For Eco-Conscious Parents, Life is Full of Choices
Raising a natural baby in a chemical world is not so easy. Watchdog groups like Children's Health Environment Coalition (CHEC) and Environmental Working Group (EWG) regularly release frightening studies about the levels of toxins in everything from mother's breast milk to jarred baby food, from crib mattresses to pacifiers. It's a boon for the organic baby product machine, but overwhelming for already stressed-out eco-minded parents. While these organizations offer recommendations on how to steer a child's development in a healthier direction, nothing short of a chemical suit seems safe.
And it's not enough to worry how chemicals will affect one's child; how will all those products designed for bringing up baby exact a toll on the environment? The average baby poops and pees through some 8,000 diapers before potty training, a number that's on the rise with the increased social acceptability of pull-up diapers designed for toddlers. Then there are the baby food jars, the formula cans, the plastic containers of wipes, the scented disposable diaper bags, the plastic swings and teething rings and the crib with all its trimmings. And green varieties of every baby product are proliferating online and on supermarket shelves: from nontoxic cleaners to chlorine-free diapers and organic cotton crib mattresses minus the flame-retardant chemicals.
I gave birth to my first baby, a daughter, five months ago. There was no birthing tub or midwife; the labor ended in both an epidural and a Caesarean at a traditional hospital. But even though my vision of a "natural birth" was derailed by medical intervention, I found myself drawn to the idea of raising a natural baby. I carried little Eleanore everywhere. Despite borrowing a co-sleeper that attaches to the bed, Elli inevitably spent the night sleeping between me and my husband. She's used her crib only a handful of times and on those nights I slept terribly, listening to her ragged breathing over the monitor, waiting for the slightest whimper of discomfort. I breastfed Elli on demand, which presented a problem only at certain family gatherings. "One word: formula," said a cousin. I was given an expensive automatic swing, but I've used it reluctantly only on a couple occasions. A playpen, another gift, has been folded away.
Though it's never been a conscious decision, I became a practitioner of Attachment Parenting. Since then, I've met other parents who guiltily admit they sleep with their babies and continue to breastfeed past a child's first birthday. But though I've still yet to see another woman breastfeed in public (ever!) the stigma surrounding instinct-driven parenting is beginning to retreat.
The plain truth is that parents can't shop their way out of every problem. While having more eco-friendly options on store shelves is helpful in looking for healthier alternatives, science has yet to catch up with the onslaught of marketing that pushes parents to go green. It's even possible that raising a natural baby and minimizing one's impact on the Earth has less to do with buying products than choosing not to engage quite so enthusiastically in the consumer culture.
Attachment Parenting is a much kindler, gentler alternative to the old "let them cry it out" school. It means that newborns don't need strict sleeping and feeding schedules. Instead, adherents support breastfeeding, carrying the baby close to the body in a sling or carrier, co-sleeping with the baby in a "family bed," and responding immediately to cries.
Renowned baby guru Dr. T. Berry Brazelton, founder of the Child Development Unit at Children's Hospital Boston and author of the bestselling book Touchpoints: Birth to Three (revised last year) doesn't use the term "Attachment Parenting." But he says its concepts are nothing new. "Most of the world carries their babies [in wraps or slings]," he says, and most engage in co-sleeping. "Ours is the newest adaptation. It's universal in developed countries. I approve, but it's not realistic to push down people's throats."
Rather than an all-or-nothing approach, Brazelton says "there are many ways to nurture" a child, but paying attention to specific signals is part of that process. Having studied some 25,000 patients in his 50-year medical career, Brazelton discovered a regular pattern of regressions (called "touchpoints") that occur before the next spurt in development. During these stages (say, teething or potty training), "the child falls apart for a period of two to three days, and won't eat, while gathering steam for the next spurt." These touchpoints, he says, mimic similar patterns in primates. "Chimpanzees do the same thing," Brazelton says. "It's not unique to humans."
Boston-area mother Elizabeth Parise is raising five children aged 20 months to 17 years using the Attachment Parenting methods, and did so even while running her own make-your-own pottery business. "It's a big myth that it's spoiling your child," Parise says. Rather than creating overly needy children, co-sleeping has had the opposite effect. "There's no dependency, because that need was filled early on," she says. "All my kids felt confident moving to their own beds. They're great sleepers." Getting in tune with her children, developing a "rhythm" with them as Parise describes it, has even given her the confidence to forgo diapers by following the instinct-driven "diaper-free movement." Not only are her children developing trust and learning to understand their bodily processes at a much earlier age, but each product she eliminates, especially diapers, but also wipes, crib sheets, cribs, mobiles, bumpers, mattresses, electric swings and plastic bottles and all the related plastic and cardboard and Styrofoam that wraps and contains these products, means significantly less impact on the Earth.
