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Question: I’m pregnant and trying to do everything I can now to get ready for my baby. Can you tell me what I need to know about diaper bags? What should I buy, and what should I put in it?

Elizabeth Pantley responds: I’ve gone through about 10 diaper bags in the last 15 years. One thing I noticed is that with each baby, my diaper bag has gotten smaller! With my first baby, I was ready for anything; I put everything imaginable into my diaper bag and lugged it all from place to place. I also continued to carry a purse, so by the time I added coats and a baby, I needed a U-Haul just to get from the house to the car. By now, I’ve reached baby number four and my diaper bag is ten inches by nine inches – and it even contains my wallet and cell phone.

So, to save you a few years (and an aching back), I’ll share what I’ve learned about this ever-present baby necessity.

What kind of diaper bag should I buy?
Diaper bags have come a long way over the years. Many today are stylish carry-everything bags with compartments for all your belongings. While there are an endless assortment of choices, there are similarities between bags. Here are the basic styles:

Hand held or over-the-shoulder tote bag
Many manufacturers have designed specialty diaper bags like large tote bags. These have two handles and/or a shoulder strap.

A backpack-style diaper bag functions like any backpack. These have more length than width and tend to have a smaller opening than a tote bag. The advantage to these is that you will be able to have two hands free to tend to your baby or other children, stroller and anything else. Look for a backpack that is also easy to carry as a tote, since you won’t always want to sling it on your back.

Other styles
In addition to the standard diaper bag styles, you can also find diaper bags made as waist packs, stroller attachments, satchels, duffel bags and more. Don’t rush to make a decision, because there are an abundance of styles to choose from.

The not-a-diaper-bag diaper bag
There’s no rule that says you must buy a diaper bag to use as a diaper bag. A large purse, beach tote or backpack of any kind can work beautifully. So as you shop, look around at all your options.

All of these bags also come with different inside features. Some have one large open space, and others have lots of compartments and built-ins. The advantage to the compartments is that your bag may tend to be more organized and it’ll be easier to find things. The disadvantage is that the size and shape of the compartments don’t always match up to your individual needs.

What size diaper bag?
Diaper bags also come in various sizes. You may find that the best choice is to purchase two bags. This way you can have a small bag for everyday errands and short tips and a big bag for all day excursions.

How to decide which bag?
A key to choosing the right bag is to take a look at the purse you’ve been using; pick a diaper bag that has similarities. For example, if you enjoy a purse with lots of compartments, choose a similar style for your diaper bag; if your purse is one open space, lean towards the same type of diaper bag. If your purse is a backpack version, try the same for a diaper bag.

Another way to gauge your needs is to examine the luggage, computer cases and makeup bags that you’ve enjoyed using and figure out which features most appeal to you about these carriers. Duplicate them in your diaper bag choice.

When shopping for a bag, take along a list of the things you’ll expect to carry in your bag. As you look through various bags envision the items on your list. In which compartments will you carry which items? Will your things fit in the designed sections? For example, will your wallet fit in the space provided for it?

What to look for in a diaper bag
Once you’ve thought about what kind of bag to purchase, keep this list handy for your shopping trip. Since your bag will get nearly everyday use, it can be frustrating to be stuck with the wrong choice. Here are a few tips:

Fabric Is it sturdy and durable? Will it hold up to daily use?
Washability Can it be wiped clean or is it machine washable?
Quality Are zippers, snaps and Velcro openings smooth and well-constructed?
Straps Are the straps adjustable to your size and your partner’s size? Are they comfortable and easy to adjust?
Weight Is it lightweight? (A bag that starts out heavy is a burden when filled.)
Design Will everything you plan to carry fit inside, without a lot of extra, wasted space? Will it still zip or fasten shut when it’s filled with your belongings? If the top is shut with a drawstring, will it shut tightly when full?
Size Will it fit in the bottom of your stroller?
Compartments Do the number and size of compartments match your needs? Are they logically organized?
Changing pad Is a changing pad included? Is it big enough for your growing baby without being bulky and hard to fold? Does it take up too much space inside the bag? (Changing pads that are attached to the bag aren’t at all practical.)
Accessories Does it have the extras that you need? Are there extras that you’re paying for but will never use?
Style If both Mommy and Daddy will be carrying the bag, does it have an appealing unisex design? Most men (and many women) prefer not to carry a bag covered with pictures of Winnie-the-Pooh and his friends.

Practical use
As you use your bag you’ll figure out what works best for you. Keep these thoughts in mind:

Keep your small diaper bag where you normally keep your purse and coat. Stash your big bag in the car so it’s ready to go when you are.

When you return home from a trip, unpack, restock and put the bag back in the car or the small bag on your counter, so that it’s ready for your next event. Clean out dirty diapers, used bottles and old food as soon as you get home to avoid spills and smells.

If your diaper bag is not baby-proofed because it contains plastic bags and small choking hazards, then always keep it out of your baby’s reach.

Store your wallet and keys inside the bag, not in an easily accessible outside pouch where they could fall out or be stolen.

If you keep valuables in your diaper bag, treat it with the same care you treat your wallet and purse. Thieves know that diaper bags often contain money and credit cards.

Put your name and phone number on your diaper bag in case it gets left behind on one of your outings.

Your short trip mini-bag

Diapers and diaper covers (one for each hour away from home)
Baby wipes or wet washcloths in baggies, or dry washcloths to be wet
Changing pad
Empty plastic bag
Breast pads or Formula and bottles
Sippy cup or two water bottles (one for you)
Receiving blanket
Toys or teething rings & pacifier
Baby food, snacks, spoon, bib
Note card with name, address and emergency numbers
Your cell phone & wallet

Your all day diaper bag

Diapers and diaper covers (one for each hour away from home)
Baby wipes or wet washcloths in baggies
Changing pad
Diaper ointment
Empty plastic bags
Formula and bottles or breast pads
Bottle cooler, insulated bottle holder or thermos
Sippy cup or two water bottles (one for you)
One or two receiving blankets
Toys or teething rings & two pacifiers
Baby books
Complete set of baby’s clothes
Baby’s jacket or sweater
Extra shirt for you if baby spits up
Baby food, snacks, spoon, bib
Snack for you
Note card with name, address and emergency numbers
Sunscreen, hat & sunglasses
Ibuprofen or acetaminophen for baby
Aspirin for you
Phone card or change for phone calls
Disposable camera
Extra set of keys
Disposable place mat
Sling or baby carrier
Your cell phone & wallet

This response is excerpted from Gentle Baby Care by Elizabeth Pantley.

© Elizabeth Pantley

Parenting educator Elizabeth Pantley is the author of numerous parenting books, including the widely cited The No-Cry Sleep Solution: Gentle Ways to Help Your Baby Sleep Through the Night. Buy her books at She is a regular radio show guest and is quoted frequently on the web and in national family and women’s publications. Elizabeth lives in Washington state with her husband, their four children and her mother. Visit her at


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