How to Choose the Perfect Diaper Bag

The Skip Hop Chelsea.
Article By:
Natalie Hale and Juliet Spurrier, MD

Last Updated:
Tuesday


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Finding the right diaper bag for your needs can significantly reduce the stress you may experience when on an outing with baby. Diaper changes away from home are not always a piece of cake and a great bag will make things simpler by assuring that you have everything you need and keeping it well organized for easy-access. A tote that is incredibly stylish but lacking in function will send your sleep deprived brain into a tailspin. However we found in our testing that you don't have to sacrifice style for function.
A great diaper bag should be able to fit all of the baby care essentials shown here in a well organized manner. Our Buying Advice article includes a list of the normal items carried in a diaper bag.
A great diaper bag should be able to fit all of the baby care essentials shown here in a well organized manner. Our Buying Advice article includes a list of the normal items carried in a diaper bag.

Storage is Key


When searching for the perfect diaper bag, your first consideration is storage. By "storage" we mean not just the capacity to carry all you need but also the organization of it as well. If you are a first-time mom, you may be surprised at the amount of stuff you're going to be hauling around to support both baby and you're needs. Here's our list of what you will typically find in a well-stocked bag:

Items for baby:
  • diapers
  • wipes
  • rash cream
  • sacks for dirty diapers
  • changing pad
  • burp cloths
  • change of clothes
  • nursing cover
  • bottle(s) or sippy cup(s)
  • binkies and toys
  • sunscreen
  • snacks

Items for mom:
  • water bottle
  • hand sanitizer
  • snacks
  • wallet
  • cell phone
  • keys
  • sunglasses
  • makeup and sunscreen
  • reading material

An overview of the OiOi stuffed with all of our gear.  It definitely didn't hold as much as we'd like.
An overview of the OiOi stuffed with all of our gear. It definitely didn't hold as much as we'd like.
A great bag will be able to fit all or at least most these things in a way that makes them easily accessible (and easy to see when you need to restock essentials like diapers and wipes). We found that bags with exterior storage like insulated pockets for bottles and snacks as well as additional compartments for cell phone, changing pad, diapers, and wipes to be particularly functional. The Skip Hop Chelsea is a good example of such a bag.

Keep in mind that you're mileage may vary when it comes to storage needs. For example, you will need a larger bag if you have more than one in diapers, or for overnight and multi-day trips. A large bag like the BEABA Stockholm is ideal if you'll need more storage on a regular basis.

Ease of Use


This brings us to our next key consideration which is ease of use. There will be times when you will have your baby up on a public changing table primed for a diaper change only to realize in the middle of it that you have forgotten to grab, let's say, the diaper cream. If you are able to have one hand on the baby while using the other to retrieve the cream without breaking a sweat, that is the holy grail. You also want to have a bag that has a lightly colored interior and opens widely so that you can see and access the contents inside easily. We found bags that have deep interiors with narrow openings and dark lining to be like trying to find something in a black hole. In this situation it doesn't matter how many organizational pockets there are inside. If you can't easily see anything or grab what you need quickly, we guarantee you will be frustrated.

The Forma looks small but it can easily accommodate the needs of even the most overly-prepared parents. We managed to fit everything we wanted inside with room to spare. The main compartment zips closed so everything inside stays inside and we had no trouble with zippers snagging or not working properly.
The Forma looks small but it can easily accommodate the needs of even the most overly-prepared parents. We managed to fit everything we wanted inside with room to spare. The main compartment zips closed so everything inside stays inside and we had no trouble with zippers snagging or not working properly.
Closures also play into ease of use. Compartments and pockets can have several types of closures, typically zippered, magnetic, or velcro. Zippered closures are our favorite. In fact, it is very important that a it has an internal compartment that zips closed. When a compartment or pocket is open you will lose items when the bag tips over or turns upside down, we assure you. Magnetic closures tend to not close or stay closed when fully loaded. Nonetheless, one of our biggest pet peeves in this category are velcro closures, which we (thankfully) encountered infrequently this go round.

Why You Should Fear the Velcro


In our opinion, bags without velcro are a big plus, and here are the 3 reasons why:
  • Velcro is noisy which can be an issue as it can be loud enough to wake your sleeping baby
  • Velcro sticks to fabrics which can and will ruin any soft material it attaches itself to
  • Velcro wears out which is an issue when you consider that you are going to be using an item like this for a long time.

Once the velcro has been sticking to everything and anything, it's covered with little balls of material which means that with heavy use, pockets may not close correctly. Unfortunately, many changing pad covers include small velcro closures, but as we found in our testing, even these are significantly loud.

