How to Design a Baby Nursery (Even if You Think You Suck at It)

I was excited about many aspects of having a new baby, but one thing in particular gave me the cold sweats: putting together and decorating a nursery. Now, I am a pretty good cook, and crafty in many respects, but decorating/design? Not my bag, baby.

I am not the girl who moves into an blank, cookie-cutter apartment and makes it bright and charming with my effortless, offbeat style. I am the girl who crams in whatever furniture I’ve been dragging around, covers it with a warm layer of clutter, and then accents it all with . . . impressively blank walls. The only “pops” of color I typically provide are red peppers in the kitchen.

Baby Nursery

Our erstwhile guest room, cleared out and ready for paint!

But! I had a guest room to clear out and repurpose. And while I am not a Pinterest-level decorator (or even a MySpace-level one), I was able to put together a very pretty room that is now my favorite space in the house–without tearing out my hair, and without (in my eyes, anyway) wasting a lot of money. Here’s how to do it:

Figure out your goals and priorities.

As a former boss drilled into my head, you cannot properly measure the success of your project if you did not set goals beforehand. Plus, sitting down and figuring out what you really want to achieve can help set you on a specific path and save time. Here were my objectives:

  • I needed to create a dedicated baby nursery from scratch.
  • I wanted, if at all possible, to choose colors and furniture that Sarah would still like/could still use as she grew up.
  • Since the room is a scant 9 by 12 feet with a small closet, I needed to select compact furniture and utilize the walls, etc., to create enough storage space.
  • I wanted to make sure there was plenty of room for books.

Now, your goals could be different: for example, if you have a room in an apartment, you might want to create a nursery without making any permanent changes to the room. Or, you might be making part of a sibling’s room (or your room) into a nursery, so you want items that go with the existing decor. Or, if you have big-kid furniture waiting in the wings, you may want to find baby furniture that is as inexpensive as possible, since you’ll be getting rid of them.

Think about your space, imagine it five years into the future, and go from there!

Narrow down a color scheme.

I followed the same color philosophy that you’d use when painting a house: you got your main color, your trim color, and your accent color. I knew I wanted light purple as my main color (girly, but not too girly), and I knew I wanted orange in there somewhere.

I decided to start with a crib sheet and go from there, which led to my one real splurge* (other than the Pottery Barn shelves my parents bought): after looking online at Target and Babies R Us, I found the perfect fabric at Serena & Lily. Not only was their Starburst Crib Sheet super cute, but the colors were perfect: purple, pink, and orange. And they had swatches available: I used them to help select everything else for the room.

Serena & Lily Starburst Crib Sheet

The crib sheet that kicked everything off!

*I also have to say that Serena & Lily’s sheets (I bought another in a coordinating fabric that is now discontinued) have been very high quality and a good buy. Plus, since you’re not supposed to use bumpers, pillows, or blankets in cribs due to the risk of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, the sheets were the only bedding I had to buy! Guilty justification over!

Of course, you don’t have to use a sheet. You could have a painting you love, or a lamp, or anything else that speaks to you.

Choose your wood (heh heh).

White, maple (lighter brown), or walnut (darker brown)? Choose your furniture color now! My choice was quite easy, as we had friends who passed their white crib on to us. Bingo! Plus, I knew it would be easier to find a bunch of used furniture and paint it all white to match (which I did).

Baby Nursery

Our awesome crib, handed down from friends.

NOTE: Be aware that safety guidelines for cribs are ever evolving. Protect the health and safety of your baby–before you accept or purchase a used crib, please read Before You Buy a Used Baby Crib.

Determine your essentials.

These were my four essentials: a place for the baby to sleep (duh), and area to change her, a place to feed her (I fell down on the job here), and storage for books, clothes, and toys.

Map out a budget.

My budget was moderate. I was fortunate to receive a crib from friends, and I had a lot of help from my handy, crafty parents. And Craigslist.

The thing about baby furniture and gear is, babies don’t use it for very long. And parents are always looking to get rid of it when they don’t need it anymore! There’s no need to buy everything new, especially if you’re trying to save money.

Measure your tolerance for crafting.

Oh Pinterest, you ignorant slut! Sorry. Listen, you could be uber-crafty and paint an incredible mural in your nursery. I knew I wanted to sew something, and I wanted to cross stitch something. I ended up making the beautiful Daisy Kingdom flowered wall hanging from Simplicity 1604 (using my swatches to select material), and stitching the Disney-inspired Pretty Little City from Satsuma Street (which just happened to include purple and orange).

Pretty Little City

Pretty Little City, from Satsuma Street on Etsy.

However: think your projects through before you start, and be realistic about the amount of time and money you want to invest. I’m very happy with the flowered wall hanging, but it was a lot more expensive to make than I thought, as I did not take the time to estimate how much all the fusible webbing and covered buttons would cost. Plus, it ate up time: I had to trace 60 flowers! You’ve got stuff to do–don’t go down the rabbit hole of putting super-personalized touches on everything. The baby won’t notice.

Take everything out of the room. Paint.

