I’ve just discovered Leander, and I’m a little bit in love. OK: a lot in love. All the pieces are beautiful: minimalist Scandinavian design in natural woods, light colors and lovely curves. I know I’m a bit behind the curve, so to speak, because they’ve been available stateside for a couple of years, but if you’re also unfamiliar, allow me to introduce you (and your baby) to their line.

The hanging cradle was their first offering and is both pretty and practical. You can suspend it from the ceiling or – better – hang it from the sleek, beech tripod and have the flexibility to move it as needed. It rocks, literally and figuratively. My only reservation – as ever – is that cradles (and all infant beds) have a very limited span of usefulness, so it may be a better use of your baby budget to spend on a crib instead (unless, of course, you plan on having several children, in which case a cradle could be a great investment and space saver.) At $350 though, it’s not completely ridiculous to consider getting one. (You can always re-sell it. Or convert it into the best cat bed ever.)

If you prefer to jump directly to a crib, Leander makes those too, albeit at a considerably higher price point. Their curvy bed converts from a crib to a to a toddler bed to a junior bed. The junior bed transition is a nice feature since most conversion cribs leave three sides of crib bars in place, which might not be welcome reminder of babyhood for older children. It’s also five or so inches shorter than a US standard crib. At $1500, it’s considerably more expensive than most budgets can handle, but if you have generous grandparents who are into design, maybe this will top your wish list.

Their matching changing table – also curvy delicious – has a uniquely small visual profile for this notoriously bulky piece of furniture, and I love that. We chose the Stokke changing table for similar reasons (as well as the fact that it converts to a child’s table) and have been glad not to manage a giant block of a dresser in Astrid’s room. The Leander table also converts to a small desk, but is nearly as expensive (about $1000) as the crib, so again, a big investment.

(I’m still on the hunt for a low profile, high design changing table for a reasonable price. Do post a comment if you’ve found one.)

The Leander high chair is the final piece of the set. We have the Svan, which also converts to an actual chair, and had looked at the Stokke (same deal), but I think the Leander chair has the sleekest profile of all three and, if we weren’t within reach of being out of high chairs entirely, I’d spring for this one.

In amongst the expensive baby clutter in the marketplace, it’s a joy to find such beautiful form and function. You made my day, Leander!

Check out Leander’s store locator for your closest location or websites that carry their line.

Matchbox 20

June 11, 2012

In my grandmother’s town, where I spent my summers as a kid, there was an ancient toy store run by an even more ancient man where he still sold individually boxed Matchbox cars. I loved small things and little containers, so a tiny car that came in its own garage was fantastic. (He also sold chemistry sets from 1954, one of which my brother bought and melted – the metal box included – so, you know, safety first.)

Matchbox cars are still great, even though the matchbox part has been replaced by endlessly irritating plastic packaging. For kids, they fit in small hands nicely, the wheels run well, and they take satisfying jumps off the end of the playground slide. For parents, they make no noise and take up virtually no space, so hooray minimal!

If this is your first time at the tiny-car rodeo (which is an awesome idea, thank you very much, TM), spring for the 20-pack. It’s worth it: it’s not just the Corvettes and a truck or two that you get in the smaller packs or that you find sold individually. It has construction vehicles, a taxi, maybe an ice cream truck and a VW van, so blue collar, hippies, and urbanites are all covered. Consider it a first lesson in population diversity for little Angelique. If twenty cars seems a little overwhelming for a new driver, just open the package on your own and dole out the cars over a few weeks or months. Or the course of a long plane flight. I know: tell your seat mates you’re welcome from me.

Note: contents vary, but you’ll always get some of the weird, fun vehicles along with the regular cars.

Matchbox 20, $22 at Amazon or your local toy store (In San Francisco, Ambassador Toys has them)


Fire Trucks

June 10, 2012

Fire trucks are awesome. What’s not to love? I got a ride on one once. The firemen were heading out, I came by on foot wearing something fetching, and voila: a ride to the pub on the Upper West Side on a fire truck. It was fantastic.

We live a few blocks from an old-school firehouse and I needed to find Astrid a fire truck that met her expectations after seeing a real one and ringing its bell. It was surprisingly challenging.

