Where will baby sleep? You’ve got a few options to think through here. First, realize that whatever well-thought decision you make may go out the window when your baby arrives and will only sleep with you. I’ll try to cover the various sleeping options for the first several months so that at least you know what choices you have.
You’ve probably heard of a crib and may have already picked one out. Even if your child doesn’t sleep in the crib right away, s/he will probably use one at some point (unless you’re dedicated to the idea of the long-term family bed). The key thing on cribs is to buy one that’s new or at least made after 1974 because there are several safety standards that weren’t in place before that. If you’re considering an older crib one key test is to make sure that a soda can can’t fit between the slats on the side. If the can fits, the slats are too wide and the baby’s head could get stuck. All new cribs sold in the US meet safety standards so you’re in the clear there and just need to find one that you like and that fits your budget.
One thing to consider is if you want the side to drop or not. Cribs with non-drop sides are harder to find but there are fewer moving pieces and things to “learn” about your crib. If you do want a crib with a side that drops, make sure the mechanism that moves the side up and down is quiet and that you can operate it with just one hand—or foot. You’ll have a baby in your arms when you’re raising or lowering the crib and that baby may be sleeping. You want to make sure that you don’t wake the baby up or have to put the baby somewhere just to get the crib side down.
Some cribs are “convertible” meaning that they convert into a toddler bed and possibly a full-size head-board. This can be a nice feature but you have to think a bit ahead about any future kids you’d like to have and how sleeping arrangements might change. Kids generally transition from a crib to a toddler or “big” bed somewhere between 2-3. A lot of people that have a second child within 2-3 years of the first, transition the older child to a big bed and the new baby gets the crib. In this case the toddler bed or head-board features aren’t really useful. However, another option is to convert the crib to a toddler bed for the older child when s/he’s ready and put the new baby in another crib or pack-n-play.
Another feature advertised with cribs is the ability to set the mattress at different heights. You definitely want at least two options—the high feature for when the baby is tiny and not going anywhere, so you can easily put them into and retrieve them from the crib. You also need a low setting for once the baby starts to sit or pull-up so that they can’t get out of the crib. Some cribs have 3-5 additional settings. Personally I think anything over two settings is overkill. It’s usually not that easy to adjust the height of the mattress and once the baby is to the point where you’re lowering it, why not just lower it all the way and get it over with rather than tempting fate that you’ve used the wrong “in-between” setting?
We wanted a crib with sides that didn’t lower so there were fewer things to worry about. We also didn’t want to spend a ton on our crib, so we went with the “Diktad” crib from IKEA. We’ve been completely happy with it and absolutely recommend it.
Mattresses are fairly straight-forward, which is a relief after you’ve sorted out your feelings about the crib. Like anything you can spend very little money or as much as you would for a new mattress for yourself. There are some new products on the market that are quite expensive and said to help reduce SIDS—based on the what I’ve read there aren’t any studies that really prove this so I would just pick a mattress that fits your budget and which you wouldn’t mind sleeping on. Keep in mind that babies are not supposed to sleep on really soft-surfaces, so the mattress doesn’t need to feel like a feather-bed. I believe spring mattresses are on the high-end and foam ones on the low end. All crib mattresses are a standard size, so just pick one that feels right to you. We went with a mid-priced spring mattress. It wasn’t one of the cheapest but not the most expensive either.
Crib mattress pads are generally quilted fabric on one side with a waterproof plastic layer underneath. If you used the mattress pad normally and your child spit-up badly or had a big diaper leak you would have to change the sheet and the mattress pad, because both would be wet. We have the mattress pad on inside up so that the waterproof side is up. This way, if the sheet gets wet you just wipe the mattress pad off with a cloth before putting a new sheet back on. This is why I hardly ever have to wash the mattress pad.
Many people use a bassinet or the bassinet feature on their pack-n-play for the first several months. These are places for the baby to sleep that are smaller than a full-size crib and easier to get next to your bed (even in a small bedroom). If you are breast-feeding, it can be particularly helpful to have the baby sleeping right next to you*. Bassinets are intended only for very little babies and most babies outgrow them at 3 months (or much earlier depending on their size at birth). They can be very pretty and if the space between your bed and the wall is very small might be the only choice you have. I don’t believe that there are any safety hazards with using old bassinets—this may be something that you can easily get as a hand-me-down. Just make sure that the bassinet is stable.
