You've just found out you're having a baby, and you want to go shopping and buy all the things. Putting together a nursery and buying clothes, toys and safety products for the new little person in your life can be enjoyable, but it can also be extremely expensive - Australians spent $4.38 billion on baby products last year alone! Among all the marketing hoopla, how do you work out what your actually baby needs?

Baby's first steps – to the shops

A quick flick through pregnancy magazines or visit to one of the enormous babies and kids expos that tour the country shows the power of marketing when it comes to parenthood.

The array of products available is mindboggling, from the basics – such as cots, strollers and clothes, to the extreme – knee pads for babies learning to crawl and crash helmets for those learning to walk, not to mention the array of surveillance devices to ensure your baby is under watch 24 hours a day. And then there are the products promising to help your baby sleep, eat and/or develop better.

Consumer psychologist (and new dad) Adam Ferrier says that the babies and kids market segment has unique emotional qualities: status, safety and nurturing. "These are all very powerful things to build a brand on," he says. 

"For parents, there's a genuine need for approval and to do the right thing. Because you are so inexperienced at being a parent, and there is a massive discrepancy between your actual and your ideal self, that's something marketers can play into."

While there are plenty of things on the market for babies (and kids) that parents really don't need, advertising and marketing like to imply otherwise says registered midwife, early childhood nurse and author of acclaimed Australian baby-care book Babylove, Robin Barker.

"It's full-on for a first-time mother the first time she's hit with all this stuff," she says. "There are so many different brands out there and they are all working hard to make you feel guilty."

Losing perspective

Dr James Best is a Sydney-based GP who specialises in babies and children and is the author of an upcoming book, Kidsense. He's noticed rising levels of guilt and anxiety in parents he sees in his practice, particularly when it comes to what they think they should be doing - and buying - for their children.

Best says that where once parents would have learned from "the village" and other parents, in modern life they tend to learn from marketing, the internet and advertising. "Many parents I see, particularly with their first child, are absolute sitting ducks for vulnerability in all kinds of respects. You can't help but want to care for your child - you can't resist it - and marketers know that. What the marketing implies is that you must be perfect, you must do everything and tick every box.

"As an example, you'll see parents tying themselves up in knots to provide their baby with perfect organic meals – when perhaps something out of a jar would be just fine. But then they'll go and buy something such as an amber teething necklace, which is a choking hazard. It's easy to lose perspective."

The 'kiddie-safety industrial complex'

Lenore Skenazy, US-based author of the best-selling book Free-Range Kids, tours the world speaking about what she calls the "kiddie safety industrial complex" and modern parents' obsession with safety and the stuff that we need to buy to supposedly protect them. "The market these days supports the idea that somehow our kids are too vulnerable, and that we are too inept, to keep them alive without a phalanx of stuff no other generation in history ever needed," she says.

Skenazy points out products entering the mainstream market that were designed for children with disabilities: "There is a onesie (jumpsuit) that monitors your baby's breathing and sends you a text. There are baby monitors that allow you to check on your baby via a special camera, [and] helmets and harnesses to help them learn to walk."

"The marketplace has taught us that the babies won't 'work' on their own – that you need to buy 'stuff' [to get them to work]," she says. "As soon as you implant that fear in a parent you can extract money from them."

Proceed with caution

So how do parents avoid the marketing guff and work out what's really necessary? Barker says there are a few basics that babies really need and, beyond that, let common sense prevail. "If it seems too good to be true, it probably is."

Products promising to induce sleep or stop crying particularly irk Barker. "It's a shame when a mother takes her child to a pharmacy and says that the baby is crying. But instead of being told 'that's what babies do', the pharmacist will probably try to sell her some kind of product for colic or wind that we know won't work."

She is equally dismissive of the vast range of kid-specific food, drinks and personal care products available in most supermarkets. "A baby can eat full-strength yoghurt from the very beginning, so they don't need special baby yoghurt. Equally, babies over the age of 12 months don't need special toddler formula or milk – they can go straight onto regular cow's milk."

Barker concedes that the lure of the market is more than many can stand. "It's full on – and I'll be the first to put my hand up and say I'm a willing and happy consumer too. But when it comes to baby products I really feel that less is more. You have to have your antenna up, and remember advertising is advertising."

Parental priorities

When it comes to parenting, Dr James Best says parents need to know where to put their priorities.

Safety

What's worth worrying about: "Cars seats, bike helmets, protection from serious disease and illness. An awareness of the dangers such as falling from heights, drowning and burns."

What's not: "Worrying excessively about household germs or child abduction and the products that promise to protect them from these things. This is where a parent's anxiety can be totally misplaced."

Development

What's worth worrying about: Getting down on the floor and playing with your child, active listening, role playing. "They need your attention and time. This is how they learn, and the best person they can learn from is you." Reading and talking is how children learn social skills, speech skills and how to interact.

What's not: Any kind of program, course or product that promises to do that. "Babies and children don't need to do a course or use some product – they just need you."

For more on what's a must-have, a nice-to-have and what's best avoided, take a look at our Babies and kids section. For practical safety advice without the hard sell, go to safekids.org