When Christine DeHaven's son was 2 months old, she wrote a list of what she considered essential baby products to pass along to her pregnant friends. "As a new mom, there is so much out there, and they make you feel like you need all these things," she wrote in her note. "I wanted to tell people what I really used."
There are 36 items on the list, which she has since e-mailed to half a dozen expecting moms. It includes burp cloths ("I go through so many a day it is crazy," she wrote), lanolin ("for ouchie nipples") and a white noise machine ("helps drown out dogs"). But her greatest praise was heaped on a set of gauzy swaddling blankets from Aden & Anais with fashion-forward but baby-friendly patterns.
"By far my favorite blankets," DeHaven wrote. "I have two packs. I LOVE THESE. They are big, light, wash well and don't overheat him. A staple."
DeHaven's enthusiasm for a four-pack of baby blankets might seem a little overblown, but the devotion is shared. Aden & Anais said it has spent zero on advertising, yet sales of the Brooklyn company's products, which also include muslin washcloths, burp cloths, sleep sacks and winter-weight blankets, grew 170% last year. It helps that the items have been embraced by celebrities who occasionally use the blankets to shield their offspring from the paparazzi, but ultimately the 3-year-old company's success rests on the power of word of mouth, a new-mom network that includes product review blogs, mommy-and-me groups and e-mailed registry recommendations such as DeHaven's.
"I gave a lot of blankets away for free to friends and friends of friends," Aden & Anais founder Raegan Moya-Jones said. "Because one person tells 10 other people who tell 10 other people. That's how we've grown."
Earlier this month I sent a message about her company's blankets to the 1,500 members of the L.A.-based Booby Brigade, a message board for new and newish moms to share information about products, services and ideas on baby rearing. In less than 20 minutes, my in-box started filling up with enthusiastic responses.
"It was the most fave gift we got. I have since given it to two other girlfriends, and they too rave and love them as well!" Dalhia Schuette wrote.
Michele Friedlander, a mother of two, went so far as to say, "Our family would be lost without them."
Two women wrote that their mothers think newfangled baby gear is ridiculous but still love Aden & Anais, and several people said the blankets are their go-to baby shower gift.
"We had so many baby products that were either a total waste of money or did not last," Jennifer Koll-Klein wrote, "so when we found ones that were great, we got overly excited!"
The defining feature of the Aden & Anais (pronounced an-NAY) blankets is that they are made of muslin, essentially a loosely woven cotton.
At 47 inches square, they are larger than most swaddling and receiving blankets on the market by about a third. (And as many frustrated new parents know, many swaddling blankets are actually too small to swaddle a baby.) A four-pack of Aden & Anais blankets sold at a boutique such as the Right Start or Fred Segal costs about $50 after tax -- for many, the right amount for a good friend's baby shower gift. At Target, a version of the blankets sells for $30 but has a lower thread count and 44-inch sizing, and instead of getting four blankets printed with one of the company's signature patterns (think Tiffany blue elephants, orange-and-white camouflage or a sophisticated khaki and gray geometric), you get three patterned blankets plus a plain white one.
Moya-Jones, an Australian expat living in New York City, founded Aden & Anais with Claudia Schwartz, also from Australia but living in Los Angeles. Moya-Jones, who eventually bought out Schwartz, said an Australian "mum" will often use muslin to swaddle her baby, and in Australia, muslin blankets are inexpensive and sold in every drugstore wrapped in simple cellophane -- just like cloth diapers commonly used as burp cloths in the United States. After the birth of her first child, Anais, Moya-Jones couldn't find a muslin blanket, and Aden & Anais was born. But like any good mompreneur, Moya-Jones tweaked the original to give it a must-have touch.
"I thought, 'They don't have to just be utilitarian,' " she said. "They can be extremely practical and beautiful and stylish."
Part of what drives the word-of-mouth is Moya-Jones' vision of grown-up friendly modern looks.
"I'm not a chicken and duck girl," she said. "I like the softness of baby patterns, but I like bolder colors."
The blankets walk the difficult line between cool enough for mom and dad but sweet enough to be appropriate for baby, so it's not surprising that a parent will happily drape the blanket over an infant's stroller as a sunshade, use it as a blanket in the park or even encourage her child to adopt this product as an official "blankey."
"People keep having babies, and the moms that use our product tell all the new moms they can't possibly not have it," she said. "And the moms who used it with their first child want new patterns. We haven't scratched the surface yet."
Click here to see Christine DeHaven's list of new-mom must-haves.