Bruder MAN Fire Engine (with working hose)

There are two basic types: realistic ones with noises and hoses and ladders or “little kid” ones with larger and fewer features (and no break-off-able parts for choking).

In general, I try to steer clear of loud toys, but the siren is what first attracts kids to fire engines, so you can’t not have it. That concession made, I did stop short of getting her a giant one with all the bells and whistles, although I’m sure when she’s a little older than two and can work them herself, the ones with the hoses will make a reappearance on the radar.

The little kid ones were hard for me to get next to. The Green Toys fire truck doesn’t much resemble a fire truck except that it’s red and has tiny ladders, and inexplicably their vehicles’ wheels won’t run on hard floors. What fun is that?? In general, I like Plan Toys a lot, but their wooden fire truck just wasn’t close enough to the real thing for me.

These were my favorites:

Tonka’s Lights and Sounds Fire Engine. Medium-sized (bigger than Matchbox but smaller than giant) and with three brief sounds, Tonka’s Lights and Sounds Fire Engine was my final choice. The ladder moves and the doors open and that’s it. Astrid misses that it doesn’t have a bell, but other than that, it looks and sounds like the fire engines she sees all the time, and it fills the need without filling the room (or breaking the bank). We may upgrade later to one with people and hoses, but for a two year old with a limited attention span, Tonka’s is great. A little steep at $30+, but I couldn’t find any cheaper. About $30-35 at Amazon

For slightly older kids or full-on fanatics:

Bruder makes fantastic trucks, including several different fire trucks. They’re expensive though (nearly $70) and the size is a bit big for a city home (19″x10″), but if you’ve got the budget and the space, they’re sturdy and realistic looking. The final deciding factor for us though, besides price and size, was that none of them look like the basic “rectangular box with ladder and bell” that lives up the hill in our fire house. Still, great trucks and all the moving parts are attractive for an older toddler. $50-$70 at Amazon

Do you know the difference between a “ladder unit” and a “fire engine”? Yeah, me neither. But Playmobil does. The guy at the toy store explained to me all the different kinds of trucks that are in rotation at the city’s fire houses so I would understand how comprehensive and accurate Playmobil’s offerings are. Ultimately, I decided not to invest in another line of toys (in addition to the Legos and blocks we’re already navigating), and, like Bruder, Playmobil’s are big, but if you’ve already got your foot in the Playmobil door and have the space, they are cool. Various trucks, firepeople and station, $28-$80

Astrid was a Gap baby: their infant line – boys and girls – is tasteful but still cute and they were the only place I found reasonably priced pants for newborns. (I still don’t get why that’s so hard. We’re not raising a pants-less cartoon duck, for Pete’s sake.)

Anyway, the company’s been having some challenges in the last few years which meant that if something I liked (nothing with logos) wasn’t on sale right then, I’d just wait ten minutes and it would be. Basic, minimalist pieces that were still decently made and inexpensive.

That said, my early affection for them has cooled considerably since Astrid moved into their toddler department, with all its tacky appliques and bright pinks. Most of all, I’ve been sadly disappointed in their about-face on their baby and toddler jeans line. Last year, they cut away from their elastic-waist model and over to a skinny jeans pattern which, in my humble opinion, is ridiculous: kiddie pants should fit most kids for the maximum amount of time.

Gymboree’s Flower Cuff Jeans with Adjustable Waist

When your child is under a year, you assume you’ll be swapping out wardrobes every few months and can plan your budget and closet accordingly. At 18 months and up though, parents can finally buy clothing that will last for several months at least. The kids are still growing but the right brand makes pieces that flex to fit over that period of time. This means elastic or adjustable waistbands and pants not designed for Heidi Klum‘s offspring and no one else’s. I’m not alone in this: the positive reviews on Gap’s jeans pages are all from skinny kids’ moms, and they acknowledge that the jeans are too long even for them. (Gap’s “adjustable waist” only has two buttons, which helps not at all.)

