The curse of too much choice

Almost everyone who has spent time in the developing world knows the paralysis that can hit you in the cereal aisle of any well-stocked grocery store after returning to a land of plenty. There’s something about trying to pick from 435 types of cereal after you have been confronted with the fact that many people in this world have no choice in what they eat for breakfast – and, indeed, count themselves lucky to have breakfast at all – that is both horrifying and overwhelming.

The particular type of guilty, angry immobility that can ensue when you are smacked in the face by this sort of shocking abundance of choice does not, unfortunately, only strike in the cereal aisle. In the past I’ve found myself overwhelmed in the milk aisle, the cheese section, and when trying to select toilet paper. I also learned long ago not to go near Starbucks during the first three days after returning from Africa.

Yesterday, when I picked up a magazine devoted to comparing various baby-essential products, I was unexpectedly ambushed by a similar dynamic.

I am now almost seven months pregnant, and pretty much the sum total of my material preparation for this baby has consisted of organizing to buy a crib and a set of drawers from friends in Laos and handing out my address to lovely friends across oceans who have posted me a bunch of maternity and baby clothes they no longer need. So in browsing this magazine that someone gave me last Friday, I was trying to do the responsible thing and start to plan ahead.

Maybe I should have left well enough alone.

“What did you do today?” Mike asked me when we talked on skype last night.

“Well, one of the things I did was look through a baby magazine and get totally overwhelmed by adds for 500 different products, each of which had 500 different choices,” I said.

“And each of which cost 500 different dollars?” Mike asked.

“Sometimes more. Strollers and cots and baby carriers and car seats and nappy rash creams and diapers and baby monitors and… There was this one cot – some European design – very cute, round, wooden slats, on wheels. Guess how much?”

“$1200.00,” Mike said.


“Well, if you really have your heart set on a round, European wooden cot on wheels,” Mike said, “then cut out the picture and we can bring it back here and take it to the nice Vietnamese man who made our bookshelves and he can make it for a whole lot cheaper than that.”

“No,” I said, “the cot we’re getting second hand there for fifty bucks will do just fine. But, the point is, I got totally flooded and I’ve decided that I don’t want the baby anymore.”

“Well, to me that statement implies that you have wanted the baby at some point. So, therefore, I think we’re making good progress,” Mike said cheerfully.

“Yeah, well,” I said, “since I left Laos it’s just been me and the baby, no you or Zulu to distract me, and I started to feel quite kindly towards him at times – you know, when he wasn’t kicking me hard from the inside. Overall I’d say I’ve been neutral-positive towards the baby most of the last week. But not today. Now I’ve changed my mind.”

“Neutral-positive is great!” Mike said. “You are making progress.”

“But now I’ve changed my mind,” I said.

“Because of a magazine? You know, plenty of people the world over have babies in places like Laos and manage to somehow do without fancy strollers and round European cots and organic diaper rash cream,” Mike said.

“And $95.00 thermometers that can take your babies temperature without you having to touch them?” I asked.

“Yeah, those too.”

“I think this is the part of the conversation where I’m supposed to admit that you have a point and change my mind back, but I’m not there yet,” I said.

Now, of course, part of my reaction to being assaulted by this magazine was wrapped up in my ongoing ambivalence related to impending motherhood. And maybe part of it was due to just being one week away from the visible poverty of Laos. But most of it, I believe, was simply the burden we feel when we’re “overloaded by options.”

It seems funny, doesn’t it? Most Western societies are founded on the premise that the way to maximize personal freedom and happiness is to maximize choice. Increasingly, however, psychologists are suggesting that past a certain point this equation does not hold true, and that this point is reached long before you have 285 types of cookies and 175 types of salad dressings to choose from.

Barry Schwartz, who delivered a fascinating TED Talk in 2005 called The Paradox of Choice, even argues that what is true of salad dressing is also true of too many available choices related to health care, where and when we work, and perhaps even decisions related to marriage and parenthood. Too much choice, he says, produces paralysis rather than liberation. And even when we manage to overcome this paralysis and make a choice we often end up less satisfied with the result of our choice than we would have been if we’d had fewer options to choose from.