Consider Your Needs Too


Also, when considering ease of use, we recommend picking a bag that has space for personal items. Not only is it cumbersome to carry a purse and a diaper bag simultaneously, but with a great diaper bag, it won't be necessary. All of our Award Winners included separate pockets for cell phones & wallets, key clips for keys, and accessory bags for makeup.

Quality & Cost


On closer inspection we discovered that the fabric had ripped in one of the side pockets. While thick and easy to clean  the micro fiber fabric seemed like it would be prone to such tears.
On closer inspection we discovered that the fabric had ripped in one of the side pockets. While thick and easy to clean, the micro fiber fabric seemed like it would be prone to such tears.
Quality in a bag is more important that you may think. After all, this bag needs to get you through the long haul in sometimes not so pretty of situations. This is an investment in a tool you'll be using for years. A broken handle, strap, or zipper could cause a very bad day if you are far from home with baby. In our testing, we find that the cheaper, low end bags (<$40-$55) are inferior in materials, construction, and function (and the cost of two cheapos is more than one quality bag that will last for years). On the low-end, you will likely be buying flimsy lining, weak seams, and mediocre storage. Even a small jump up in price can buy much better quality and durability. Our advice? Shoot for at least mid range ($60-$100). This price will buy you a nice, quality product which could even be used after your little one is out of diapers. Of course, high end bags ($100-$250+) sometimes come with more bells and whistles. If money is tight, maybe you could have your girlfriends go in on a bag together for you. Incidentally, of the 10 bags we tested, we do find one low end gem. Our best value winner Skip Hop Forma impresses us with its quality at $50. On the other spectrum, we are not impressed with the quality of the two high end bags we tested, the LeSportsac Ryan and Storksak Bobby.

Fit & Style


The soft  feather-weight Forma combines both style and function.
The soft, feather-weight Forma combines both style and function.
Yes, style is important. But if your diaper bag isn't comfortable to carry, you will not be psyched to use it. Your eyes may cross when encountered with the many types and styles of bags from which to choose. However, when it comes down to actually carrying the bag, there really are 4 main options: tote, messenger, backpack, and stroller handlebar. A convertible bag combines two or more of these carrying options.

The tote is similar to a large handbag which you can carry from a top handle or two. Many come with a detachable messenger style strap. A messenger bag has a long strap that you can carry over the shoulder or across the body. A backpack is, well, a backpack. Many bags come equipped with or are compatible with separately sold stroller strap attachments which allow the bag to hang by the back of the stroller's handlebar. However, the Juvenile Products Manufacturers Association warns against hanging anything on the back of the stoller because the excess weight may cause the stroller to tip backwards. We agree that this is a no no. If you are strolling, this means either you carry the bag yourself or place it in the undercarriage of the stroller. If you embark on an outing without a stroller, a backpack like our Most Versatile Pick, the Petunia Pickle Bottom Sashay Satchel, could be just the ticket for you and your posture.

As you can see, which style is right for you is highly personal. If you want to be hands-free while carrying your things, consider either a backpack or messenger bag. Ergonomically, we found the backpack to be particularly comfortable as all of the weight rests equally on both shoulders and the back. However, you need to take the bag off in order to access anything. Whereas, you can hold a baby in one arm while taking a bottle out with the other while carrying a messenger bag. And, if a messenger has nice padding in the strap, it can be quite comfortable as well. Of course, men will probably prefer a messenger or backpack while women may be drawn to a tote with more purse-like qualities.

Fabric/Material


Close-up of the high quality organic cotton fabric and secure stitching on the Sashay Satchel.
Close-up of the high quality organic cotton fabric and secure stitching on the Sashay Satchel.
These bags get dragged around and dirty. We strongly advise finding a bag that is easy to maintain. Wipe clean linings are awesome. Water and stain-resistant exterior fabric is wonderful. However, a bag that you can throw in the washing machine is a dream. At the very least, find a bag that you can wipe clean both inside and outside. Some companies offer bags with Agion, an antimicrobial finish, which is a very cool feature. Diaper bags in particular are very susceptible to growth of microbes. What is even cooler is that Agion is cradle-to-cradle certified, meaning healthy for you and the environment.

This brings us to eco-friendly products. Several of the mid range and high end bags we tested and reviewed incorporate eco-friendly materials into them. Both the Skip Hop Chelsea and BEABA Stockholm are BPA free and the Petunia Pickle Bottom Sashay Satchel is made exclusively of organic cotton materials.

We think that this is a big plus. Considering that you will be stuffing your baby's belongings inside of the bag and that babies like to put anything and everything into their mouths, minimizing chemical exposure to your baby is a no- brainer.

