Before you had kids, responsibility meant contributing to your 401(k) and getting your car's oil checked occasionally. Now that you have another person depending on you, the to-do list is much longer -- and more pressing. Get a will and life insurance. Test your paint for lead. Find a good babysitter. Of course, all of this is happening at a time when you're figuring out how to function on three hours of sleep. Deep breath. It will be okay. We'll guide you through the must-do baby essentials.
It may seem silly to worry about some of this when you're up to your eyeballs in diapers, but putting off key decisions could be costly in the long-term.
Buy life insurance Once you have a child, you need life insurance, period. Experts say term insurance is best because it's simple and much less expensive than whole life insurance. Term expires once you reach a certain age, but whole life includes an investment account that you can tap into if necessary. The sooner you buy either, the cheaper it will be. One rule of thumb is to get at least five times your annual income, but it's better to consider your expenses and debts. (Online calculators like the one at lifehappens.org can help.) "The biggest mistake most people make is underinsuring themselves," says Jim Joseph, a financial planner in Rockville, Maryland. Even stay-at-home parents should have a policy to help the surviving spouse pay for things like child care and housecleaning.
Check your disability insurance You're more likely to become disabled than to die, so this type of insurance is a must for working parents. Many employers already cover between 60 and 70 percent of your income. If your employer's coverage is lacking, or if you're self-employed, buy a supplemental policy.
Write a will Even if you don't have a lot of assets, you need to name guardians. A lot of parents put this off because they can't think of anyone suitable, but that's a mistake, says Beth Gamel, a personal financial specialist in Waltham, Massachusetts. She recommends giving preference to relatives over friends because it's important for a child to continue his relationship with his extended family. Other factors to consider: whether potential guardians live nearby, share your values, and can support your child. The safest move is to pay an attorney to write your will, but if you have a modest income and an uncomplicated estate, online will-making software (Joseph recommends legalzoom.com) can do the trick. You can always pay a lawyer to review it.
Start saving for college The earlier you invest, the more your money grows. You can put up to $2,000 a year into a Coverdell Education Savings Account and state-sponsored 529 plans are another great choice. (Both types of accounts let your investment grow tax-free.) Find out more at savingforcollege.com. And remember: You shouldn't save for your child's education at the expense of your nest egg. "You can't take out a loan for retirement, but you can take out loans for education," Joseph says.
Besides childproofing tasks like covering outlets and locking cabinets, don't forget invisible hazards like carbon monoxide, lead, and water contamination. Fire safety should be at the top of your list too. "Having a smoke alarm and an escape plan can greatly reduce your family's risk of dying in a fire," saysChrissy Cianflone, director of program operations for Safe Kids Worldwide, a child-injury-prevention group.
Give your detectors a checkup You should have a smoke alarm on each level of your home, inside each bedroom as well as outside each sleeping area, because deep sleepers may not hear hall alarms. Also install carbon monoxide detectors on every level and outside each sleeping area. Test both types of devices once a month, and put a new battery in once a year unless you have a ten-year lithium-battery alarm. Talk through and practice an emergency escape plan with your partner: Who's going to grab the baby and what's the best way out?
Make sure your water's safe Even if your tap water meets federal standards, it can still contain harmful contaminants because the government doesn't require water suppliers to remove everything, says Jane Houlihan, senior vice president for research at the Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit that focuses on public health. The organization keeps a database that analyzes the water in 48,000 communities nationwide, lists contaminants, and says whether they exceed federal standards and health guidelines. The best remedy? Buy a filter that's NSF-certified. Carbon-based pitcher filters and those that fit over your faucet remove lead, pesticides, and other common contaminants. But if your water has arsenic or perchlorate -- the active ingredient in rocket fuel -- you need a reverse-osmosis filter, which costs a little bit more and will probably be installed under your sink.
Check for lead paint If you live in a home built before 1978, you should have your home tested for lead, especially if the paint's chipping or you're planning a renovation. Most local health departments will test your home or put you in touch with someone who will. (Do-it-yourself kits are not always accurate.) Your pediatrician should check your child's blood-lead level at the 12-month visit. You can also test for radon, another invisible hazard, with a simple detector you can buy at the hardware store.
Keep your eye out for recalls Always return the registration card that comes with a product so the manufacturer can contact you if it's recalled. Sign up for e-mail alerts at recalls.gov or check your products at parents.com/recalls.
Whether you're going back to work and looking for a full-time nanny or just need someone to watch your baby so you can escape for an occasional date night, it's important to find someone you trust. The best place to start is with friends' recommendations.
Look for age and experience "Because infants can't make their needs known, maturity and past child-care experience are key," says Parents advisor Jennifer Shu, M.D., author of Heading Home With Your Newborn. Call a local preschool to see whether teachers babysit in the evening, ask a friend's nanny if she's looking for extra hours, or do a babysitting swap with another family.
Check references Even though a sitter will probably list people she expects will say good things, it's still important to call. Reassure the reference that your talk will be confidential and ask questions like: If you could change one thing about her, what would it be? If she seems unenthusiastic or you sense any hesitation, think twice about hiring the sitter.
Do a safety tour Always show a new sitter where to find first-aid supplies, flashlights, and emergency numbers, including poison control.
Originally published in the July 2010 issue of Parents magazine.