So what’s the answer to this when it comes to baby gear? I don’t know. Clearly I will need to figure out what to do about a stroller and diapers at some point in the near future, but I’m certainly going to limit my exposure to baby magazine issues devoted to comparative advertising. Maybe I’ll just go the old fashioned route and ask those who have trodden this path before me to share their wisdom.

So, (virtual) neighbors. Any recommendations regarding stroller models, cloth diaper brands, baby carrier types, and other essential must-haves, leave a comment!

And, on a broader note, have you ever been overloaded by too many options? What has triggered this for you in the past?

47 responses to “The curse of too much choice

  1. “Neighbor” and “diaper” in the one post. You’ve crossed over to the dark side 😉

    Keep it simple, that’s all I’d say really. If a product has fifty different uses, chances are 49 of them are useless. And remember that after you have the baby, shops will still exist so you don’t need to buy everything before it arrives… you can always go after if you find there is something you need that you don’t have. I had to buy a full outfit for Susannah once while we were at the shops (including a new box of nappies) because she did some rather impressive bowel-fireworks and I had nothing spare with me 😀

    Also, babies don’t care what they have or they don’t. They care about being cuddled, warm and loved. The $1499 cot is no substitute for your arms.

    I’ve never used cloth nappies myself, but I’m told you can get samples of them to try so you can figure out what works best on your baby so look into that if you want to use cloth – they’re all shaped differently so different nappies work better on some than others.

    That’s all I got 🙂 I really should wash something – I’ve got six weeks left…

  2. You’re so right, there’s so much baby stuff out there it’s hard to know what you really need. My all time favourite thing was the baby khtan sling I tried a few and this was the absolute best, especially from 2-8 months when my babies liked to fight sleep. Mike always preferred the Bjorn though and this was handy for outings when I needed a rest. Other than that, a good supply of muslin wraps, onesies, wondersuits, a cheapo bouncer and activity mat should see you through nearly the first year. Hugo’s favourite toy was a collection of plastic cups and Isi’s loves the wooden spoons out of the kitchen drawer.

    Strollers are hard – I have the Baby Jogger City Mini, which has been great for travel as it folds so easily with one hand, keeps out the sun really well and it has stood the test of time. But I’d try to go even smaller if I was doing it again!

  3. When it came to the pram I was also overwhelmed by choice. I was fairly sure of a few things I wanted in it 3 wheels, toddler seat available, not too wide) but other than that I wasn’t sure. In the end mum (who was kindly purchasing this item for us) rang up and said I saw a Valco Matrix GT Plus and I think it looks good. I then looked at it on the net for 5 minutes and said, “That’ll do Mum”. I’m not sure where that leaves you though – make you mum make some decisions 😀

    • Excellent idea. After all, she did a large part of the wedding organizing. I bet she’d do equally well with the baby planning. I will inform her tomorrow that I’ve decided to deputize her. I’m sure she’ll be thrilled :).

  4. There is a great book about what you need for a baby and what you don’t. It also rates all the gear in terms of safety, usability, price, etc. etc. It’s called ‘Baby Bargains’. It was written in the US so I don’t know how much variation there is between brands here and there. We only had a few diapers and clothes when Zoey was born. Which was kind of lucky because we found out very quickly we could live without all the other stuff. However, I’m not sure I would want to have a baby without a boppy pillow — it totally saved my back. 😉

    • I have something similar to a boppy pillow in Laos, I think. Some friends passed it along. It’s called… wait for it… “breast friend”. But I’m going to google boppy pillow anyway and check this sucker out.

