Pregnancy Hacks: What to pack in your hospital bag (and what to leave out)

By April Wallace, nwaMotherlode contributing writer

Note from the mamas: Before we could post this story, April gave birth to Elliott Wallace a few weeks early! She’s super glad she had that bag packed and waiting!

Look how beautiful he is:

Now, on to April’s story about what you should pack before you head to the hospital to meet your new baby:

Less than 2 years ago, I arrived in labor and delivery wearing a dress, a non-nursing bra and carrying my signature beige Coach purse over my shoulder.

That’s it.

I was roughly 12 hours away from meeting my baby boy, but I had no items packed with me upon my arrival to the hospital. I’d like to blame this on the fact that my baby came early, and as a first time mom, I was not at all sure if what I was experiencing was early signs of labor.

Spoiler alert: it was.

I’d been so stressed about what to put into the bag that I hadn’t actually managed to put anything into it. I just stayed on top of laundry so I could throw everything in when the time came. Oh to be that young and naive once again.

That’s how my husband got the responsibility of running home and trying to discern which of my maternity leggings were “the good ones.” It’s my own fault that I ended up not having a decent going-home outfit.

Henry arrived at 38 weeks gestation and the folk wisdom is that baby number two tends to arrive a little earlier than the first. That’s why this time I started packing the hospital bag at 35 weeks.

So the past couple weeks of my life have been all about the bag.

Here’s what I’ve learned through my two experiences:

→ Pack clothes for your newly postpartum body, not your pre-baby body

If you have hopes of walking out of the hospital in your pre-pregnancy jeans, I have bad news for you. Unless you’re a celebrity whose trainer and nutritionist (and let’s face it, also a childcare worker) will be with you for the whole ride, it’s going to take a little longer than a hospital stay for you to fit into them again. Many of the books and pregnancy apps I subscribe to suggest packing clothes that fit you at approximately 6 or 7 months pregnant. It just takes time for that stretched belly (and uterus) to return to its original size.

Looking back on my first postpartum phase, I can say from experience that that’s about right. Depending on the size of your baby, you may lose about 12 pounds, give or take, before you go home. If you gained the recommended amount, that means you’re still hanging on to 18 pounds or more. (And if that depresses you, just think about this: if you gained the weight healthfully, you’ll likely lose half the pregnancy weight by around 6 weeks postpartum.)

Packing your maternity jeans or leggings will be more comfortable at this point. If you’re planning on breastfeeding, you may want to have simple, uncomplicated shirts and a nursing cover, rather than blouses or a dress, so that you can feed your baby more easily.

→ Bring something comforting from home

Trying to anticipate how long your hospital stay will be is about as difficult as trying to imagine what your baby will actually look like based on those smushy-faced, grainy ultrasound photos. Having an item from home may make all the difference in your comfort level while staying in a busy, drafty hospital room for 2 days, a week or more. During my first stay, my husband brought my bathrobe and slippers so I wouldn’t have to wear a scratchy hospital gown the entire time and boy did it help get me through those hard first days. It also made it easier to breastfeed.

Other similar ideas? Friends of mine have suggested bringing your own sleep mask, pillow, blanket or even an electric blanket to stay cozy.

→ When it comes to toiletries, makeup & appliances, keep it simple

I have a confession. Having been what seems like the very last person from my high school graduating class to give birth, I watched my peers’ photos and had always imagined or hoped that I would be perfectly made up and looking lovely by the time our company arrived to meet the new baby.

Had I actually packed my hospital bag last time, I would have certainly included my Chi hair dryer and straightener. I laugh now thinking about how much of a useless waste of space that would have been for me.

I tend not to wear very much makeup to begin with. And when Henry arrived, I was too busy falling in love with him, figuring out how to take care of him and sneaking in 10 minutes of shut eye whenever I could to care much about what I looked like. Once our families arrived, I was freed up from holding the baby, but it was so much more meaningful to me to watch everyone enjoy their first interaction with our sweet baby boy.

If it’s important to you, I get it! Some websites recommend having a separate bag of makeup essentials, one that’s specifically for stowing in your hospital bag. That way it will be there when you need it, no matter where your typical makeup bag or purse is when the time comes.

This time, I’m packing the basics: foundation, mascara, and blush, but I’m not going to feel bad if I don’t use it. I’m definitely not going to take up space with eyeshadows, lots of brushes, primer and creams or god forbid something involved like a contouring kit. What’s more useful in my opinion? Chapstick, a unscented or all natural hand lotion and dry shampoo will be my best friends!

→ Practical baby care items trump cute clothes

It’s probably no surprise to you now that I didn’t have my heart set on a particular outfit for Henry (baby #1) to wear home. In that way, I feel like I had the right idea. But that doesn’t mean I knew what we actually needed. This time, I know my energy is better spent packing items to help me nurse him and help get him to sleep.

I’m bringing a boppy pillow (to create a comfy, convenient environment to feed him in—you can do this with regular pillows but a boppy is much easier), nursing bras (also easier, quicker access) and nursing pads (to protect your bras from leaking breastmilk, which happens a lot more at first). The hospital will likely provide you with a small bottle of Lanolin to help ease your sore nipples, but if you’re worried about getting relief or want a more natural cream, bring your own just in case. None of us did much sleeping throughout our first stay, and I have to wonder if our new, fairly green swaddling skills were partly to blame. This time, we’re bringing at least two types of swaddles. It can take some time to learn how to do it effectively, so newborn sleep sacks or swaddles with Velcro or a zipper can be useful.

→ Never underestimate the usefulness of an extra bag

If you’ve read other How to Pack a Hospital Bag lists, you know this is the part where I’m supposed to recommend bringing a book, magazines or other entertainment. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not against it.  I brought my Kindle to my first baby birthing experience, but I didn’t touch it even though I’m a huge reader. The only thing it did was give me one more thing to keep track of.

You probably won’t have either the time or energy to get into a novel for a while, so reading during the early labor stage isn’t a bad idea. Just know that you might have plenty to do in that timeframe anyway, what with registration (even if you pre-registered, they’ll want your signature, driver’s license, insurance card and give you a chance to look over the paperwork); getting a quick monitoring session or two in before deciding what you’re going to do next; all those calls and texts you might be making to close friends and family and coming to terms mentally with your impending parenthood.

What I didn’t bring last time that would have seriously helped is an extra bag or two. Since you’re just a few days away from taking that baby home, the hospital will give you lots of papers, some detailing what procedures and medicines you both have had and what side effects or other things to expect from it.

They might also include a manual of sorts for the early days of baby care & breastfeeding. And then there are all the gifts of varying sizes that your visitors might bring. Having an extra bag or two will save you (or your partner or your family/friends) from making tons of trips between your hospital room and the car.

April Wallace is a stepmom to one smart, funny teenager, mama to a beautiful and curious baby (make that TWO babies now!) and wife to a very kind and generous man. She spent the past decade as a news reporter, sometimes lifestyle writer, and recently left her job at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette to be with her baby while he’s still a baby. When she gets a few minutes to herself, April loves to run local trails and read fiction.