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5 Things Modern Parents Don’t Need (But We’re Suckered Into Buying Anyway)

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When I heard about Your Baby, Your Way, written by my colleague Jennifer Margulis, I immediately thought of all those aunties who, when confronted with the idea of buying a bassinet for a new baby, balked and pshawed about an empty dresser drawer working just fine for their babies. When it comes to minimalist parenting and leaving consumerism in the dust, we could learn a thing or two from them!

Back in the days before advertising and corporate conglomerates parents did just fine with a limited amount of baby-centric paraphernalia – or none at all. 

Though I am well beyond my baby years, I sat down and read this book cover to cover.

What an insight into consumerism and corporate manipulation of our spending habits. Jennifer is doing some myth busting right here on Attainable Sustainable. Read on for Jennifer’s take on things new parents and their babies don’t need, along with a greener option.

Here she is: 

stuffed rabbit behind a stack of baby clothes

Consumerism baits parents

As anyone who works in corporate sales already knows, people are more open to changing brands, trying new things, and spending more money when they are at a “life change point”: going off to college, getting married, buying a first home, having a baby.

“You suddenly have new needs that you’ve never had before, and in those moments you’re more likely to change your behavior,” Leslie Becknell Marx, who spent two years working in sales at Proctor and Gamble and is now a Unitarian minister, explained to me when I interviewed her for a chapter of my book.

Companies, not surprisingly, capitalize on this human receptiveness to change, feeding consumerism. They market their products to pregnant women and new moms as aggressively as they can.


The problem with this tried and true capitalist method is that parents often get duped into believing they need things—lots of things—for themselves and their kids.

As I told a reporter for U.S. News this week, when you have a new baby, the things that you need the most are not things that money can buy.

Parents need support with housework, help with meals, a sympathetic shoulder to cry on (those postpartum hormones can get you), and time to do nothing more than sit on the couch and gaze lovingly in a newborn’s myopic eyes.


Here are five things that parents — and children especially — don’t need. Plus some alternatives that are cheaper and don’t feed corporate consumerism.

1. Parents Don’t Need Paper Towels

If you’re a long time reader of Attainable Sustainable you know this already and you stopped using them eons ago.

That slim mom in the Bounty commercial looks great but there is no reason to buy paper towels of any kind at any time in your life. If you’re in the habit, go cold turkey. That’s what we did when our oldest was an infant and we were desperate to save money.

My mother-in-law is at a loss at our house (she can use an entire roll while cleaning up the kitchen) but we never looked back.

stacked kitchen towels in pastel tones

Minimalist Parenting Alternative to Paper Towels

Buy dishtowels at a secondhand store for less than $1.00 a piece. Get more than you think you need so you don’t ever run out. They work for everything, including draining bacon after frying. Throw them in the washer on cold. Extra credit and extra savings if you make your own laundry detergent.

2. Kids Don’t Need Toys

With our first baby our house looked like a department store, it was filled with so many toys and games. A perfect example of consumerism gone wild.

But babies don’t need plastic toys made in China. It’s a well-kept secret that most toys for kids of any age are a waste of money and end up gathering dust in the corner.

Despite outrageous claims by manufacturers, educational toys will not and cannot make your baby brainier. (Breastfeeding and human interaction, especially when you and your baby take turns talking, are what best promote brain development.)

6 people jumping in silhouette

Minimalist Parenting Alternative to Toys

Let your teething baby gum measuring spoons, let your toddler play with a potato (the heft and weight is particularly interesting to this age group), make goop for your preschooler out of cornstarch and water, shoo older kids outdoors and nature becomes their playroom.

3. Babies Don’t Need Diapers

Plastic diaper companies have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars funding “science” that purports that the environmental impact of plastic is equal to the environmental impact of cloth.

While this is blatantly false, both plastic diapers and cloth diapers have some negative environmental impact.

Minimalist Parenting Alternative to Diapers

There is a perfect alternative that is used to great effect by parents all over the world (besides not having kids): let your baby go diaper free. I was too close-minded to try this with three of my four. But my youngest daughter got the benefit to being diaper free and I was delighted by how much fun it was.

Read about how the Vietnamese use whistling instead of diapers!

4. You Also Don’t Need Baby Wipes

Why wipe a baby with perfumed chemical-laden “disposable” wipes that are kept in plastic containers and that end up clogging the landfill? The “natural” versions are more expensive and still get thrown out (only, like all human trash, they don’t actually go anywhere).

green washcloths stacked on a wooden stool

Minimalist Parenting Alternative to Baby Wipes

Use warm water and a washcloth on your baby’s sensitive bottom. Or you can make your own wash cloths/wipes by simply cutting pre-fold cloth diapers into quarters. Sew the edges if you’re crafty (I’m not.) Keep a stack where you change your baby and a stack in your bag for outings.

5. Families Don’t Need to Drive so Much

Traffic accidents cause over 30,000 deaths a year in the United States. Driving is one of the most polluting activities we do as individuals. A recent study by researchers in Denmark showed that kids who walk or bike to school have better concentration for up to four hours than kids who are driven or take public transport.

