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5 Baby Gifts That Every Parent Actually Needs

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As little as they are, babies seem to demand a lot of stuff. At least from the new parent's perspective, that is. Take a look at any parent-to-be's baby shower registry and you will see hundreds of items, adding up to thousands of dollars -- blankets, breast pumps, pack-n-plays, car seats, bouncy chairs, swings, strollers, baby monitors, activity mats -- and that's not even taking into account the really big ticket items like the crib, changing table and rocking chair (which, by the way, is still a source of contention between my husband and me).

The baby industry and their keen marketing folks have made it their job to convince parents (and those shopping for baby gifts) that good baby products equals good babies equals good parents. Soothing sound machines and baby wipe warmers and countless other ridiculous baby products are absolutely essential to being a good parent, at least that's what we are led to believe.

I, for one, was a baby product marketer's dream come true. We had not one, but two, diaper genies. I bought about 10 different kinds of swaddle blankets, all in a desperate attempt to find the one that would bring some much-needed sleep. And I had countless cute little sleepers -- with buttons -- that were worn once before I realized that buttons are one of the most impractical clothing accessories for babies ever.

Since the birth of my first son nearly seven years ago, I have realized (the hard way) that there are actually only a few things that every child needs and even fewer things that parents need. And, fortunately, most of them don't cost a thing other than love, patience and a little compassion.

5 Things That Parents Actually Need:

1. A free pass on thank-you notes. Few things are as stressful and guilt-inducing as looking at all those baby gifts and knowing that they require an overwhelming amount of thank-you notes to be written, addressed, stamped and mailed. While this might seem like an ordinarily trivial task, for the parent-to-be or new parent, it is all just so... exhausting. Give the parents-to-be a free pass on a thank-you note and you are not only giving them a few extra minutes to sleep, read, relax or cuddle their new baby, but you are giving them back their sanity.

2. Specific offers to help. Let me be clear here: There is a big difference between agreeing to help and offering to help. While they are both helpful and appreciated, agreeing to help once asked always makes the asker feel indebted in some way. An offer to help before the new parent needs to ask, on the other hand, is like a free pass. And the more specific, the better. General offers to help like "let me know what I can do" are great, but nothing beats a specific "I will be at your house tomorrow at 1:00 so you can go get a mani/pedi" offer to help.

3. Food. Casseroles, salads, cookies, granola bars, gift certificates, take-out menus, anything. All food is welcome. Preferably in disposable containers with paper plates and napkins included.

4. Your presence (not presents). Let's be honest, being a new parent can be soul-crushingly lonely at times. If the new parent is at home with the baby, call in the middle of the afternoon just to see what's new on "Ellen." Take an early morning walk with the new mom and her baby. Come over in the middle of a Saturday afternoon to watch a Cubs game with the new dad while he bounces junior on his knee. Answer the mom-to-be's middle of the night frantic texts about night sweats and crib bumpers. Your presence -- consistent and relaxed -- is more meaningful than any presents could be.

5. A judgment-free zone. Few things destroy a person's self-esteem like parenthood. Just when I thought that I had this whole being an adult thing figured out, my son came along to show me just how little I really know. I was -- and still am -- overwhelmed, uncertain, frazzled and exhausted. All of this is exacerbated by the comparison game and subtle (and not-so-subtle) judgments. Give empathy, a shoulder to cry on and a listening ear -- all without judgment. Believe me, most parents are judging themselves enough already.