Nobody really prepares you for what lies ahead when you have your first baby. In a recent poll by maternity and nanny agency The BabyWorks, all the new mums and dads who took part said they felt nervous about life at home with a newborn and that they were given very little advice in hospital. "Even NCT classes focus on labour," says Ali Durban, BabyWorks' newborn expert.
Clare Maher, a lecturer from Middlesex University's midwifery department, says there are five key things you need to know to get you through the early days: "Support: use family and friends. You'll need them. Speak out: don't bottle things up and think you have to do everything yourself. Socialise: make sure you get time for yourself, remembering the baby will cope. Sleep: even in the middle of the day, when your baby does. Sustenance: you have to be well yourself to look after the baby."
Parenting books can help too. "Go with a trusted friend's advice, who has young children, when investing in a baby book - and make sure it's up to date," says Liz Day, parenting consultant at Mothercare. "Don't go overboard, though, and read every piece of information and advice."
Siobhan Freegard, co-founder of netmums.co.uk, says: "I think everyone agrees there is far too much conflicting advice for new mums these days, but there is a new tendency to counter this by saying that mums should use their natural maternal instinct instead. While there is, of course, a very strong maternal instinct that tells us to nurture and protect our babies, the how-to of that still has to be learned."
Most of us need guidance on breastfeeding, for instance - things like how to get a proper latching on, whether we should offer from both breasts at each feed or one per feed, she says. "If you're bottle feeding, you need to learn how to mix a feed, sterilise properly and how much to offer and when. There are also the little oddities new mums face, which can cause a lot of anxiety - how to deal with the little bit of cord left behind your baby's soon-to-be bellybutton, for example - and the crucial basics to position a baby in a cot."
One of the best ways to filter through the information available, she says, is to simply chat and compare notes with other mums: their suggestions tend to be current, based on modern thinking and recently tried and tested. "Finding another mum who feels the same way as you on a particular issue can make the world of difference and give you renewed strength and belief that you're not alone," she adds.
And don't forget the experts: health visitors are guided by the Department of Health and World Health Organisation, so they should be up to date. There's plenty of advice to be had at breastfeeding clinics and weigh-ins - where you'll also get a chance to make new mum friends - and websites such as greatvine.com are helpful too. "At first it may be stressful and frustrating if you can't understand what your baby needs when they cry," admits Jeremy Todd from Family Lives. "But don't worry, it is a skill that needs to be developed. If you get worried, ask for help."
According to Azmina Govindji, a dietitian with the British Dietetic Association, while there's plenty of advice about what to eat in pregnancy, many new mums get confused about what they should be eating. It is an important issue, she says, because eating well after pregnancy helps you keep your energy levels up to cope with all the extra work and lack of sleep that a new baby brings. Any new mum should eat at least five portions of fruit and vegetables a day, plus plenty of fibre, protein, dairy and fluids, she says. "If you're breastfeeding, ensure you get a balanced, varied diet with enough calories to produce quality milk for your growing baby - including a supplement of 10 micrograms of vitamin D daily."
"Don't go on a diet if you're breastfeeding," she advises. "Breastfeeding uses up a lot of energy and some of the fat you put on in pregnancy will be used to help produce milk, but the rest of the nutrients will come from your diet. This means you may be hungrier than usual." Emma Williams, a nutrition scientist for the British Nutrition Foundation, adds: "Drinking a warm, milky drink before bedtime can help you get to sleep, while eating healthily, limiting your caffeine intake and avoiding alcohol can help with baby blues."
One of the biggest minefields for new parents is what to buy. "Remember that for the first few months, a newborn baby will generally either be sleeping, feeding, going out or getting ready for bedtime, so it's those four core activities that should guide you in the equipment choices you make," says Alison Alexander, Prima Baby & Pregnancy's consumer editor.
It's easy for new parents to be seduced into believing that their baby needs a huge amount of stuff, she says. "But really you only need 10 core pieces of equipment to see them safely through the first six months - pram, car seat, change bag with change mat, moses basket or crib, extra bedding, monitor, bouncy chair/rocker, baby bath, steriliser and either a breast pump or bottles, depending on whether you plan to breast or bottle feed."
To save money, get a second-hand or as-new monitor, baby bath, crib, chair and steriliser, she says. "But new mums should never buy a second-hand car seat in case it's been in an accident and the safety has been compromised." Others argue that well-used buggies are notorious for being harder to steer.