Yet even in my walk and bike-friendly town in southern Oregon that only covers three square miles, the vast majority of parents drive their children to school and after-school activities.

bicycles in alleyway

Minimalist Parenting Alternative to Driving

Scooter, bike, or walk anywhere that is less than two miles away. Take public transportation. Use driving as a last resort instead of the default option.

If you really have to drive, park half a mile from your destination and walk the rest of the way. You’ll save money on gas, save wear and tear on your car, and get more exercise. An added benefit: kids tend to share their secrets when you are walking somewhere together.

Your budget benefits from this minimalist parenting mindset, too!

But what will you do with all the money you save from not buying things you don’t need? Put it in a college fund for your kid (and ask well-meaning relatives for savings bonds in lieu of gifts). Education is sustainable.

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Meet the Author

Jennifer Margulis

Read more about how to be gentle to the environment, your pocketbook, and your baby in Your Baby, Your Way: Taking Charge of your Pregnancy, Childbirth, and Parenting Decisions for a Happier, Healthier Family. Join Jennifer online at the Your Baby, Your Way Facebook page.

22 comments… add one
  • Alexandra Apr 25, 2013, 7:20 am

    This was a great post. I really worry about those plastic toys that my grandkids have, so ubiquitous. I love the idea of putting the money saved in a college fund!

  • Brette Apr 25, 2013, 7:29 am

    Great tips. It’s easy to be convinced you need to buy so much stuff, when really there is very little you really need to care for a baby.

  • Christy Apr 25, 2013, 8:11 am

    I love this list. The only one that I really struggled with, both with my family and myself (despite what I knew to be best) was the buying of new toys. I had every intention of not buying or going the natural, wooden toy route. However, people would drop off toys, give us their gently used toys, and I would see something so cute and I would buy it because I wanted it. It was especially hard with grandparents, who saw it as their rig to shower my children with plastic toys.

  • Whitney Apr 26, 2013, 7:56 am

    This was great advice, but you should not let babies or children play with keys as they are a common source of lead poisoning.

    • Amy May 1, 2013, 6:01 am

      Amen. Also, can you even imagine the germs on a set of keys?!?

      • SarahN May 12, 2013, 6:02 pm

        Wow, GERMS! Best not let kids see or touch ANY GERMS ever – pass the baby wipes PURLEASE! Come on, I ate the yellow pages as a kid, and I survived. I’m sure the key trick doesn’t kill any babies.

        • Madilynn Mar 13, 2015, 11:47 am

          Pretty sure the main concern here is lead poisoning. I would never let my baby put my car keys in their mouth! Crazy.

        • Alice Walther May 12, 2015, 5:04 pm

          No a little germs never hurt any baby, those germs help to build our immune system. We have very week immune systems these days due to over-protecting our kids from too many germs and therefore there tiny bodies don’t have a chance to build antibodies and instead wind up at the doctors to get antibiotics. And it’s true parents today buy far too much for their babies and spend way too much money. I used washcloths and cloth diapers, diapers also were handy as burp clothes…glass bottles that you had to sterilize, (not disposable that also wind up in landfill), also for teething, babies chewed on zwiebach cookies, (not sure if they even sell them anymore, I used to like them myself with coffee. The amount of toys parents buy their kids today is outrageous and babies don’t need toys, they are easily entertained other ways. We live in a very wasteful society today.

    • Yena Mar 13, 2015, 12:59 am

      It is really a bad idea to let babies suck on keys. I hope they change it. Lead can seriously damage permantly body organs. I am sure there are other things to suck on. Make sure its bigger than 3x3x3 cm to avoid choking hazards.

  • Amanda Mar 12, 2015, 3:59 pm

    I love these! I wish it was easier to convince other people of them though. I give my DH heck for buying and using paper towel all the time and the funny thing is we have more dish rags and towels than we even need. We’re expecting our first baby in a couple of weeks and my mom keeps insisting my baby needs more toys and I keep telling her that not only do we have more than enough already, but I don’t want anymore toys in my house.

    • Kris Bordessa Mar 12, 2015, 8:07 pm

      It’s hard to make changes! I had the same problem with my mom – lots of gifts = lots of love to her. To be told to trim it back a bit was blasphemy! And hey, the paper towel thing? I thought we’d broke the habit, then this happened: 😉

      • Amanda Mar 12, 2015, 8:38 pm

        To be fair to my man I made him a bunch of little flannel cloths (we call them nose swipies) to use in place of tissues, because his nose is constantly dripping and we were going through those like crazy, and he uses them all the time and even keeps a few in the car. I also fell of the plastic baggie bandwagon when stocking the freezer with meals and snacks for after the baby is born. I was running out of containers and convenience won out that time.

  • Alicia Mar 13, 2015, 1:21 am

    I like the list except the part about the keys. Yuck. But there are lots of other things to chew on.

    The last point about driving too much is true but very difficult to difficult to apply outside of urban areas. I don’t believe moving to an urban area to reduce driving times is a positive compromise.