"I"m a minimalist," says Peggy O"Mara, publisher and editor of Mothering magazine, which focuses on natural family living. "I had kids in the "70s [when] the ethic was "small is beautiful" and rejecting the cultural bias for more, more, more. It's amusing to see something that started in a purist way now getting gobs of profits."
While organic baby products flood the market, from organic cotton clothes and bedding, to organic dolls and organic wipes, O"Mara says babies" basic needs have not changed. Only "contact, touch and breastfeeding," are essentials, she says.
Even diapers, as Parise found, are optional.
The diaper-free movement, known as "normal" until recent years in countries like India and China, is gaining traction among mothers and fathers from urban cities to suburbia who believe it is the final step in their quest to raise a low-Earth-impact baby. While those disposable diapers are consuming 1.3 million tons of wood pulp annually, emitting toxins and taking some 500 years to break down in landfills, and while those cloth diapers are depleting water and energy while turning through multiple spin cycles, the diaper-free parents have found the most natural way to respond to their child's bodily functions—paying attention.
It's called Elimination Communication. "Babies who are consistently in diapers are not as comfortable or hygienic, maintain less awareness of their body functions, and must relearn not to use their clothing as a toilet," writes Ingrid Bauer in the 2001 book Diaper Free: The Gentle Wisdom of Natural Infant Hygiene. With "EC" as it's known among practitioners, there are a host of reported benefits between parent and baby, namely, "closeness, intimacy, mutual responsiveness, awareness and communication, and environmental sustainability."
"For me it was the missing link," says Melinda Rothstein, cofounder of the nonprofit group Diaper-Free Baby. She has used the method with her son, Samuel, since he was eight months old and with her daughter Hannah since birth (they are now four and a half and two). The practice consists of making observations of the child's facial expressions and verbalizations (like squirming and grunting) whenever they have to go. A signal can be employed like a "sssss" sound that the child will learn to associate with eliminating. Then the parent can use any container that holds liquid to catch the waste and the contents get flushed down the toilet. The company Baby Bjorn makes a more official mini potty, too.
"It's consistent with responding to the baby's needs in a very proactive way," Rothstein says. "I nursed my son until he was three, but he was out of diapers at 11 months. That's considered backwards in our society." The Boston group she helped found for other interested mothers has grown to between 15 and 20 members, attracted by the promise of saving the environment, of taking part in a more instinctive approach to parenting and saving money.
The movement is still tiny, of course, as 90 percent of American parents continue to use disposables. That's a statistic from the 1990s, the last time the EPA did a diaper study, but disposable diapers haven't lost their dominance in the American marketplace. Surely, among those 90 percent are more than a few that would consider themselves environmentally committed, including vegetarians, local food consumers and natural cleaning products-users. But somehow, on the issue of diapers, the majority of parents hardly do more than shrug before hefting the next jumbo-sized box of Huggies or Pampers into the back of their station wagons. They disengage the green gene while pushing that heavy, wet package into a Diaper Genie, which wraps it, sausage-link-like, in a tight cocoon of plastic.
Forty-six years ago Procter & Gamble introduced the first single-use Pampers into the marketplace. By 1991, about 90 percent of U.S. babies were using the disposable wonders, making the cloth diaper a nostalgic has-been. Pick up an eco-friendly magazine like this one, and you're likely to see a handful of ads for Bumpkins and Kissaluvs, Bummis, Bamboozles and Fuzzi Bunz—the latest in cotton diapers. They cater to a niche market—conscientious consumers who wash their diapers at home in an energy-efficient machine with nontoxic cleaner and perhaps hang them on the line for added energy efficiency.
Though the diapering service enjoyed a heyday in the early 1990s, now, says Jack Shiffert, executive director of the National Association of Diaper Services (NADS), it's been nearly put out of business. "There's a very hardcore group of people who want the comfort, safety and environmental benefits," says Shiffert, "but the Proctors and Gambles of the world have put an end to cloth." Most major cities, including New York City, Chicago, Boston, Philadelphia and Dallas, no longer have a diaper service, he notes. Instead, he says, there's a rise in "cottage industries, a group of mothers who serve 15 to 75 people at a time."
