Bringing Up Baby–Naturally

Healthy Approaches to Infant Care

Nothing can be more exciting, or exhausting, than discovering a new baby is on the way. Expectant parents may suddenly begin worrying about “child-proofing” the house and buying the safest car seat—but there are other important risks to consider. From the moment a fetus begins developing, environmental factors play a role in childhood development.

Courtesy of Terra Verde

Parents already know to eliminate their own bad habits, like alcohol consumption and cigarette smoking. But it's also important to avoid exposure to synthetic chemicals, contained in such everyday items as paints and wall-to-wall carpet installations, and to pesticides, linked to lowered brain weight, learning disabilities and fetal death. The goal is to eliminate toxins that can affect a baby's growth and progress through life. Mothers and Others for a Livable Planet, for example, advises pregnant women to reduce the amount of pesticides entering their diets by increasing the amount of locally-grown and organic foods they consume, and testing their drinking water for possible contaminants like lead, pesticides and mercury.

The Air They Breathe

Infants spend about 95 percent of their time inside, and according to the Environmental Protection Agency, indoor levels of pollutants may be two to five times higher than outdoor. Another important reason to focus on air quality is the increasing evidence linking air pollution and SIDS, or Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. Fortunately, there are several ways parents can improve their home's indoor air and reduce their child's chances of being plagued with asthma—the number one hospitalizer of children in the country.

First, take a look at what's new in baby's nursery, including particle board, pressed-wood furnishings, new solvents and paints. They can “offgas” or emit dangerous volatile organic compounds (VOCs) or formaldehyde, implicated in abnormal hormone “mimicking” and developmental defects. To avoid offgassing materials, look for low- or no-VOC paints and varnishes for walls and furniture (makers include Benjamin Moore, Livos, Sinan, Bioshield, Glidden and AFM Safecoat) or “milk paints,” often found in craft stores.

Carpets are also major VOC offenders. But natural fiber floor coverings are becoming more and more popular, with numerous stores offering jute, sissal or coir latex-backed rugs, or natural floor coverings like organic cotton throws, hemp rugs or cork. Wool carpets are available from Naturlich Natural Home and the Sinan Company, both based in California.

As far as furnishings go, second-hand items or older pieces will have already off-gassed deadly fumes. But if you feel uncomfortable about the safety of an older crib, buying an unfinished hardwood version is the healthiest choice. Crib-4-Life's unfinished pine, contemporary or oak baby cribs ($400 to $550) can be coupled with natural fiber bedding, like wool or organic cotton mattresses and bumper guards (Crown City Mattress is a popular brand), both available from Terre Verde. Pacific Rim, based in Oregon, manufactures cribs made from certified, sustainably-forested hardwoods, which can be converted to a toddler's or full-size twin bed as baby grows.


An alert last May from Consumer's Union (publishers of Consumer Reports) has parents rethinking baby bottles, too. When heated, clear, rigid plastic bottles made of polycarbonate have been found to leach the dangerous chemical bisphenol-A (a known endocrine disruptor, which upsets normal infant development) into baby formula at 40 times the safe limits. “You actually cannot tell if your plastic bottle is made of polycarbonate plastic,” says Dave Rapaport, executive director of Vermont Public Interest Research Group. Because of this, the Consumer's Union advises parents to dispose of any clear, rigid baby bottles and opt for glass or colored, opaque varieties instead. The consumer alert has spurred Evenflo, long-time makers of glass bottles, to reinstate production last winter.

First Foods

Pound for pound, children drink more liquids, eat more food and breathe more air than adults. “And children are less able to detoxify most pesticides than adults,” says Dr. Philip Landrigan, director of community and environmental medicine at New York's Mount Sinai School of Medicine.

Last spring, the Consumer's Union announced startling findings that many popular fruits and vegetables—including common baby food ingredients like peaches, green beans and apples—contain pesticide residues that exceed the government's “safe dose” for children by a factor of 100 or more. Because of burgeoning demand, most grocery chains now offer several lines of baby foods and cereals grown without harmful pesticides to reduce your child's risk: Earth's Best and Gerber's Tender Harvest are the two most popular brands. Reasonably priced (about 49 cents a jar) and certified organic, both lines also blend tasty combinations of fruits, vegetables and grains.

Clothing Conscious

When it comes to clothing baby, what parent can resist the wide and colorful assortment of jumpers, booties and outfits on the market? Yet some infants may be irritated by the conventional dyes, permanent-press finishes or water-resistant coatings on many fabrics (which often use formaldehydes or VOCs), so parents may want to look into natural fiber wear, or gently-used clothing available at thrift stores.

© H. Fassa

Undyed clothing tends to be the softest, and natural or color-grown organic cotton or wool clothing can be purchased from numerous companies, including Earthlings, Natural Baby Company, Maggie's Organics/Clean Clothes, Baby Bunz, Ecobaby and Green Babies. Mothers and Others suggests always washing items before bringing them in contact with newborn skin, and using mild, non-toxic detergents (like Logona's Sodasan soap or Ecover) to avoid irritating reactions.

Diaper Dilemmas

Environmentalists have been battling for decades over which is better: cloth or disposable diapers. While cloth diapers use far more water and detergents to clean them, as well as fossil fuels during transport in diaper services, typical disposables sit for decades in landfills, are made with chlorine bleach, and consume 1,265,000 metric tons of wood pulp and 75,000 metric tons of plastic a year.

What's a parent to do? According to the Union of Concerned Scientists' latest findings, “It seems clear that the advantages of one over the other are nowhere near as dramatic as they had seemed back in the 1980s.” There are some options: Cloth diapers are now made with Velcro, snaps and fancy designs that eliminate much of the hassle of the bad old days. And while diaper services have been hurting in recent years, water- and energy-efficiency for home washing machines has improved. Parents can also buy disposable liners for cloth diapers, so that the messiest parts thrown away are also the thinnest. Popular cloth diaper distributors include Baby Bunz and Company, Babyworks, Biobottoms and Ecobaby. For the best of both worlds, Tushies offers a disposable using natural cotton absorbers instead of chemical gels.

Lotions and Potions

Once diapers have been decide

d upon, consider what comes into contact with your baby's most intimate parts. Conventional creams, powders, soaps and lotions not only contain harsh detergents, synthetic chemicals and fragrances, but can also produce allergic or irritating reactions in newborn skin.

Weleda offers a gentler line of botanical baby care ($4.90 to $10.75) , featuring calendula, marigold flower, chamomile—and no synthetic ingredients or petroleum derivatives. Calling its toll-free number will get you free samples of baby oil, cream, soap and diaper care formulas. Weleda also offers talc-free powder for diaper changes ($5.75) . Aubrey Organics' Natural Baby and Kids shampoo instills balm-mint, yarrow and fennel into a mild coconut base for sensitive scalps, while its body lotion utilizes primrose oil, organic jojoba and wheatgerm oil to prevent diaper rash.

Just remember to keep everything in moderation, and don't stress over the conventional gifts you receive, or the synthetic carpet already adorning baby's new room. It's more important to tackle the biggest threats—noxious paint, unsafe food and water, toxic chemicals and tainted air.