Early parenthood is remarkably low-tech. Until we have robots capable of transferring our warm, wriggling infants onto the changing table, keep them from rolling off while simultaneously entertaining them so that they don’t start shrieking hard enough to peel paint off the walls, clean them up from their last experiment in modernist poop art and prepare them for their next one, well, human hands are going to have to do. And, in fact, they do well.
Human hands are also good at jiggling, rubbing, swaying, bouncing, and clapping babies on the back. It takes little more than this, plus milk, to keep babies reasonably satisfied for their first few months outside the womb. Toys, no matter how cool, hold no appeal for a creature with the hand-eye coordination and visual acuity of a rotisserie chicken. Our adorable fresh-out-of-the-womb critters aren’t interested in anything more complicated than a pacifier for a long time. For evidence (and for fun!), see the documentary Babies (2010), which features a small child for whom a Mongolian yurt and its dusty environs seem like Studio 54, with a goat standing in for Andy Warhol.
But Capitalism abhors a vacuum: parents of young children are a market, and therefore they must be marketed to. Some gadgets are useful in making baby-rearing easier, more pleasant, less messy. Which are worth your money?
The first and most important gadget for any milk-producing parent is a breast pump. Whether you’re a “breast is best” Mayim Bialik type or just cognizant of the fact that what comes out of you is cheaper than formula and you don’t have to worry about running out during a hurricane, it’s useful bordering on imperative to have something the baby can eat stored outside of your body. What if your body really needs to go to see a movie, for example? Or, you know, work?
The cost of these devices, which allow mommies to be roam free without being on call for every meal, can range from about $35 for an Avent manual pump to over $1200 for a hospital grade Medela Symphony. The powerful hospital pumps are much cheaper to rent than to buy and can be an excellent short-term option. For most women, though, they won’t be necessary.
A satisfactory, middle-of-the-road electronic pump falls far closer to the manual side of the bell curve: the very popular Medela Pump in Style retails for about $250, though prices can range up to $350. But I found the number of tubes, and the way those tubes can get clogged and moldy, intimidating. My pick is the light, user-friendly, tube-less, and affordable Ameda Purely Yours Electronic Pump ($160), which attaches nicely to the Simple Wishes Hands Free Bra ($25). Voila! You can express milk and write for the Billfold at the same time.
Your baby fussing, however, makes it hard to concentrate while you multi-task, which is why the second most important gadget is a bouncer or swing. Perhaps you remember the vibrating chair from Sex and the City that was the only thing that would help Miranda’s son Brady stop wailing? Some of these calming seats are useful without being eyesores, like this handsome 3-in-1 Rocker Napper ($100). Others are dizzyingly awful looking, especially the swings, which also tend to take up more room.
Certain parents swear by swings; they do have the virtue of being self-powered, while the bouncy chairs often need an assist from a nearby adult. We were given a Fisher-Price swing that took four batteries and forty-five minutes to assemble and turned out to be defective. We sent it back, used the Amazon credit on all-in-one cloth diapers (a Billfold piece for another day), and have been getting along fine with a used, not-too-ugly SnuggaBunny. It vibrates and plays insipid music, if your child likes that sort of thing. Like all Brooklyn babes, mine prefers vintage Hank Williams LPs.
The third useful baby gadget is a white noise machine. Babies don’t like silence; they are more calmed by whirring and whooshing that mimics the sounds of the womb. Cloud B’s popular, cuddly Sleep Sheep fits in the crib, but it can’t be programmed to play all night long. Other white noise machines, like the excellently reviewed Graco Sweet Slumber, look more like R2-D2 but also have more functionality and are still light enough to transport.
If you prefer not to invest in a machine, smart phone apps, including the free and effective White Noise Ambiance Lite, can also do the trick. The sound of “Rain on Car” kept my little monster sleeping peacefully for eight hours at a stretch for an entire week. Smart phones are vital baby gadgets in general: they can keep you sane while you nurse, enabling you to tap out emails, scroll through news or gossip sites, and play word games, all with one hand.
Bonus baby gadget: a wipe warmer. How would you like to wake up to the unpleasant sensation of sitting in your own feces, and then be further assaulted by the combination of cold air and even colder wet wipes on your delicate bits? Your little muffin has lots of nooks and crannies. Make the process of cleaning them more comfortable and you’ll get gurgles on the changing table instead of anguished shrieks. At around $20 for one with a nightlight, it’s less of a splurge than a no-brainer, and you can always order one to keep with you on the go.
Ester Bloom is always looking for more people to play word games with.