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The Definitive Guide to Diaper Bags

The Bag Drag

New moms have been known to go shopping in their bedroom slippers, and many a bleary-eyed mama has ventured into public without the benefit of a shower. But like an American Express card, there’s one thing the mother of a young child will simply not leave home without: her diaper bag.

Like a first-aid kit to a paramedic or a supply pack to a hiker, the diaper bag is a parent’s safety net and lifeline when the going gets rough in public. Stocked with fresh diapers, an extra pacifier and a warm blanket, it’s a baby’s home away from home. For women who choose trendy patterns and designer labels, the bag doubles as a purse and is carefully selected to make a fashion statement. For others, the bag belongs to the baby and her personality is reflected in its pink toile with pom-pom fringe or in the navy blue fabric with his name embroidered on the side. One of the country’s bestselling diaper bags is a practical black and tan tote that both moms and dads feel comfortable carrying, and that can double as a gym bag or carry-on luggage once the babies turn into big kids.

With all the choices out there, how do you decide which diaper bag is right for you? Think of it this way: diaper bags are like cars—80 percent of the parts are ubiquitous. It’s the 20 percent that comprise the features and style that sets each one apart. Every automobile has four wheels, a steering wheel and an engine, but you select a car based on details like sunroofs, paint colors, and safety records.

The fact is that most diaper bags, whether they’re purchased secondhand on eBay for $20 or handmade in New York and personalized with your child’s name for $300, all come with a standard set of features: a matching changing pad, elastic bands or pockets to hold bottles, numerous compartments for snacks, wipes, extra clothes, rattles, pacifiers and other miscellaneous baby gear, a big space in the middle for diapers and receiving blankets, and wide straps for comfort.

Some models boast cell phone holders, key clips, insulated sections to keep milk cool, and waterproof zippered baggies to store soiled onesies or dirty diapers. Most bags are machine washable. Taking wash-ability a step further, plastic-covered totes are becoming increasingly popular. Therefore, just as you decide whether you’re the cherry red sports car type or a practical blue minivan person, before embarking on your search for a diaper bag, you have to determine what your needs are and what sort of bag you’ll feel happy carrying everywhere you go for the next few years.

Hold Everything!

I have a friend who bought a minivan upon the birth of her first child. While her son took up a mere 22 inches of space in the car, she filled it with entire mega packs of diapers, a stroller that was never folded down, and a complete chest of drawers in the very back to hold extra clothes, wipes, toys, snacks, and random infant whatnot. The amount of baby supplies in that van could have outfitted an entire daycare, but she enjoys spending time shopping and eating out, so having all that stuff on hand made her feel secure. It was a rolling nursery, but it kind of made sense based on the amount of time she liked to spend away from home.

It was no surprise when this friend purchased a very large, vinyl-covered diaper bag (aptly named The Mothership, by Fleurville) when her second child arrived. The bag is big enough to hold the large diapers her toddler son needs, plus his goldfish crackers, sippy cup, and a couple of crayons to keep him busy, while leaving plenty of room for newborn diapers, burp cloths, and the nearly 10 million wet wipes mothers of multiple munchkins go through each day.

Take a look at your purse and car. If either one is large or overflowing, there’s a good chance you could use a big diaper bag. You’ll be at your wits’ end with a slimmed down model that only fits a spare diaper and a couple of wipes. Where will you put your wallet, your cell phone, your grocery list, gum, mints, sunglasses, keys, lipstick, checkbook, hairbrush, tissues, spare nursing pads, formula powder, tube of diaper cream, teething rings, etc.? If you tend to over pack on vacation and your stuff takes up more than 50 percent of the closet space in the bedroom, go with an oversized bag. Big bags are great for moms of multiples and they’re also a good choice for the family with a preschooler and a new baby.

Minimalists

If you’re the gal who heads out the door with lip balm in one pocket and a credit card in the other, a streamlined diaper bag is for you. These tiny totes have enough room for the essentials but won’t overwhelm you with bells and whistles a just-the-basics mom like you won’t use. They hold a couple of diapers, a small travel pack of wipes, and one or two other small items like a bottle or cup of snacks for an older sibling. Models such as the Strolling Tote and Ju Ju Be Small bag are manageable, inexpensive, and fit easily into the bottom of a stroller or even inside a large purse. They’re perfect for no-fuss parents.

The less-is-more crowd is making sling bags popular too. Combi, Little Company, and JJ Cole each make a product that resembles a slimmed-down messenger bag or skinny backpack which drapes across your chest and shoulder, leaving your hands free. The back strap contains mini-compartments for all the basics. This is a great option for parents who need both arms free to push a stroller and hold hands with a toddler or who desire a hip alternative to a bulky diaper bag. The sling is modern and cool, so fathers won’t mind wearing it, and—unlike the bags decorated with baby bears or pastel stripes—most people won’t even know what it is!

