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The parents’ guide to decluttering as children grow

Just about all parents have two major commonalities: children they adore, and way too much stuff. It’s hard to let go of the items your kids once loved, even if they’ve long outgrown or forgotten them. Still, the clothes, toys, books, games, furniture, and endless other objects that clutter your closets add up quickly. Your best option is to regularly sort through items to determine what you should donate, what you should keep as hand-me-downs, and what you should send to storage.

This guide will help you create a tidier home and the best habits to keep it that way, whether you’re a new parent or have several children already. Decluttering doesn’t have to mean getting rid of every single toy and memento, but it does mean actively seeking opportunities to downsize. Talk to your children before making any major decisions about items they’ll be sure to miss (like favorite stuffed animals), but be decisive about those that they definitely won’t need (like that raincoat your son outgrew, and only wore a couple of times, anyway). With the right plan in place, you can raise your children in a happy home with half the mess!
Teddy bear in box
Send it to storage: Which items you should keep for practical and sentimental reasons

Perhaps the most important question to ask yourself before you really dive into the decluttering process is whether or not you’re going to have more children; or, if you have multiple kids already, whether any of the younger children can benefit from their siblings’ former belongings. It’s completely natural if you’re unsure what your future holds, and in that case, it’s best to assume that you might decide to grow your family. You can always find new homes for items later on, often without much decline in value or quality.

Furniture and large supplies will be some of the most important items to hold onto:

  • Stroller
  • Car seat/carrier
  • Crib
  • Play pen
  • Baby gate(s)
  • Toilet training materials
  • Rocking chair
  • Changing table
  • Diaper can
  • Travel bag(s)
  • Bottle warmer
  • High chair
  • Bed(s)

Replacing even just one of these items can be quite costly, so it’s worth holding onto them whether you’re sure about more children or not. If your house is large enough to keep them close and you know you’ll be expanding the family soon, you can store them right at home. If you’re waiting a couple more years, have limited storage and closet space, or aren’t certain about more kids, opt for a storage unit instead. There are temperature-controlled options that not only keep items better preserved, they’re much more pleasant to visit and sort through as needed. Some companies will even pick up the items for you at your convenience so you won’t have to plan an entire day around the event — a major plus for any parent, and especially working parents.

Then there are the smaller, more practical items that can be passed on to future kids:

  • Clothes (especially gender neutral items like t-shirts, shorts, and pants)
  • Toys
  • Books
  • DVDs
  • Diapers
  • Washable bibs and burp cloths
  • Baby formula
  • Blankets
  • Backpacks
  • Sports equipment
  • Safety gear
  • Kid-friendly dishes and utensils

Keep in mind that just because you can keep something doesn’t mean you always need to. Some objects will be too worn to salvage, and that’s OK. Assess items individually and be realistic: your daughter’s soccer cleats might seem worth saving if your youngest also shows athletic interests, but if she’ll only get a few uses out of them before they totally fall apart, it’s not worth the space (or potential lingering odors). Keep only what’s in truly good condition and that you are likely to need again. You can always hold onto only parts of items: for instance, baby bottles are easy to sterilize and store, but rubber nipples probably won’t hold up after long.

In addition to items you’ll need, there are going to be some items you’ll just want to save. Sentimental value is nothing to scoff at, but it’s important to remember that when it comes to your kids, everything will feel sentimental. Nearly every item will have some kind of beautiful memory attached, even if it’s as simple as the first “big boy” toothbrush you ever bought your first born. It’s normal to feel pangs of woe, or even guilt, about what you don’t keep, but keep things in perspective. You only have so much closet space, and if you never get rid of anything at all, you’ll end up needing multiple storage units for things you may never use again. Plus, if you already have growing children, you’ll need to buy them new items regularly anyway; your space will quickly run out!