If there's a touch of bitterness in Shiffert's voice, it has something to do with the fact that the disposable diaper industry was so successful at muddying the distinctions between cloth and disposables, leading many consumers to believe that the two were ecologically interchangeable. Except disposable diapers aren't "disposable" at all, or certainly not biodegradable. They are composed of a bevy of chemicals, including chlorine bleaching agents and volatile organic compounds (VOCs) such as toluene, ethylbenzene, xylene and dipentene which have been linked to cancer and brain damage. And 3.5 million tons of diapers, or 18 to 23 billion, are sent to landfills each year. About 38,000 dirty disposables are tossed every minute in the U.S. Diapers are the third-largest contributor to landfills (behind newspapers and food and beverage containers) despite the fact that only five percent of the world population uses them. Put another way, if they were stretched end-to-end over the course of a year, the dirty diapers would reach halfway to the moon. That's one of the visuals offered on the website of a company called gDiapers, the first new thing to happen to diapers in 40 years. The year-and-a-half-old company was founded by Jason and Kim Graham-Nye who moved from Australia to the U.S. to launch it. As parents to two boys, they were convinced an ecological alternative to the disposable diaper model existed. What they created was a diaper liner made of sustainable tree-farmed fluff pulp and super absorbing poly-acrylate, or SAP, that could be flushed. The liners contain no elemental chlorine, no perfumes and dyes, no plastic layer and no latex.
The most impressive testimonial on the gDiapers website is a video showing the gDiapers flushable alongside two chlorine-free disposable diapers in a compost pile. By day 53, the gDiapers liner is almost completely absorbed into the soil. After a year, the liner has fully decomposed, while the two disposables are still solidly intact, only dirtier. The company actually encourages users to put their wet liners (never the number twos) into compost piles, where they will "provide a rich source of nitrogen and organic matter."
It's the flushability of gDiapers, says Kate Bailey French, the company's marketing director, that makes them such an environmental breakthrough, the first consumer packaged good to win the Cradle to Cradle design certification from McDonough Braungart Design Chemistry, meaning everything that goes into their liners can be reabsorbed by the planet in a neutral or beneficial way.
"There is an issue of all that human waste wrapped in plastic going into a landfill," says Bailey. With traditional disposables, she says, "You're supposed to dispose of waste in the toilet before you throw them away." Of course, almost no one does that. The experience of using gDiapers is not without glitches, unfortunately. I tried a complimentary kit on my daughter and found the outer pant and absorbent liner worked fine for a wet diaper. I ripped the liner apart, swirled it in the toilet with the gDiapers stick and flushed it away. And then she had a messy diaper. Suddenly, tearing the liner apart by hand without touching the soiled parts proved nearly impossible. So I didn't rip it fully, the stick didn't break it up enough and the toilet clogged.
Unless the company can eliminate that ripping-up-the-liner step, it seems unlikely it can revolutionize diaper use. Then again, gDiapers" customers are devoutly loyal and have formed an online group on Yahoo just to discuss toilet trouble-shooting and where to find bargains. Maybe people just need to master this new learning curve; maybe they need to simply toss the gDiapers liners and be glad the things truly decompose.
Food, Glorious Food
The organic foods industry has been growing at a rate of 20 to 24 percent annually over the last few years, and the baby food aisle of local supermarkets has seen a substantial increase in organic selections both from makers like Earth's Best and Gerber. But the latest developments in organic baby food are happening in the supermarket freezer. Shazi Visram launched the Brooklyn-based company Happy Baby, makers of fresh, frozen organic baby food, on Mother's Day 2006. She was inspired by a close friend with twins who didn't have time to make her own food and was disappointed by the tasteless jarred baby food options.
"In our country," Visram says, "babies are started on processed food. Even though there are organic versions of jarred food, to attain shelf stability for up to three years, they cook the food at high temperatures. It creates a seal but it cooks the flavor and nutrients out."
Happy Baby's frozen meals come in individual cubes in flavors like "Baby Dahl and Mama Grain." an all-organic mixture of bananas, quinoa and black beans. Visram says the meals are tasty enough for grownups and Happy Baby's website, www.happybabyfood.com, suggests adults can add oil and garlic and toss with pasta for their own meals. Within six months after its launch, the company was selling nationally at the recently merged Whole Foods and Wild Oats stores, joining other innovators in frozen baby food like Plum Organics. Plum was founded by mom Gigi Lee Chang who turned her own homemade baby food into a nationwide company; the meals are flash frozen and nutrient-laden and come in re-sealable four-ounce cups in varieties like super greens (organic peas, spinach and green beans) and red lentil veggie (organic potatoes, carrots, corn and red lentils).