For second-hand items, try JumbleAID, which claims to combine the ethos of Freecycle with the sophistication of eBay (both themselves invaluable for new parents) while adding a fundraising element. NCT nearly-new sales are renowned for offering great prices on baby essentials, even on top-name brands, and Mumsnet's and Netmums' for-sale boards are also good. As for new items, Kiddicare offers hard-to-beat deals, while the price comparison website www.pricegrabber.co.uk can save you around 30 per cent on brands such as Bugaboo. John Lewis is also worth a visit: it offers free two-hour appointments, seven days a week, with a nursery adviser who can help you prioritise and work within your budget and there's no obligation to buy.
Nursing bras are an essential buy, according to Mumsnet, although it suggests not buying more than one to start with. "Your breasts may well change size radically after the birth. You also need to get properly fitted, as a bra that's too tight can lead to discomfort and blocked ducts," says a spokeswoman. Don't forget muslin squares, she adds. They're great for mopping up, protecting, using as a tiny towel, covering the changing mat or using as comforters. She also recommends breast pads, a baby gym, nest or mat, and baby sleeping bags with shoulder straps, which eliminate the need for blankets. As for "Don't Buys", mumsnet's list includes changing tables (use an ordinary chest of drawers or the floor or sofa), bottle warmers, cot bumpers, nappy wrapper bins, most baby toiletries, top and tail bowls, scratch mitts and baby wipe warmers (yes, these really do exist).
Many mothers swear by baby carriers and slings, not least for comforting colicky babies and travelling on public transport. If you are nimble-fingered, you can make your own wrap sling out of a long piece of fabric, but for a quicker option, the most highly recommended brand is Babybjorn, whose original carrier is Â£64.99; and Mamas and Papas' Morph, which retails at Â£85, is remarkably comfortable. You can also hire one through www.slumber-roo.co.uk.
For clothes, call on family and friends for hand-me-downs: newborns aren't in their clothes long, so second-hand clothes can easily work their way through a few babies. As for creating a beautiful nursery on a budget, Becky Goddard-Hill, who blogs about baby budgeting at www.babybudgeting. co.uk advises starting with a second-hand cot and new mattress. "If you paint your cot white and your walls too, you will instantly have a calm and neutral room to accessorise. Your baby's hand and feet printed on canvas are cheap and unique decorations. A plain chest of drawers, a black-out blind and a dimmer-switch for the light, and your room is set."
How to pick your perfect pram
If you use public transport a lot, consider a light, foldable pushchair, many of which are suitable from birth. The Chicco Lite Way Stroller (Â£80.99 for 2010 colours; Â£139.99 for 2011 colours at www.mothercare.com) is easy to fold, lift and carry, and nimble to manoeuvre.
If you walk long distances, you'll need something ergonomically designed, preferably with adjustable handles. The Bugaboo Bee, which has just been announced as Mumsnet Best Award Winner 2011, is a dream to push (Â£439.05 www.johnlewis.com).
For shopping, think about the shopping basket - many are difficult to access or ridiculously shallow.
Ramblers, be warned - many prams are hopeless on muddy paths and uneven grass. Choose one that's designed for all terrains; the Britax B-SMART (Â£329.99 www.halfords.com) won't let you down.
If you do a lot of driving, check the measurements of your folded pushchair and ensure it's easy to fold. The Sola from Mamas & Papas, recommended as the Best Buy of all buggies by Which, offers both these things, as well as a fantastically smooth ride (Â£275 www.mamasandpapas.com).
Don't fall for style over substance - the Mary Poppins-style baby carriage, for instance, may be an object of beauty, but it has a limited lifespan and is impossibly cumbersome for use on public transport.
Read online reviews on parenting and retail websites. Awards such as Mums-net and independent evaluations from organisations like Which can also help. And always try it out first. "Never buy a buggy without feeling its heaviness, manoeuvrability and trying out the breaks and folding system," says Lisa Galliers, senior researcher at Which.
Think before buying a three-in-one system. "They tend to be heavy, and you need to make sure the model you fancy fits into the boot of your car, or you won't be doing much travelling. Legions of Mumsnetters have made this mistake," says a mumsnet spokeswoman. The Stokke Xplory, however, is robust without breaking your back to lift, and is so innovative that it literally grows with your child (from Â£725 www.kiddicare.com).
If possible, get a pram that includes a rearward-facing function, especially for younger babies. Early-years professionals say young children need face-to-face communication in pushchairs, but there are times when children want to look out.
Why not rent a buggy? Rentabuggy.co.uk allows families to rent top-selling pushchairs on a monthly basis, with brand names including Bugaboo, Phil & Ted and Maclaren.