Now, the best response I saw was from a woman who responded (as she put it) unhelpfully by saying:
"The (unhelpful) answer is "it depends." If you have a mellow baby, minimalist is great. If you have a highly fussy baby, you will do anything and everything in your power to try and soothe that baby. I had one of each, and the amount of gear I needed for my mellow baby was almost nothing, and the amount of gear I needed for my fussy baby was substantial... ...just remember later on if you are struggling that the time when they are newborns is finite, and if you need more "stuff" and "plastic" than you ever thought you would want to tolerate, most of it is gone by the time the baby is a year, and if it helps you get through that year, don't be hard on yourself. For example, I thought a wipe warmer was foolish until I had an infant that screamed bloody murder at every diaper change -- but have only used it a handful of times with my second. Just remember, every baby is different and be kind to yourself if and when your needs or desires change when the baby arrives.
This woman is genius and I certainly hope that all new mothers can take her advice to the bank: to not beat yourself up over things not being the way you thought they would be.
So...with THAT said...here are my top 5 (omitting the obvious like diapers, bottles/breastfeeding shrapnel, car seats and co-sleepers/bassinets/cribs because no matter what you choose, you will need them)
#1 - a Moby Wrap or some other type of sling.
Even if you don't intend to be a strict baby-wearer, I recommend having something to carry your baby in while he or she is on you for a thousand reasons not the least of which is you can go to the grocery store and have two hands to do your shopping without having to take up the entire shopping cart with your car seat. Other benefits: people won't get all up in your baby's grill if he/she is snuggled up on your chest...also, if your baby REALLY likes it, you will find it a great way to get them to nap when they are so over stimulated they don't know what to do with themselves. If I had a nickle for every mom I have met who is a generation or more older than me who has commented on how they wish something like a Moby Wrap had been around when they had kids, I would definitely have at least over a dollar :)
#2 - An exercise ball big enough for you to sit on comfortably for hours bouncing your baby
A lot of women get the exercise ball for when they are laboring, and we had every intention of using one but I was in labor so fast and so strongly and so drugged up with Ambien, that they wouldn't let me use it. However, after Little G was born, the ball was a lifesaver for us. I would have had no idea that the ball was useful for anything other than abdominal torture until I went to my first mommy/baby class when Little G was only six weeks old. After the instructor assured us that All Babies Cry (ABC) and to not be self conscious over it, she pointed out the many balls in the room and suggested that if we wanted to soothe a fussy baby to sit on the ball while holding them. I will admit I thought it was a good idea but that it probably would only work for some babies. Uhn uh. No way. I was sooooooooo wrong. Over the course of the next six weeks every baby had his or her moment in class and every one of them got the ball treatment and every one of them settled down. At the peak of Little G's fussy period, around 6-12 weeks old, I used the exercise ball for at least two hours every day waiting for my husband to get home and relieve me. Trust me...the ball is magic!
#3 - Some type of exercise mat with a way to dangle things from above. Now, most people would say that although the exercise mat is a good thing to have, it isn't necessary and I would agree. There are plenty of other ways to stimulate your baby. But my baby was particularly fond of reaching for things and eventually batting at things hanging over his head and could be entertained for very long periods of time (which for a newborn is something like 15 minutes) with the exercise mat dangly item of the day. Now, I would suggest also finding something with a more exciting mat option, maybe with peek-a-boo windows to better entertain during tummy time, but we did survive without it. In any case, unless you want to be the person dangling things over your baby's head for 15 minutes at a time for months at end...get yourself a mat.
#4 - Prefolded cloth diapers