Hold onto the items that you truly can’t bear to part with. This might include things like:

  • Their first baby blanket
  • A special stuffed animal or toy
  • Attire or mementos from religious ceremonies
  • Artwork they’ve created
  • Cards or notes they’ve written/signed
  • Particularly special outfits (the dress your daughter wore on her first birthday, for example)
    muslim girl with scarf

It’s also important to remember that thanks to technology, there are lots of ways to keep the memory of an item without the object itself. You probably have endless photos of your child growing up, which means permanent documentation of all of their favorite items over the years. If the red ball your child favored as a baby is flat and useless but it makes you feel sad to think of tossing it out, remember: that ball is bound to be in lots of photos and videos that will be much more fun to engage with!

Finally, be conservative about the volume of what you hold onto. Chances are that if you do have more kids, you’ll get gifts from loved ones that can make up for anything you don’t keep. Your baby shower will help you stock up on cute onesies for baby #3, so if baby #1 only has a couple of onesies that aren’t completely stained, ripped, or generally worn out, don’t fret over losing them.

Repurposing, donating, or selling what’s left

If you’re done having kids, you’ll be able to donate just about everything they’ve outgrown or no longer need:

  • Clothes
  • Dishes
  • Furniture
  • Diapers
  • Games and toys
  • Books

Be strategic with what you donate. If you look at an item and can immediately see it’s on its last leg, it’s better to repurpose or toss it out. If it’s mostly a matter of appearance, however, the item will be incredibly valuable to a family in need. For example, if you have machine-washable bibs that are in good condition other than some stains, donate them! They’ll end up stained regardless (this is true for many children’s items), so direct them to parents in need.

Some items will require a special kind of donation process. Breast pumps, for example, are only meant to be used for one child (or one instance of multiple births). The parts that had contact with milk, like the tubing, valves, connectors, and breastshield, can be added to your regular recycling. For the motor and carrying bag, there are programs where eligible models can be mailed in and properly recycled. (Shipping costs vary, so keep an eye on them.) Medela even donates high-quality pumps to Ronald McDonald House Charities for every motor they recycle, so you can really make a difference for mothers in need!

If you spent quite a bit of money on an item and want to sell it instead, be prepared to price it at a lower cost. The mere fact that an item is used will decrease its value, but you can still make up for some of what you spent. Items that will probably be in good enough condition to sell include:

  • Crib
  • Stroller
  • Changing table
  • Well-maintained sports equipment
  • Bed(s)
  • Rocking chair
  • Bottle warmer
  • Textbooks (keep in mind that often, most recent editions will be in demand over older ones)
  • Game consoles
  • Computers or other electronics
  • Mobile

Be incredibly conscious of any recent safety updates or product recalls; often, a quick online search of individual items will let you know if they’re still up to par.
X-box storage

Purchasing storage and hiring help

Whether you have a lot to take to storage or a little, there are all kinds of valuable services that can make the process easier. Opt for a place with hours that work around your own schedule. You should also consider arranging a pick-up instead of dropping off boxes and items yourself. You could do it yourself, sure, but it’s often much more work than people realize. Not only is it a lot of heavy lifting, driving, and more heavy lifting, it’s a matter of making room for everything in your storage unit. Professionals will have the expertise to maximize the space and store items safely, as well as the time to figure it all out.

There’s also something to be said for the emotional component of physically putting your mementos in storage. It was probably hard enough to pack everything away, but actually taking them out of your home can feel just as “wrong.” Tasking that step to professionals will allow you to bid farewell to that chapter of your child’s life, a bye-for-now to the treasured items, and help you take a clear step forward into making new memories with your child. Plus, it can do wonders to prevent butting heads with your partner or anyone else who might help you store the items; you’ll be feeling emotional and the process can be frustrating, so bickering can quickly amplify in this kind of situation.

Make regular efforts to de-clutter your children’s belongings — at least once a year, and perhaps more often with young children that quickly outgrow items. As they get older, let them be a part of the process and take the opportunity to tell them stories from their childhood. Reminiscing is an excellent way to bond, and even just talking about the associated memories of items can help you let them go. It’s OK to feel sad at first, but know that in time, the relief you feel from keeping clutter at bay — not to mention re-claiming your closets, garage, and basement! — will outweigh the nostalgia.