  5. We checked consumer reports before we bought some of the gear to check for safety features. We got the travel system from Chicco (car seat and stroller) and we’re very happy with it. The car seat is heavy but it was rated the safest so we went for this one.
    These were are main purchases. We got the crib and co sleeper from friends. And we got bouncer and carriers in the babyshower. We have the mobby wrap and the baby bjorn. I like the mobby, Omar likes the bjorn. The bjorn hurts my back cause it has no support on the hips. I would prefer any carrier that gets the weight mainly on the hips.
    We got a boppy pillow for nursing and I’ve used it every single day, I am still doing so. Best purchase ever.
    Cloth diapers overwhelmed me completely when I was researching them, I still don’t understand them. In the end the first month with Isaf was so overwhelming because of many breastfeeding problems that I just went the easy route and used disposables, I couldn’t add any extra thing to my day at that point!
    I second what others said, buy the minimum and then you can add things if you feel you need them.
    good luck! this is so exciting!

    • Thanks Cora! Another vote for the boppy pillow. I’m so googling that. And as for car seats… we need to figure out if we’re going to get one here. I guess we need to get one at least on loan to bring bub home, but we have a 2nd hand one in Laos (and no car, or not often) so I’m sort of loath to take one back with us. We’ll see. Hope you three are doing well. I love seeing your photos on fb.

  6. It’s so good to hear your perspective on this. My husband and I are scraping by on one small income so I can stay home with our son, and we literally do not have the money to revel in consumerism – and that’s fine by me. It removes tons of choices and makes things simpler. But sometimes I feel guilty when accosted by all the baby-related advertising… even though I know that’s a ridiculous reaction.

    Someone mentioned the baby K’tan carrier above. I would agree that a wrap (or two) is a great investment. We have a Moby that someone gave us. I had to watch a few YouTube tutorials to learn how to tie it, but it’s so unbelievably comfortable and my son loved it.

    As far as the rest of it, keep it simple and you can always get something else after the baby arrives! You don’t have to have a designer nursery and $2,000 worth of baby gear in order to be a loving parent (which I keep reminding myself of).

    • Great, I’ll be checking out the wraps then. I think my sister has a 2nd hand baby bjorn, but I suspect for around the house a wrap might work better. I’ll be looking into it. And, yeah, there’s no way any of us need to buy half (or 3/4) of this stuff to be great parents!

  7. Yeah…too many choices on baby items can drive a woman insane – especially while still pregnant! Glad you are not there yet…I hope! 🙂

    One thing I discovered was that your baby can go through 6 onesies (or more) in a day…so having lots of onesies was a blessing to me, as was having cloth diapers (some of which were used as a covering for the baby’s little bum, and others as burping cloths), diaper rash lotion, medicated baby powder (for heat rash on upper torso), loads of disposable diapers (wonderful when traveling), as well as baby wipes.

    It is the day-to-day items that were the most important. I do wish I would have had a nursing pillow but most pillows did help as did my rocking chair on which to rest my arm.

    Lisa, I am sure you will make good decisions – especially since your mother is there to give her advise on what she needed while raising you and your siblings.

    • Mum has been known to look at me blankly and claim she can’t remember half this stuff :). But, seriously, it’s good being here and it’ll be good to have family around when the baby comes. Good tip on the onesies. I’ll check out 2nd hand stock.

  8. Just remember that baby manufacturers want to sell stuff, and the more of it the better. You don’t need most of the stuff that they peddle. Honestly you can make do with a cot, a stroller and not a lot else. On our kids first Christmas they played with the boxes and wrapping paper more than anything else.

    Most of the really expensive buggies are unecessary. And if you are travelling internationally with children, you want it to be not too heavy or bulky when it is folded. (We downgraded to a Maclaren Quest when they were slightly older for travelling as it was much lighter – always a boon if you have to get two kids onto an international flight by yourself)

    • Yeah, light and easily foldable, and rugged enough to go off pavement – that’s what we’re looking for. So at least I know that and I can scan the adds with some filters in place next time I’m brave enough to try. And as for Christmas and birthday presents for a one year old… yeah, I think boxes and wrapping paper would just about do it.