"We're creating this movement where people are starting to think outside the jar," says Visram, quoting the company motto. Happy Baby sells in ice cube trays to minimize waste (parents only heat the ounces they need) and to discourage microwaving in plastic which could cause chemicals to leach into the food; and for every box the company sells, it provides funds to feed one child in Malawi through Project Peanut Butter.
Happy Baby and Plum Organics may provide convenience, but makers of the covered cube containers, cookbooks and tutorials at Fresh Baby say making the baby food at home gives parents full control over the baby's diet. It's also cheaper and relies on reusable containers, further reducing the environmental impact.
Cheryl Tallman founded Fresh Baby with her sister, Joan Ahlers, and their make-your-own baby food kits are now available at Target stores. Whether or not the jarred food is organic, Tallman says, "Still in our minds is the image of someone standing over a vat of baby food wearing a hair net—someone else is in contact with that food." Fresh Baby's cookbook also encourages parents to use all sorts of fruits and vegetables not popular enough for mass-marketed baby food, including mango, papaya, Brussels sprouts and asparagus.
Today's savvier parents want as many options as the supermarket shelves and freezers will hold. Carrie Lauth of the weekly Internet show Natural Moms Talk Radio (www.naturalmomstalkradio.com), and mother to four home-schooled kids aged 16 months to eight and a half, says it's possible to be a natural mom and an expert shopper. "The marketing is in response to consumer demand," Lauth says from her Atlanta home. She says moms today are learning to trust their instincts, relying less on medical experts and pediatricians and more on shared communities. "Online groups are the electronic version of the tribe," she says. "In traditional cultures, women surround themselves with other women, and rely on each other. Being a mother is a huge job."
Home Sweet Home
Purchasing or making organic baby food is just one step in minimizing the toxicity in a baby's environment, according to Jane Houlihan, EWG's vice president for research. Other steps include "buying a mattress that's not loaded with flame retardants" and "minimizing the use of personal-care products on the baby." Those powders and lotions are often full of chemicals, including phthalates which have been shown to disrupt the reproductive systems of lab animals (see sidebar).
In its Blue Butterfly Campaign, the CHEC suggests "Five Easy Steps" to a child-safe home. These are: avoiding pesticides and insecticides; using nontoxic cleaners; cleaning indoor air; eating more organic foods and using plastic products more wisely.
As concerns about household toxins grow, companies are eagerly pushing their "green" versions of traditional cleaning products. And scientific findings are supporting their cause. Sort of. A University at California Berkeley study in April 2006 found that many traditionally used floor, window and bathroom cleaners and air fresheners could create toxic conditions, either alone (especially in small spaces, like bathrooms), over extended exposure (say, by a cleaning professional) or when combined with high levels of ozone. Of particular concern were products containing glycol ethers and those containing terpenes, a class of compounds found in pine, lemon and orange oils that is similar to formaldehyde when mixed with ozone.
While some companies use terpenes as an active ingredient due to their solvent properties (think Pine-Sol), others use limonenes from orange and lemon peels simply for fragrance. Almost any product with a lemon or orange scent contains these potentially toxic compounds, says William Nazaroff, the study's lead author, even if the product calls itself "eco-friendly." The study focused on the presence of air pollutants following cleaning use, but not on human behavior. Chemicals found in household cleaners could present additional dangers for a crawling infant using his or her mouth to explore.
"Major manufacturers have been reasonably attentive," Nazaroff says. "They've gotten rid of chlorinated solvents from consumer products and moved to safer chemicals. What I can't say is that people making products they claim to be green have a solid scientific foundation to stand on. I don't think we know that."
But parents can take precautions. They can dilute cleaners; rinse surfaces after using, thoroughly wash sponges after cleaning and/or store used cloths in a sealed receptacle; make sure the space that is being cleaned is well ventilated during and several hours after cleaning.
Whether using gDiapers or no diapers, organic jarred food or homemade organic food, nontoxic cleaners or their non-green alternatives, what's important is that parents think about the impact these choices make, not just on the health of their infants, but on the health of the planet they"ll grow up in. Raising a child more naturally can certainly involve buying more organic and nontoxic products, but it might also mean carrying her more; responding to her signals and fostering the kind of instinctive bond that's so easily lost in our high-stress, pre-packaged world.
BRITA BELLI is managing editor of E, and mother of five-month-old Elli.M/i>