Realists

Since most diaper bags double as purses from time to time when Mom throws her wallet and keys into it (Do you always want to carry two bags into every store and restaurant?), the reverse is also possible. Plenty of women just toss their baby items into a large purse and hit the road. Big purses are in style these days, so it makes sense that in addition to carrying your essentials, they can handle the baby’s, too.

Diaper bag purists will argue that your hip hobo bag doesn’t have all those nifty interior pockets to keep jars of baby food separate from drool bibs or bottles of hand sanitizer, but I’ve seen a lot of diaper bags, and most of the junk moms carry around eventually winds up in a jumble in the big space in the center anyway. Start exploring the pockets of a diaper bag that’s been in use for six months and you’ll see what I mean. You’re likely to discover a tiny pair of socks that don’t fit anymore, a dusty wet wipe used to get a stain off Mom’s shirt, and an expired coupon for diapers. The specialized compartments sound like a great idea, but who really has time to put everything in its proper place when you’re crouched in the backseat of your car to change a baby who’s pooped up the back of his pajamas or you’re trying to drive with one hand and figure out where to store extra teething biscuits with the other?

The most practical, no-nonsense folks ditch the idea of diaper-bag-as-fashion accessory and simply wear a backpack. The benefit of the pack is obvious—your hands are free to deal with whatever comes down the road. Backpacks are also sturdy, easy to clean, and come with a few useful zippered areas. Dads have no qualms about carrying them either. The BabyTrend ActivPak is popular with mothers of multiples, who need both hands at all times. California Innovations makes a cool, sporty baby pack, while OshKosh B’Gosh makes a pack that’s color coordinated with its stroller.

Backpacks do have their downsides. While a bag on your shoulder can be cumbersome and slip off, it’s easy to access and simple to set down. Backpacks require that you remove them completely to get to the goodies inside, and that can be a pain when you need to grab a burp cloth to catch some spit up or when you just want to get your wallet out. Traditional packs can be tough to pull off with dressier clothes, so designers like Sally Spicer and Oi Oi make posh fabric baby packs that blend style and usability.

Fashion vs. Function

Once you’re decided what type of diaper bag fits your needs, the last step is choosing a look. The options are endless: Visit the playground on any given day and you’ll spy totes covered with pink and green polka dots, Asian embroidery, Winnie the Pooh cartoons, and Louis Vuitton signature prints.

If you’re a designer label kind of lady, consider one of the hot kimono inspired Petunia Pickle Bottom eggroll bags or a snazzy pattern by designers Bumkins or Reese Li. They’re eye-catching and gorgeous, but beware that some upscale carryalls are dry clean only.

Coach and Kate Spade make classy, understated leather diaper bags if you want to go upscale without a bold pattern. Nine West and others offer mid-price bags in sleek black or tan microfiber. They wipe off easily, go with everything, and double as overnight bags in later years.

Plenty of women feel just fine with their own purse, thank you, and prefer to keep the baby supplies in a baby-inspired tote. That’s where Disney prints or Beatrix Potter patterns can help coordinate a newborn’s luggage to his nursery. Monogramming the baby’s name on the outside not only personalizes your little one’s gear but also helps parents and childcare staff quickly spot the right bag.

When a mom isn’t looking to make a statement at all, she’ll go for a functional bag like a Lands’ End tote or the bestselling Eddie Bauer Weekender. These have all the features you’ll ever need without the fussiness you don’t. Single color or two-tone bags are available at baby supply stores, Target, and online for as little as $15. These simple carryalls are perfect for sporty moms on the go, dads at the park, and anyone who realizes that people only have eyes for the baby!

Speaking of Dads on Diaper Duty, a few savvy companies have discovered that guys like to look cool with their babies, too. Manly diaper bags are here! Companies such as Skip Hop and Diaper Dude sell camouflage messenger-style bags or basic black ones with a kung-fu dragon or multi-colored guitars stitched on the side. Nothing says Proud Papa like a diaper bag made just for him.

The Constant Companion

Like your new baby, your diaper bag will go with you almost everywhere you go, so take time to check out all the options and get the one that best fits your needs and your style. Before you take the tags off, fill it up with your baby gear to see if it’s got all the features you want. Wear it around for an hour or so to determine if it feels comfortable and is easy to get into. Does it look good with your favorite outfits? Is it easy to clean? Will you feel good carrying it every day for the next three years?

If you buy a bag and quickly realize that it’s not quite right, turn around and resell it on eBay or at a baby consignment store, as thousands of women do each day, then pick out another from the great deals they offer. But if you’ve found the perfect bag, stock it with everything your little one needs and hit the road, Mama!

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