  9. Jonathan Hicks

    Hey Lisa-

    It is all very overwhelming how many choices we have! Don’t focus on 90% of it. It’s really funny when talking to our parents about all of the things available for babies now that they never knew they needed. Haha. as far as cloth diapers go we have bee using the ones from Bumgenius and love them. We also have GroVia and are happy with them but they aren’t great for overnight or longer periods of time as they are not as absorbent as the Bumgenius. The one thing that is nice about the GroVia is that the liners can come out and be replaced if the diaper is just wet. Feel free to ask any other questions about diapers that I haven’t answered. I know there are a lot. We have some friends that decided to do the cloth diapers and got us into it. I called them a bunch of times to pick their brains, so I don’t mind answering questions for someone else. 😉

    • Aha, I’ve heard good things about Bumgenius. I’ll have to look them up and see if they’re available here or whether that’s a US thing. I might come back to you on this one. Hope you’re well. And how’s the book coming (ah, if you’ve had any time to write in the last six months. If not, no worries, this crazy stage will pass… or so others keep telling me).

  10. Your first two paragraphs summarize a horror that I can’t shake. Perhaps they should be printed and laminated and hung like a placard around my neck while shopping. That way when people find me starting, dumb-struck in a grocery isle and ask if I need help, I can just point to the article.

    I have coping rules:
    – Never shop at Whole Foods Market. My neighbor calls it the “100 Dollar Store” as a play on the trendy “100 mile store” craze.
    – Never buy anything labeled “organic” in protest to the marketer’s highjacking of an otherwise good idea.
    – Only look at the generic/no label/no brand versions of whatever as that quickly narrows the choices to a more essential level.
    – Whenever possible, send someone else to the store and just enjoy whatever they bring home.

    Thanks for the lovely story.

    • You are welcome, and yay for coping rules. I think they do heaps to protect sanity. I loved shopping at Trader Joe’s because they had all this cool stuff from around the world, but there stores were always small to medium sized!

  11. Well, dear friend, it seems that you have lots and lots of ideas fro other neighbors regarding baby gear and whatnot. and I agree with most that the majority of it all is not needed. On the one hand…its helpful to register for just about everything you think you might need so that you have the possibility of getting it at showers and whatnot, and on the other hand, you’ll do just fine without any of it. I say, take it or leave it, you, Mike, and baby boy will be fine either way.

    • I think we shalt be showerless. I haven’t organized anything, anyway. And it hardly seems fair to be asking people here locally – friends of mum’s or whatever – to be attending a baby shower for us. So that’ll save the trouble of registering, but I do need to start keeping an excel spreadsheet of what we need and what recommended brands are, just for the sake of my own over-full head (which is still mostly full of work, I must admit, there is still heaps to do on my projects in the next three weeks). Hope you FOUR are well!!

  12. And as far as being overwhelmed by choice….I had an emotional meltdown at the mall the first Christmas I was home from China. I had already been home for five months, but I found myself cowering behind a fake tree in the middle of the mall trying to hide from the crazy Christmas shoppers.
    I had a similar meltdown in the shampoo aisle. 🙂

  13. Most likely for you the only important commercial item you should pick is the carrier….I love the bjorn with the low lumbar support, very important for those with back issues, not the bjorn original….this is key for you as you will be walking tons vs driving, and can even ride on a scooter as a passneger and safely carry baby….plus it goes up to a big height and weight limit so it lasts a long time and baby can face in or out. Slings only work a few months, bjorn till 1! And a used one on ebay or craigs etc is just fine! All our baby gear has been used but the stroller but you prob don’t need a stroller! And if you do, my suggestion is getting used high end gear vs new cheap stuff, as the kids really wear and tear the gear. The high prices are insane but they usually do perform better than cheap. Do you have a craigs equivalent in Oz?