A material that we particularly do not enjoy in diaper bags is polyvinyl chloride plastic, also called PVC or vinyl. PVC can be found in the bags as a soft plastic typically used for interior or changing pad linings and sometimes as accessory pouches which creates a flexible, water-resistant surface that is easy to wipe clean. Seems like a great material, right? However, PVC is far from perfect. To make hard PVC soft, plasticizers, also known as phthalates are added. Widespread concern surrounds the effect of exposure to plasticizers on health. Just take a good whiff of soft PVC. It gives off a very strong chemical smell. Doesn't seem to us like anything appropriate to have around developing babies and children. In fact, the Environmental Working Group has a plethora of information surrounding plasticizers and concern for exposure of children to them. "In general, the EU considers many plasticizers safe for use with the caveat that they may not be used in children's items." While the subject of chemical plasticizers' effect on health is a very complex one, there are PVC-free options out there, even in the low-end realm. Additionally, there can be potential durability issues with soft PVC as it can crack with age, particularly when exposed consistently to cold temperatures.

Features & Accessories


Protective pacifier case included with the bag.
Interior detail of the stitching and some handy features like a key clip and storage pocket.
The bottom of the main compartment.  We liked that there was a separate space to stash items you know you might need to access quickly  like diapers and wipes.
Metal feet on the bottom of the OiOi Messenger Bag.
8oz Comotomo bottle in the insulated pocket of the Babymel Amanda Mini.
What we fit into one of the included accessory bags. It also came with a small insulated bag that was great for drinks.  We loved these extras!
 
A diaper bag's features and additional accessories like an awesomely large, cushy, wipeable changing pad can really make or break your overall satisfaction with the bag. Features like insulated bottle holders, comfy padding on shoulder straps, key clips, and luggage feet can make your day-to-day routine so much easier. Accessories that are often included are a changing pad, an insulated storage for a bottle or snacks, a wipes case, and an accessory pouch or compartment for make-up or soiled clothes. Although you can always substitute out subpar accessories and replace them with ones you love, a diaper bag that gets it right off the bat can make a big difference.

For example, we put the changing pads of all of the diaper bags in our review head-to-head and in the end, really came out with 4 of 10 that excelled due to a combination of size, padding, materials, and quality. As you can see, they really do vary in size both folded and unfolded which can make a big difference both in the diaper bag and when fully unfolded and laid out for baby's diaper change. Though Petunia Pickle Bottom Sashay Satchel's changing pad could use a little more padding, we loved it for its big size, small fold, and supremely wipeable exterior.
All changing pads in our review unfolded from Left to Right. Top Row: Skip Hop Chelsea  Petunia Pickle Bottom Sashay Satchel  Skip Hop Forma  Ju-Ju-Be Be Right Back  Babymel Amanda Mini.  Bottom Row: BEABA Stockholm  Storksak Bobby  LeSportsac Ryan  OiOi Messenger  Timi and Leslie Marie Antoinette
All changing pads in our review folded from Left to Right. Top Row: Skip Hop Chelsea  Petunia Pickle Bottom Sashay Satchel  Skip Hop Forma  Ju-Ju-Be Be Right Back  Babymel Amanda Mini.  Bottom Row: BEABA Stockholm  Storksak Bobby  LeSportsac Ryan  OiOi Messenger  Timi and Leslie Marie Antoinette
The nicest changing pads in this diaper bag review are the Petunia Picklebottom Sashay Satchel (left)  Ju-Ju-Be Be Right Back. (center left)  LeSport Sac Ryan (center right)  and OiOi Messenger (right).
 

Try it before you buy it


Our last piece of advice when purchasing a this type of item is to try it before you buy it. Or, if you buy online, buy from a retailer with a liberal return policy. Have all of your essentials handy, pack it up, and see how it feels. See if you can get to things easily with just one hand. See if often used items are easily accessible. Also, check to make sure that the bag is comfortable completely packed. At the end of the day, a diaper bag that is functional, comfortable, and durable will make a big difference. Remember that your diaper bag will need to go the distance with you.

Dr. Juliet Spurrier is founder and Mom-in-Chief at BabyGearLab
Juliet Spurrier, MD
About the Author
Dr. Juliet Baciocco Spurrier is a board certified pediatrician, mother of two, and founder of BabyGearLab. Juliet earned her Bachelor of Arts degrees in Anthropology and Italian Literature from the University of California at Berkeley and her Medical degree from Georgetown University School of Medicine in Washington DC. She completed her pediatric residency at the Doernbecher Children's Hospital at Oregon Health & Science University in Portland, OR, and subsequently practiced pediatrics in both the Pacific Northwest and Silicon Valley. Juliet serves as Mom-in-Chief at BabyGearLab, where she oversees all baby product review activity, assuring that each review delivers on our commitment to quality.

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