Americans love to shop. Despite the fact that 11.3 million Americans are currently out of work, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, retail sales have bounced back and then some since the economic downturn five years ago. If there’s one segment of the population to be counted on for robust consumer spending, it’s expectant parents. A desire to provide the best possible start for a baby, combined with relentless marketing, encourages first-time American parents to buy, buy, buy, and then buy some more.
“The majority of our product line was targeted toward first-time moms,” explains Adam Marx, an Oregon-based life coach who worked for The First Years, a baby product company that makes everything from safety gates to sippy cups. “We did 90 percent of our focus groups with them.”
But those same parents who eagerly shell out $379.79 for the Italian Peg PÃ©rego designer stroller, $1,395 for a 3-piece baby furniture set sold exclusively from JC Penny, and $99.99 for a 4-foot tall Melissa & Doug stuffed giraffe, often realize too late that they have wasted their money. “It was generally acknowledged within the company that after the first child, parents, especially moms, relaxed in their view of what they and their babies ‘needed,’” continues Marx. “Changing table for baby #1, towel on floor for baby #2. Video monitor for baby #1, leave the door cracked for baby #2.”
Yet with over 4 million babies born each year in America, there’s always a new crop of inexperienced parents for companies to target. Despite company promises that you and your baby will be smarter, happier and healthier if you buy these products, here are seven things—both big-ticket items and smaller stuff—that your baby doesn’t need.
1. A baby wig.
BabyBangs sells hairstyle headbands for baby girls—infants and toddlers whose fine hair makes them look like boys. “I’m not a boy!” the website’s main page proclaims, accompanied with its philosophy: “We believe in the beauty of childhood.” These tiny accessories come in five “stylish hairband designs” and six hair colors. Cost: $37.90. Whatever happened to bald is beautiful?
2. An inflatable neck donut to keep from drowning.
According to the advertising, this plastic neck donut for infants too small to walk or crawl will help them “gain confidence” and “stimulate physical and psychological development” in the water. This latest wonder, made by Swimava Baby Swim and Bath Products (its tagline: “Make bath time more than fun”), was showcased at the ABC Kids Expo in Las Vegas this October. Cost: $36. The better option is to hold your baby in the water. Would you want a life jacket around your neck?
3. Specially formulated baby soap.
Natural bar soap is safer, cheaper and better than many products marketed for babies. Most parents don’t realize that the American formula of Johnson & Johnson Head-to-Toe Baby Wash, advertised as “gentle enough even for newborns,” contains Quaternium-15. Quaternium-15 off-gases formaldehyde, a known carcinogen. The company, which did $25.4 billion in worldwide sales last year, responded to protests by changing its formula in Europe and Japan—but not in the United States. More than 1,500 people a day die of cancer, which is the leading cause of disease-related death among children, according to the American Childhood Cancer Association. Johnson & Johnson has trademarked the phrase: "Our babies will inherit the planet." Not if they die first of cancer.
4. A stroller.
You can buy a cheap umbrella stroller made in China for as little as $19.99 at Babies-R-Us or shell out a whopping $400 for an aluminum-framed elite jogging stroller. But just how necessary is this putative necessity? “I didn’t use one with either of my kids,” says Amy Stewart, a mom of two in Port Townsend, Washington. “My aunt bought me a beautiful one to go with our infant car seat and I think I used it once.” Instead Stewart carried her babies in a cloth baby wrap or back carrier and encouraged them to walk when they got old enough. Any mom who’s tried to wrestle a stroller onto the subway will agree that baby wearing is easier and more convenient. “Carrying my baby against me kept me connected to them in a way I thoroughly enjoyed,” Stewart says. “There's nothing like feeling a little cheek pressed against your chest.”
5. A changing table.
Kalon Studios makes a bamboo changing “trunk” that can be converted into a toy chest, for $740 plus shipping, but even a non-luxury changing table will set you back some $100. “We have one but it’s only for storage,” admits Ashley Ridosko, a Wisconsin mom with a second baby on the way. “I hated it, it’s high up, you have to hold onto your babe the whole time while fumbling for things.” Experienced parents use the bed or the floor.
6. Breast milk test strips to detect alcohol.
The brainchild of UpSpring Baby, a company that also makes postpartum belly wraps (to help you lose weight faster), $39.99, and Walking Wings, a dog-like harness you use, like a puppeteer, to direct a baby’s steps, $24.99. These strips (20 cost $24.99) are for home use to make sure there’s not too much alcohol in a mom’s breast milk. But the body metabolizes alcohol quickly and doctors agree that a small amount of alcohol in breast milk is harmless. “It is a useless product and should not be recommended,” Jack Newman, a Canadian doctor who specializes in breastfeeding, writes in an open letter on Facebook: "a ploy to have mothers worry and spend money for nothing.”
7. An obstetrician.
Not a product, but an obstetrician is far from a must-have, despite America’s bias in favor of medical doctors. Over 70 percent of births in Scandinavia, which has much better fetal and maternal outcomes at a fraction of the cost, are assisted by midwives. Because they use fewer unnecessary interventions, spend more time with women in labor, and are committed to vaginal birth, midwives are the safer and healthier choice, argues Marsden Wagner, former director of Women’s and Children’s Health at the World Health Organization. Unless a woman’s pregnancy is deemed high-risk, or there is a medical emergency during labor, the majority of women may not need to have an ob-gyn at the birth.
“Having a highly trained surgeon obstetrician assist at your birth is about as sensible as hiring a pediatric surgeon as a babysitter for your healthy 2-year-old,” Wagner writes. Midwife-assisted birth is also a lot less expensive. The average charge for a C-section birth in America: $51,000. The average charge for a vaginal hospital birth: $32,000. The average charge for a homebirth midwife: $4,500.
"Everything you really need for your baby, you already have,” says McKenna Rowe, a mom of two in Talent, Oregon. Rowe tries to avoid buying her children toys, insisting a wooden spoon works just as well (use it as a drumstick, shovel, light saber, or teething toy). “Eliminating the clutter, the waste, the mess to clean, and the over-stimulation in my home has worked wonders in my mothering journey,” she says. “In my opinion, the simpler the better."