    • I’ve heard the new BBjorn is better for bad backs. I’ll check that out. And the CL equivalent. And maybe start asking people at the church if they have 2nd hand gear going!

      • Do you have a bad back? I’ve got a wrap sling called a Hug-a-Bub (I think it wraps the same way as the Moby, but not sure – you could certainly make one yourself super-easily) and I got it because it supports my back so well – the way you wrap it distributes the weight all over your torso and even down to your hips, so your shoulders aren’t carrying it all. You can carry big kids in it too – I could still carry S in there if she was asleep or if she wanted to be in there and she’s almost 2.

        There are wrap sling demos on YouTube.

        • Thanks, yeah, back not my strongest asset. I’ve added this to the list of things to check out. I seriously made a spreadsheet of everyone’s recommended brands after reading all these comments. Then I started looking on ebay last night.

  14. You’re right… it’s so hard to decide! I think if I had it to do over again I would wait to buy lots of things until after the baby was born. I was obsessed with getting everything before Andrew was born. I don’t think it was necessary at all… not in this beautiful age of internet shopping! Diapers, baby wipes, onsies, pajamas… a bassinet (I liked having a bouncy seat too), that’s pretty much all you need from day one. The rest can be bought later. Newborns sleep a lot so you’ll have time to shop online. 🙂

    • Awesome, I hope he’s a good sleeper! Yeah, I think we’ll try to go the minimalist route. We’re faced with some logistical challenges of taking everything back to Laos with us, so we’re going to have serious weight issues in the luggage if we’re not very, very careful.

  15. I agree — too many choice can be paralyzing. For me, it hit hard with university. All these delightful, interesting subjects! And I had to pick just one major, and just five classes a semester! I now have a major and a minor, but that was after much debate and switching and double-majors and many crises of identity. And deciding what classes to choose remains a battle every semester.

    Good luck with the baby preparations! (Can’t say I’m much help in offering advice or recommendations in that area. :P)

    • It’s so interesting what you say about uni – I felt that too. And the TED talk I referenced, the professor said that he assigns 25% less work than he did 20 or 30 years ago because he finds that students are so caught up in decisions about majors, and careers, and who, if, and when they’re going to marry and start a family, etc. That all that decision making in the early 20’s just means they have less time and attention to pay to school!

  16. Adding to Danielle’s comment, the equivalent of craigslist (well, sort-of) is But I’m pretty sure there won’t be a whole lot of stuff on there from the Ballina area, maybe Tweed? I would definitely try to pick up a second hand car seat – they are exceptionally expensive in Oz because they have to be modified from the US/UK ones to have a rear tether (total scam).

    • Thanks, Ally – I’ll definitely check that out. And as for the car seat, yeah, I think we might try to borrow one for the time we’re here and avoid buying one altogether.

  17. Thanks Lisa I laughed! I remember how I felt going to London after Samoa and freaking out!!!

    If you want a baby bjorn or other carrier that I had will search in the cupboard see if I still have them and send them to you to see if you like them.

    I went minimal. Cot, pram, carrier, clothes, safe and sound car seat, muslins and nappies. Family gave me enough clothes. No change mat, change table, special baby baths or seats, pillows or cushions, bouncers, swings or anything for baby no 1. I must admit they have their uses if you have the baby from hell, but you don’t need any of it! I have to warn you the choices are just starting. then comes baby food….
    And just wait for activities. If you are a good mum you will take them to gymbaroo, kindagym, music, art, play them classical music, baby yoga, baby swimming, learning a second language, art classes, baby signing… I’m sure I forgot a few other essential activities to opitmise your child’s development.

    My other advice is find someone else’s pram and if you like it buy the same one. Then you don’t have to worry.

    • Thanks for that, I might come back to you on this if Michelle isn’t going to bring me out her Baby Bjorn from the US if and when she visits in Sept. And as for activities… well, I’m sort of afraid that most of those will be, uh, unavailable where we live. We can, however, take him to watch the monks on morning rounds. And maybe swimming (though not in Mekong).

