Having a baby is hard, and I knew that going in. I expected the no sleep bit, the recovering after the birth bit, and learning all new skills bit as well. What I wasn’t prepared for was the onslaught of marketing and advertising directed at us new mums, all encouraging us to buy, buy, buy when we’re at our most vulnerable.
It’s been estimated that the cost of raising a child in Australia from birth to the age of 18 is close to $1 million; beyond the basic necessities, that's a lot of other stuff. Babies are big business, and as a result there seems to be no end to products marketed to parents (usually sleep-deprived mums). There are products that promise to make your baby smarter, to keep them healthy, safe and germ free, and that will supposedly help them sleep better. And it can make you feel like a bad parent if you don't buy them all.
When I became a mum for the first time I was already working as a consumer affairs journalist for CHOICE. Given that I was hardwired to see beyond the gloss of marketing and advertising tricks, I should have been the most rational new mother around when it came to hitting the shops. So how did I react?
In truth, I reacted like many new mothers: with a mix of confusion, intimidation and a dash of panic. I wanted the best for my baby, but thanks to the sheer range of products positioned as 'must haves' I managed to make some pretty poor purchasing decisions, many of which are still clogging up my house to this day. There was the stroller that looked great but didn't fit through the supermarket checkout (let alone into the car boot), and the thermometer so I could tell if her bathwater was too hot or cold (apparently my elbow wasn't up to the task). To help her sleep, I bought a teddy bear that made white noise and a lavender-infused bath wash (neither worked but she smelt great!).
When CHOICE became involved with the consumer affairs show The Checkout (Thursdays, 8pm, ABC1) the team working on it called out for story ideas. As a new(ish) parent, useless products for babies and kids were at the very top of my list. The show’s writers, presenters and producers – Julian Morrow and Craig Reucassel – are also parents of young kids, and they agreed. As a result, we wrote a series of fake advertisements skewering some of the more ridiculous products out there. And while it’s very common for advertising to feature a busy mum, we decided a “guilty” mum would be closer to the truth.
We’ve all seen the picture perfect mothers in advertising land, flogging the latest must-have product while holding their perfect babies. For The Checkout’s Guilty Mum there isn't a parenting problem she can't shop her way out of, because it seems that for every baby 'problem', it’s guaranteed there’s a product available promising a solution.
While doing our research, we found enough products to keep Guilty Mum going for the next couple of years. Here are a couple of my personal bugbears.
Baby kneepads and safety helmets
Babies have been crawling and learning to walk with no problems for thousands of years … until now. While it's debatable that these products actually work, just getting your baby to keep them on is the greater challenge – the babies we tried them out on hated them and spent most of their time trying to pull them off.
There’s a proliferation of vitamins that are specifically aimed at babies and kids. Some promise to help support their immune system so they don’t get sick when they go to daycare (I wish!), while others promise to assist “brain health”. Others play on the fear that your child may not be getting the best nutrition. But experts say that if your child is eating normally there’s no need for supplements and vitamins – and there’s nothing that will stop your child catching a cold. Vitamins and supplements really can be a waste of money.
The Vinci Tablet
This product was recently voted the worst toy in America. This iPad-like device is designed for babies six months and up, and is just one example of the ‘educational’ products available to help your baby learn, from DVDs to flashcards. Experts say that the best way your babies learn is from you – and that’s cheap, always available and needs no battery charging!
Watch The Checkout on ABC1, Thursdays at 8pm. You can also watch 'As a Guilty Mum: Baby Bums' below.