A pack-n-play is a portable crib that folds up into a bag the size of a really long boom-box. It’s fairly easy (although heavy) to transport and is a pretty vital piece of baby gear if you plan to travel with your baby during the first year or two. Pack-n-plays come in all price ranges and generally get more expensive as more features are added. Unless space is a real concern, I would buy one that is full-size. There are a few “mini-sized” models which your child will outgrow much quicker than the regular sized ones. It’s pretty important to have an insert that allows the child to sleep at an elevated setting (like in a crib) for when they’re little. If you have short arms at all, putting an infant on the bottom of the pack-n-play isn’t the easiest thing at all. Another nice feature is a changing-pad that clips on to the pack-n-play. If you have more than one level in your house, this is an easy way to have a changing station on both levels. Other features such as bassinet inserts, mobiles, organizer bags, vibration/music, etc. are pretty much just gravy, or annoying depending on how you feel. I would evaluate the product for the major features first and if it comes with a cute mobile great, if not you’re probably not going to lose any sleep over it.
*With Henry we had him in the crib from day-one. He didn’t sleep particularly well in it, but he was the noisiest baby I’ve ever been around and as a light sleeper I just couldn’t get any rest with him in the pack-n-play next to me. With Silas we’ve planning on using a pack-n-play we’ve bought for him. If he’s a quiet baby it will be next to my side of the bed. If not, he’ll be at the other end of our room. Both pack-n-plays we have our Graco. We bought Silas’ used and it just has the elevated platform and changing pad feature. Henry’s had a mobile as well but we never used it.
Other sleeping options:
There are a few other options that I haven’t personally used but know about. If someone has a question or more info on these we can discuss them further. They include the Snugglenest, the Amby Baby Hammock and the Arms Reach Co-Sleeper. The Snugglenest- is a little bed that you use if the baby is sleeping with you in your bed. It’s designed to sit on your mattress between you and your spouse and keep you from crushing the baby. The Amby Baby Hammock is basically a hammock for babies that is supposed to soothe them because of it’s swinging motion. The Co-Sleeper is like having a mini-pack-n-play next to your bed, but it actually connects to your bed. This way the baby is sleeping in her own space but it’s basically an extension of your own mattress.
Sheets and Blankets, etc.
A lot of people spend a lot of money on a crib set for their baby. They usually include a dust ruffle, quilt, bumper pads, sheet and sometimes curtains or an organizer bag. If you have the money and you fall in-love with something don’t let me stop you. Just know that you won’t actually use much of the set, even if you use your crib from day-one. You aren’t supposed to use blankets with a child until 1 year for SIDS reasons, so the quilt could go on the wall or be played with on the ground, but it won’t get much use as a blanket. Lots of people still use bumpers, but they are also considered a SIDS risk, and even if you feel okay with them on that level, you’re absolutely supposed to take them out of the crib by the time the child is pulling up so they can’t use them as a step-stool to launch themselves out of the crib. My personal opinion is it makes more sense to buy individual pieces that you can coordinate—you’ll save money and can get just what you think you’ll need.
You need to have at least 2 and ideally 4 sets of sheets. This way when your child throws up or has a massive diaper leak in the middle of the night you can easily change things without having to worry about the wash. There are different sized sheets for mattresses, pack-n-plays and bassinets, so just make sure you have at least 2 sets of sheets for each sleeping option you’re using.
Lap pads are little water-proof pads that you can put anywhere you’d like to catch some wetness without having to wash the sheets, or the changing-table cover pad or the stroller seat, etc. You can find small ones that you lay under the baby on the changing table or larger ones which you can lay on top of their sheets. If you have a baby that spits-up a lot these will be life savers. The small ones come in packs of 3. It’s probably a good idea to have that many on hand so you can decide if you like them and need more.
You most likely will receive 8 billion baby blankets if you are having your first baby. It’s great to have lots of light-weight receiving blankets, especially when they’re very little. You’ll use these when the baby is at home in the bouncer or you’ve covered her for a stroll outside, or in the car-seat etc. You won’t use them when they’re sleeping in their crib. For that you need either a swaddle blanket or a blanket sleeper.
They’ll teach you how to swaddle your baby at a birth-prep class or in the hospital. No matter how much you practice, you won’t be as good as the L&D nurses and unless your baby is the most compliant baby ever, they’ll manage to wriggle their arms free. Swaddling basically wraps your little one in a tight burrito of a blanket so that they can’t exercise their startle reflex by throwing their arms out to their side and waking them up. That’s why a good swaddle blanket is your best friend—it can help your baby sleep longer and more deeply. You can buy the “swaddleme” brand at toys-r-us and a I think Target. I personally recommend the “Miracle Blanket” which you can only order online. It’s a bit of a baby straightjacket, but it totally and completely works and this time around I bought two – one for upstairs and one for down.