I know it must be a challenge to find reasonable clothing for thin little ones, the same as it is for other-sized kids: I’m not scapegoating Gap for making great jeans for that set. I’m objecting to the fact that their entire line of jeans is now skinny-only. And why call them skinny jeans at all, even for the thinner kiddies? I find the skinny jeans phenom hitting toddlers and preferential fits for thin tots troubling, especially for girls, especially in a mass brand like Gap. (What’s next? Fixies and beards for underweight boys?) Obesity is absolutely a current and burgeoning childhood problem, but when your primary branded product only fits the thinnest children, you’ve swung too far in the other direction. (For the record, Astrid is right in the middle of her age group in weight but quite tall and Gap jeans don’t fit her even a little bit.)

My social opinions aside, what I found even more distressing was the practical issue that the jeans I’d been buying no longer fit. Cue Gymboree.

I don’t know why I didn’t think of them sooner. I pass the store all the time. They were having one of their frequent giant sales when I happened by and here’s what: most of their jeans have some stretch and all of them have either an elastic waist (up to 24 months) or a four-button adjustable waist. I scooped up a stack and Astrid can wear all of them: the 3Ts are too big, but the waist adjusts perfectly to her 2.5T and the cuffs are cute. The jeans don’t look too big and they aren’t: they fit when I bought them a few months ago and they fit now. If she’s not swimming in them when I buy a size too big, thin children should be all set too buying their actual size and looking good. Perfect: everyone’s happy, and kids can be kids a little longer.

So, so long Gap and your weird Twiggy hang-up and hello, Gymboree!

Gymboree boys and girls pants, from $10

Babies and toddlers love music, but finding a music class that fits your little one’s schedule and doesn’t break the bank can be a challenge. I’ve lived in two of the most expensive cities in the country (New York, San Francisco) and braved the real estate market in one, and I was still blown away when I started looking around for a music class for my then six month old.

$350 on a twelve-week music group at a fixed day and time when I knew Astrid would sleep through half of them? I’m all for artists making money and kiddies being exposed to as much music and art as possible, but for that price, I can join the de YoungSFMOMA and the Academy of Science for a whole year. I wasn’t going to wake my  baby up from her nap to dash across town because I spent hundreds of dollars so she could listen to “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad.” I’m an attentive mom who wants the best for her child and all, but homie, please.

Also, we have a piano and both Ramon and I play, so that made it seem even sillier. I could spend that $350 on 20 hours of childcare while I learn all those kids songs myself. Or on a karaoke machine for each of us, and we could get an RV and hit the road, playing small-town fire halls and clubs in Branson. Which is totally going to happen.

So off I went to hunt for drop-in music classes. Turns out it’s almost as hard to find a drop-in music group as it is to find a drop-in nanny: most are a little unreliable and the ones that are reliable are really popular.

As I’ve noted before, the San Francisco Public Library branches do story and music times at many of their branches. I don’t love our local one, but check yours out: if it has a good leader, you’re all set with a weekly class that’s free and reliable.

The best one I’ve found – and it’s good – is Miss Kitty at the Discovery Museum just across the Golden Gate Bridge. It’s far for those of us on the south side of the city, but it’s completely reliable (Wednesdays and Thursdays at 10 and 11AM), it’s $5 (in addition to museum admission) and Miss Kitty is great. She’s not cloying or cutesy with the kids, I love her voice, and she takes requests and sings a different set of songs every week. It might seem odd to go to the Discovery Museum to sit inside for half an hour when they have all those outdoor activity spaces, but we like it. We get there in time for music and then go play and have lunch.

Miss Kitty

Day One in Laurel Heights has a music hour for babies up to a year – very reliable schedule but also crowded, so get there early if you’re going. ($10 for members, $15 for non-members. By the way, I loved Day One, and the membership we bought paid for itself in about two months in discounts on products and classes. They were my rock when Astrid was tiny.)

Phoenix Books in Noe Valley used to host a free one on Wednesday mornings that was always swamped, but the leader, Alison Levy, has moved next door to The Playhouse to lead Tot Rock there (same time: Wednesdays at 11AM). Classes there are $20 for drop-in, which is a bit steep, but I understand that they’re just getting off the ground as a new business. I didn’t love it enough to commit since the song roster seemed to be almost exactly the same every week, but it’s a fall back if we’re at loose ends. (The Playhouse web site is not great and their hours are odd, so it’s hard to confirm or register for their classes: your best bet is to just show up.)