  • Betty Mar 13, 2015, 7:52 am

    I do not agree with going diaperless! that is gross! I used cloth diapers with my first child and used disposable diapers with my last two. No regrets. As far as using washcloths to clean their bottoms, uh no. Baby wipes, more sanitary and less likely for the baby to get yeast infections. My girls are grown now and did not suffer from me using convenience items. I’d rather use those than run my water bill up washing all these cloths.

  • Sherry Mar 20, 2015, 2:21 am

    Reading stuff like this makes me think about having a kid… just to try it all out! I’ve gone pretty natural, chemical free and sustainable in the last couple of years. Honestly I plan to never have children of my own.

  • Emy Mar 22, 2015, 10:56 pm

    I would add:
    – a buggy/stroller/… We don’t have nor need one, we carry our 3yo since his birth in babycarrier/wrap/meitai/arms.
    – shoes for an infant, hard-sole shoes for a baby or toddler. Always go mocassin-like, it’s better for their bones and balance
    – a changing station. You’ll end up changing diapers on the bed, the sofa or running around the house after a naked toddler anyway, your bath towels will do just perfect for changing a baby.
    – if you have the choice, breastfeed, it saves hundreds of dollars: no powder, no bottles, no heaters, mixers, carriers, sterilizers, for the water and milk.
    – if you have the choice, co-sleep or bed-share, save on cribs/baby beds/babyphone/things that make “soothing” sounds and lights.

    Things you DO need:
    – your boobs and ideally sursing tops to go with, a wrap or ergonomic babycarrier, cloth diapers or a lot of attention to go diaper-free
    – A tiny toothbrush for their tiny mouth (make your own tooth paste with coconut oil, white clay and activated charcoal so they can swallow it, and it stops caries)
    – an excellent rear-facing car-seat if you use a ca
    – FEW pieces of non-synthetic clothing for baby (I know they’re cute but you seriously don’t need 100 items por a baby/toddler/child! Most important: easy to use and comfy. No starched collars, straight pants, fragile dresses, kids are not dolls)
    – a big bed or a side-cot to co-sleep, it saves mom’s sanity in most cases
    – a library or else a lot of good, well-drawn and chosen kids book

    These are the few that come to my mind right now…

    • Kris Bordessa Mar 23, 2015, 6:15 am

      Excellent suggestions. I’m especially partial to your recommendation of books!

  • Dianne Jun 22, 2015, 12:42 am

    I like Emy’s list and will add a few of my own. I did not have a bounce swing, playpen or teething items. For teething, I would take the strings out of celery and let them gum that. If I needed to confine the kids for safety sake, I would lay the kitchen chairs down on their side’s in a square & plop the kids in there with a wooden spoon and some bowls. Toys were rationed out. They only play with 2 or 3 at a time anyway, so the rest were put up & then I would substitute in toys as the current ones lost favor.
    And the savings bonds are wonderful. My kids purchased their first cars with their savings bonds. It paid for some of the repairs too.

  • Morgan Apr 15, 2016, 11:12 am

    There’s someone on our block who DRIVES their child to the end of the street (which is, MAYBE 100 feet away), to wait for the bus. Everyday. It drives me nuts that they won’t let their child (who is in middle school) at least walk to the end of the block, it’s insanity that you’d drive your kid to the end of the block just to catch the school bus. When I was a kid, I rode my bike or walked to school, every single day. I never got a ride or took the bus and I was extremely grateful for that. It kept my active, more sociable with others who had to walk and got me outside.

    Anyway, some of these are really good alternatives. I’m 7 months pregnant with our first child and I’ve already told my husband that I don’t want to get a lot of baby toys, there’s just no need. We’re also doing cloth diapers. And now I’m considering doing cloth baby wipes. Thanks for the great article!

  • Katrina Apr 16, 2016, 2:23 pm

    Keys in N. America are made from brass, aluminum or steel. Coloured ones are anodized. As for germs on keys being any worse than on anything else a baby is likely to put in their mouth: where do you keep your keys? I generally have them in a purse or pocket – possibly cleaner than most kitchen counters!

  • tella Jun 17, 2017, 9:36 am

    Amazing article, I wish all mothers-to-be and current moms could take this advice. Unfortunately, some women are more worried about what others think and they won’t do any of the things suggested. I do most of the things the author suggested except for the cloth wipes and driving. Cloth wipes are a headache to launder. I use cloth diapers I do laundry 3xs a week and I line dry. We are also practicing elimination communication with my toddler and it has worked out absolutely great. In Los Angeles it would take hours to get somewhere if you took public transportation or decided to walk. I can finish one errand in 20 minutes or take a bus & it would take HOURS to complete one errand. What’s more important, our money or our time? I decided my time and my daughter’s time here on Earth is more important then say not polluting the air by driving. Sorry Earth!

  • Beth Jun 18, 2017, 4:01 am

    Your suggestions just tripled the amount of water my house would use. Terrible plan for people who live in a drought area.

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