I knew I wanted a soft purple for the walls, and my Mom (who has a much better eye than me, thank god), went to Houzz and found an entryway that looked promising. What I liked most about the picture is it showed the color, Benjamin Moore Organdy, paired with darker gray furniture, which made it look more neutral. While Sarah’s walls look pretty and girly with her current white furniture and pink accents, I’m hoping it will mature with her. Plus, it spurred me to choose another neutral besides white for the room–gray–which I used for the rug (another piece that would work just as well in a teenager’s room as a baby’s).



I don’t want you to think I just picked a wall color off the Internet–that would be crazy. We got several samples, put them up on the walls, checked them at different times of the day (to see how the light changed), compared them to my swatches, and . . . chose the one off the Internet. It was the best one!

My parents came in gangbusters and prepped the room for painting, and did the bulk of it, too (with Sid and my help–I stayed near the open windows). They were awesome!

Shop/beg/thrift your furniture.

Before you buy anything, make sure to put it out there via the grapevine (i.e., Facebook) that you’re looking for baby furniture and accessories. You may be surprised by how many people offer you theirs!


My baby changing table/bureau before . . .

I already had a crib, and I knew that I wanted a changing table that was also a bureau (and that Sarah could also use indefinitely). I found exactly what I wanted on Craigslist for a great price, but: it was bright yellow. Fortunately, my parents came to the rescue (again) and painted it white for me. I then went online and found inexpensive violet glass knobs to tie it back to my color scheme.

Baby Changing Table

. . . and after!

My next purchases were a white wooden rocking chair (again, off Craigslist) and a $40 white cube organizer from Target, to which I added three pink canvas storage bins.

Now: I had no experience feeding a baby when I bought this furniture, and the wooden rocking chair I bought was a big mistake. Huge. I had money I should have spent there. Yes, it was the right size for Sarah’s tiny room, but oh no, it turned out to be too small for me to breastfeed her. You’re going to spend a lot of time sitting in that chair. Late at night. Spend the money, get it right. Don’t be like me, schlepping my baby down two flights of stairs in the middle of the night to get to the comfy leather chair. Get a good rocking chair.

Baby Nursery

Rocking chair of doom.

Arrange your furniture. Determine what, if anything, you still need.

The day I brought Sarah home and started using the room, I realized I needed two more things: a small table next to the rocking chair (for a glass of water, book, phone, etc.) and some sort of table for the monitor, or just to put things down on. My Dad (do you see a theme here?) built me a great side table for the rocking chair, and I dragged in an old end table from my bedroom and covered it with a cute baby blanket (which my Mom made). I swear I’ll paint that table white some day.

Add the finishing touches.

I planned to get picture rails from IKEA to shelve books–cheap, cute, and low-profile for that little room, but my Dad surprised me with cute wall shelves from Pottery Barn. I found the aforementioned gray-and-white rug at Target, and my Mom found a cute grey elephant lamp. I hung up my craft projects, and voila! Done!

Wall-mounted shelves hold tons of books without taking up floor space.

Wall-mounted shelves hold tons of books without taking up floor space.

Just kidding. Welcome to the evolution.

Okay, nine months after bringing Sarah home, I’ve made several little tweaks. I had to find space for the bassinet, once Sarah moved out of our room, and then I had to rearrange a couple of things when she moved to her crib. We hung up a few more pieces of art (mostly gifts from friends). I found some curtain rods (again on Craigslist) that I will put up–as soon as I pick out some fabric for curtains. Sid donated his KidKraft Sling Bookshelf, which fit neatly under Sarah’s wall-mounted shelves. A friend gave me a wire cube closet organizer, which was perfect for Sarah’s (teeny, weird) closet.

Baby Nursery

This KidKraft sling bookcase fit the room perfectly!

But! I am extremely pleased with the end result, and very surprised that I was able to pull it off. Again, it truly is my favorite room in the house.

So, let’s review my goals:

  • I needed to create a dedicated baby nursery from scratch. Done!
  • I wanted, if at all possible, to choose colors and furniture that Sarah would still like/could still use as she grew up. Everything except the crib can be used indefinitely. As Sarah grows up, if she’s not super girly, we can amp up the orange and gray–or repaint.
  • Since the room is a scant 9 by 12 feet with a small closet, I needed to select compact furniture and utilize the walls, etc., to create enough storage space. So far, so good–although I hope the small space inspires us to collect less junk. The room holds a lot and functions well without feeling packed to the gills.
  • I wanted to make sure there was plenty of room for books. Goal achieved. She might need some grownup bookcases later (most of the ones she has holds books that face out), but we could fill her cube organizer.

So there you have it: how to design a baby nursery, even if, like me, you typically suck at that kind of thing. I hope this is helpful to someone! Heck, if I can prevent one mother-to-be from buying an uncomfortable rocking chair, I think my job is done.

Baby Nursery

Here you can see the cube organizer–and the antique doll I quickly removed once Sarah could grab things!

So what do you think? What did you do? Post suggestions and links below!

Baby Nursery

One last picture. Yes, I am very proud of myself.