Since babies can’t use blankets, if it’s chilly at all when your baby is born you’ll want to get some blanket sleepers. These are fleece sacks that you zip baby up into over their pajamas. Most are sleeveless, but some have long sleeves if it will truly be winter when your baby arrives. You’ll want to have 3-4 of these so you don’t have to do laundry all the time. Halo is a popular brand and now there are several knock-offs that are cheaper.
If you live in a multi-level home, or have anything other than the smallest single story abode, you’ll want to consider a baby monitor. In some cases you have to have one because without it you wouldn’t be able to hear your baby crying (i.e. your bedroom and the baby’s room are really far away or during the day while the baby is sleeping upstairs, you’re in the basement on the computer, etc). In other cases the baby monitor can be a mixed blessing/curse. On the one hand you can hear your baby starting to wake up so that you can get in and feed him/her before she really wakes up fully and gets agitated. However, lots of babies actually make lots of noises the whole time they’re sleeping even when they’re not anywhere close to waking up. If you’re a light sleeper all these noises can a) keep you from getting precious sleep and b) make you respond to your baby’s tiniest noise which can ultimately make them worse sleepers down the road. So, certainly buy a monitor if you need one, but if you’re a light sleeper you might consider turning it way down so that you can hear the baby when s/he’s actually crying, but not be woken up by all the grumbling old man noises that some babies can make all night long.
Q: I know that there is an increased SIDS risk with used mattresses for cribs, have you heard of any such risk with a used pack-n-play? Also, did you do anything to avoid bed head? A couple of my friends are getting the special helmets because there babies got flat heads from their cribs - was this ever an issue for you?
A: Since our baby girl was in the hospital for so long, the nurses taught us how to reduce bed head. You take 2 blankets, roll them into 2 rolls, then take another blanket and put it on top of the rolls, separating the rolls wide enough to fit the baby between. Every 2 hours or so while they are laying down, shift the baby's body and wedge it against one of the rolls, and position her head to the side. When you shift the body on the side, make sure it's no more than 45 degrees elevated on the roll, that way it prevents the baby from rolling all the way on her tummy. Shift her right, then flat, then left. Skip over laying the baby flat if the head is already kinda flat.
A: I haven’t heard of any increased SIDS risk with used pack-n-plays. The pack-n-play “mattress” is actually just a very lightly padded board so I can’t imagine it would make a difference. It’s not like it ever gets very soft.
There are sleep positioners you can use to keep babies on their back. The one we had (which we had to use because we had to keep Henry at an incline due to reflux) had a foam pad for the head which was supposed to help prevent flattening of the head.
I think the most important thing is to try to get them off their backs as much as possible during the day. Either by holding them or in a sling or especially on their stomachs on the floor. All the Doctors will push tummy time and most babies don’t really like it. The earlier you start it and the more you put them on their stomachs the more they’ll tolerate it (and the less time they’ll spend flat on their backs!)
Q: I have a question on the bedding topic: I briefly heard someone mention that they put two or three sets of plastic mattress covers and sheets on a mattress crib in alternating layers (cover-sheet-cover-sheet) so that they can just peel off the top sheet and cover layer if the diaper leaks without the hassle of remaking the bed in the middle of the night. Has anyone tried this? I am wondering (1) whether multiple layers of plastic mattress covers and sheets would actually fit over the mattress at the same time and (2) whether this could potentially increase the SIDS risk by making the sleeping surface thicker, like a blanket.
A: We actually only have one mattress pad so it wouldn’t work for us but I also wonder about being able to get more than 2 sheets and 2 mattress pads on the mattress. I don’t know about the softness/SIDS factor but I do know that most of the crib sheets are (and should be) quite tight so that the baby can’t bunch a whole lot of fabric up. I’m not sure you’d be able to fit more than one sheet over one mattress pad.
A few other ideas might be to use the large “lap pads” (at least at the beginning when they aren’t moving around). Or I’ve seen (but never used) QuickZip sheets where you can just zip off the top part and leave the part that goes around the mattress.
Frankly even with all the serious spit-up issue my little one dealt with and some seriously leaking diapers, I’ve never had to change anything other than the sheet unless it’s regular washing day. I just take the top sheet off, maybe wipe off the plastic part of the mattress pad and put a new sheet back on.