgment of an expert (or even just an influencer or Amazon reviewer) when deciding what to buy. Someone has made the hard choice for us, at least in one small area, and it’s one less thing to potentially get wrong. Even the work of sorting through reviews and recommendation lists, which takes a lot of time and energy, can feel like good parenting—a noble sacrifice made in the interest of our future kin.
Most parents don’t really believe that smart shopping decisions will override the systemic hurdles facing their children. I certainly don’t. But that doesn’t keep me from fixating on small decisions. In this hypercompetitive economy, it can feel like there’s little room for error. Even those with financial security might lose their footing. And the stakes for buying the “wrong” thing are higher for those with tighter budgets. A bad purchase is, after all, wasted money.
But those concerned about not having the money or time to procure what the internet hive mind has deemed top-of-the-line need not worry. According to the experts I spoke with, there’s not enough research to say that fancy gear actually makes a difference in a baby’s healthy development. Attention from caregivers matters far more. Beyond making sure something is safe, opting for cheaper products is not going to hurt your baby, whether they’re toys, clothes, or anything else, according to Rebecca Parlakian, a senior director of programs at Zero to Three, a nonprofit organization dedicated to improving the lives of babies and toddlers. When it comes to toys, for example, “the whole world is new to [babies],” Parlakian told me. “You could put a rubber spatula from the kitchen on the floor, and it’d be the most amazing toy in the whole wide world to them, because they can touch it and they can mouth it.” As far as a bassinet or crib, Abelowitz, the pediatrician, said that as long as it meets safety standards—as is required of any new one sold in the United States—its price tag won’t influence a baby’s well-being. (This is assuming that parents also follow standard safe-sleep guidelines.) And although many people swear that the right bassinet bought their families more sleep, nothing can change the inescapable fact—awaiting new parents like a splash of ice water to the face—that newborns need to be fed every few hours for at least a few months regardless of how well they slumber.
Of course, people may opt for certain products for other reasons, such as aesthetics, environmental concerns, and convenience. Fancy things absolutely can make the day-to-day grind of caregiving more pleasant, but though they’re nice to have, most aren’t necessities. “I always try to ground myself in the long historical context of human infants,” Parlakian told me. “We went without these products for many millennia.” Even today, raising an infant looks wildly different across the globe. Many parents make do without a monitor, for example. Although American families may have two or even three strollers for various purposes, in plenty of places, including major cities, even one would be impractical, because the roads aren’t smooth enough. And in Finland, the government gives new parents kits with items such as a makeshift crib and a tiny snowsuit—gifts that provide not only material support but also “comfort … knowing that every woman begins with the exact same baby box,” Abigail Tucker writes in her 2021 book, Mom Genes: Inside the New Science of Our Ancient Maternal Instinct.
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In the end, I splurged on a few items, such as a cushy nursery glider and a super-durable Uppababy stroller that cost hundreds of dollars, even though I bought it used. But I also found a lot of free or cheap items on local Facebook groups. I don’t regret buying our nicer baby things, given how much mileage I got out of them, but I’m not sure how much any of them actually helped, especially with what ended up being my biggest challenges: the massive lifestyle adjustment of becoming a parent, navigating a pandemic, and a child-care-affordability crisis. So while I don’t think I made the “wrong” choices, they just weren’t that consequential. No product could allay the murkier fear that I’d be a bad parent, which was what underpinned all my hand-wringing. If nothing else, though, the decision-making process was practice for the lifetime of hard parenting choices ahead—even those that couldn’t be solved by consumption. Learning to live with “good enough”—whether that means my possessions, my own competence, or my child’s future—may just turn out to be one of the most important things I do as a parent, even if it’s a lesson I’ll have to learn over and over again.