The Jewish Community Center (JCCSF) in Laurel Heights has three music groups on Monday mornings, but like Day One’s, they’re very popular, so you have to get there and get a pass ($14) at least half an hour before the class starts. Since we live on the other side of the city, this has proven prohibitive for us most weeks: getting over there (30 minutes) + the extra lead time (another 30 minutes) + getting back for naptime (again with the 30 minutes) = a lot of schelpping and waiting for a 30-40 minute class. If you live on that side of town, it’s an excellent option: big space and they limit admission, so there’s ample room to sing and dance. (Jacob, who led the JCC and Day One classes has recently relocated, so I can’t speak to the new staff. If you’ve been and have an opinion, shout it out.)

I hope you find a class that suits your schedule and budget to get your groove on! Happy hunting!

A couple friends of mine swear by this three-section plate for feeding new eaters on the go. The lid keeps the sections’ food separated when you take it with you, plus the included spoon has its own case and clips on top of the whole shabang, so you’re not worrying about lost utensils when it’s time to eat. As someone who either a.) loses the spoon I nearly forgot to bring at all in the bottom of the diaper bag, or b.) routinely stabs herself on the tines of the tiny fork I also nearly forgot to bring along, that encased utensil feature is a big plus.

If you are regularly out for picnics or send little Fauntleroy over to his grandmother’s house for visits over lunchtime, this might be a good addition to your culinary collection for his tiny highness. At about $8, it’s not like investing in fine china you’ll only use for a few months anyway. (It’s a small profile, so not big enough for preschoolers.)

KidCo Baby Steps Feeding Dish, $7-8 on Amazon

Blackout Curtains

May 15, 2012

I posted about blackout curtains over on Minimalist Mama Expecting, in case any expectant parents were redecorating pre-baby. We didn’t even have a dedicated room for our baby when she arrived, so we came to the cause of darkness kind of late after we realized Astrid wasn’t going to be a power sleeper. Here’s what I advised:

Unless you have those awesome European interlocking blinds that can turn your baby’s boudoir into a room fit for developing film, you might want to consider investing in blackout curtains. They’re not absolutely essential, no, but if you have a baby who has trouble falling or staying asleep, or if your nursery is sunny – which is otherwise lovely but might not be the best for naps and early bed times – blackout drapes are one of the things that will help.

There are two types:

  1. Curtains with a built-in light-blocking backing.
  2. Panels of just the light-blocking material that you can hang behind your existing curtains.

Pottery Barn Kids Gingham Panel with Blackout Lining

The former are easier to manage since they’re all one piece, but the options in design and color are limited. The latter won’t require the cost of re-purchasing curtains you might have already, but they will hang heavier on your curtain hardware (so you might need to keep an eye on how it’s holding up with the added weight), plus you will get a few more gaps that let in light because you’re arranging two layers.

Since I liked our existing curtains, we opted for the panels and here’s my advice: absolutely, 100% get the panels that are the same width as your curtain panels. You want them to hang exactly behind your existing panels. Trust me on this.

I thought I was brilliant saving money by buying the narrow-slice panels that add up to the width of a single panel of our curtains. The site claimed that hotels buy these: the narrow widths allow you to buy however many you need to match any width of curtain panel. After falling for this marketing, my conclusion is that they are jerky liars. I can’t imagine a hotel dealing with the annoyance of these mini panels: they separate when you breath on them and let streaks of sunshine into the room at every seam which ruins the whole point of having them in the first place. This happens all the time. All. The. Time. Gargh!

So just spend the extra money and get the nice Pottery Barn Kids ones which line up with your curtain panels. Seriously.

Blackout Panels, Pottery Barn Kids $39-$59 per panel, depending on width

Blackout Curtains in nursery-friendly designs and colors, Pottery Barn Kids $49 – $229, depending on size, or anywhere else that carries them, e.g. Overstock.com, $40 and up