  18. Hi Lisa, I’ve been back from Madang for almost 3 years, still can only cope with the SMALLER supermarkets, have left larger ones in panic and tears, can’t buy shoes – involves making a choise & buy clothes in charity shops which I never did pre Madang!! As for baby equipment, having had Richard 28 yrs ago I have no idea how parents make choices from the range now on offer or how they justify the cost or why they think they need 75% of what they do buy. What I do know is like many things in life it would be really handy if the terry nappies (diapers) could get new instead of old whilst you have them as maximum absorbance is required for a toddler not the newish baby! PS even then I made few ‘choices’, gratefully recieving handmedowns from friends & family and handing most of it on after Alison had finished with it all.

    • Yeah, I am loving the hand me downs we’ve already received. And as for supermarkets… I haven’t been in one yet in the nine days I’ve been back. I also haven’t been in the one, medium-sized mall here. I am, however, slowly re-learning how to drive the car without freaking out. Everyone moves so fast here!

  19. I agree with Robbie that loving arms are the best to wrap baby in (in which to wrap baby? trying to avoid ending a sentence with a preposition). A baby doesn’t know whether he’s in a hand-me-down onesie or an expensive new one. As long as the crib and stroller are safe you don’t need to stress out about anything much. Love, love, love is the first and most important thing, and it’s not something you can buy anywhere.

    • Oh, I so far have bought zero clothes for the little guy. We seem to be accumulating hand me downs at a steady clip and for that I am very grateful!

  20. Lisa,
    For a newborn, I recommend prefold diapers and simple ProWrap covers or something similar. As long as the baby isn’t crawling (until 9 months, give or take), the prefolds work great in the covers without pins! The fancier diapers really aren’t needed at first (if every) and they take longer to dry. (These diapers are NOT the ones that are sold by Gerber under the description “birdseye” fabric. Those are burp cloths, not diapers!) Although, I always started with disposable and after the first Initial Survival Mode ended, perhaps 4-6 weeks, I began using cloth. YMMV.

    Anything paraphernalia-wise, I recommend borrowing there in Australia. Beg and borrow and play the “first-time-parents-luggage-limit” card to try out things before you return to Laos. For example, after using a stroller with your little guy, you’ll either love/tolerate the one you are using or you’ll know EXACTLY what is wrong with it and can buy something different. Either way, you’ll be shopping from a more knowledgeable position.

    I have not traveled extensively to have a cool choice overload story, but while I was picking out picante sauce/salsa today at a Texas grocery store, 1/4 of an entire 50-ft aisle were salsa choices, bottom shelf to top shelf. Crazy!! 🙂

    • That IS totally crazy. And thanks for sharing your wisdom re diapers etc. Yeah, we’re so not above begging and borrowing. 95% of my maternity wardrobe comes courtesy of lovely friends.

  21. Hug-a-bub are made in Byron. I loved mine and borrowed a second one when we had the twins so Andrew and I could both carry/settle a baby each.
    I used to wear Charlotte in it for up to 2 hours at a time… no pain.
    I agree that some of the things you can get afterward, but my memory of that time is all I could manage was feeding, sleeping and being fed… So, shopping and decision making can be easier (though overwhelming) before you have the little man in your arms…

    • Good point. I have made a spreadsheet and am starting to try to figure out how to track some of this stuff down – notably stroller and baby carrier.

  22. Barbara Lockie

    Lisa, I had 3 kids in 14 months in the good old days, 1958-59. I say, less is more!!
    You really don’t “need” all the “stuff” that merchandisers are throwing at you. Your little guy will outgo everything, not just clothes, super fast the first few months and years. I say, beg, borrow or whatever and then it can be returned instead of you having to store it. Best Wishes to you, hubby and baby in this wonderful and unique time of your life!

  23. Pingback: AWOL: Personality, good mood, and ability to focus | Wandering. Wondering. Writing.

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