New babies are simply enchanting. Their adorable little hands, the soft down on their heads, and the eyes that take in everything as if to say, “Hello world, I’m here!” Parenting newborns has both its joys and challenges — especially sleepless nights! Increasingly, new and expecting parents also need to navigate the complex world of chemicals in everyday baby products — from sippy cups to crib mattresses to baby shampoo — that present potential health risks to their newborn. A line in the President’s Cancer Panel report, in 2010, said, “Our babies are being born pre-polluted.” The very first recommendation focused on children, stating: “It is vitally important to recognize that children are far more susceptible to damage from environmental carcinogens and endocrine-disrupting compounds than adults.” The report went on to recommend that parents and childcare providers choose foods, house and garden products, play spaces, toys and medicines that will minimize a child’s exposure to toxins as much as possible before conception and early life, when the potential for harm is the greatest.
I have experienced firsthand the effects that synthetic chemicals can have on a child. Six years ago, my infant son was diagnosed with serious food and environmental allergies. I started reading labels and was shocked to find out what was in our everyday products. It was also an extraordinary amount of work to find healthy and effective alternatives. But we persevered, found chemical-free options, and his allergies improved step by step. I feel really lucky that we started taking those steps as early in his life as we did. It was my desire to help others take the same steps that prompted me to start Practically Green, a website that makes embracing healthy and green actions simple, relevant and fun.
So how do parents choose which products to worry about and which ones are totally safe? Fortunately, whether through Practically Green or other wonderful sources, today’s parents have better access to information, more useful research tools and even better science about their products than parents in any previous generation. Healthier alternatives to conventional baby products are also becoming much more available, both online and in large retailers. However, it can still be daunting to figure out where to start. Here is a useful framework for thinking about reducing baby’s exposure to toxins: on your baby, in your baby and around your baby.
First Step: On Your Baby
Your skin is your largest organ and absorbs what is put directly on it, whether it’s personal-care products or clothing (anyone itching from a sweater can vouch for this!). Two simple steps can keep babies’ skin from absorbing toxins and concerning chemicals into their bloodstream.
First, choose personal-care products made with natural instead of synthetic ingredients. Many everyday products for baby — shampoo, soap, lotion, sunscreen — contain synthetic chemicals, like phthalates and parabens, linked to endocrine (hormone) disruption and even cancer. They can also contain harsh detergents that aggravate a baby’s sensitive skin. By switching to products made from only natural ingredients, you can keep baby safe from the direct effects of those chemicals.
Keep in mind, however, that the term “natural” is not regulated, so you really have to look at the ingredients to be sure that the product is natural, or find products that are certified-natural by BDIH, Natural Products Association or NaTrue, the European certification found on Weleda products. You can also check out GoodGuide.com, which rates products for environmental and personal health, or choose a product from a company that has signed the Compact for Safe Cosmetics.
Now consider those cozy blankets and adorable onesies that come into contact with a baby’s body. Given that babies spend up to 80 percent of their life sleeping, focus first on pajamas and sheets. Conventional cotton is a pesticide-intensive crop and toxic chemicals — formaldehyde, brighteners, heavy metals and flame retardants — are used to convert it into clothing. There are many options available that are grown with organic cotton and processed without harmful chemicals. It may be a little more expensive up front, but organic cotton is also significantly more durable.
Next Step: In Your Baby
You know the nutrients your baby eats have a long-term effect on health. Unfortunately much of the milk, meats, produce and packaged foods we eat are exposed to chemicals that can also have effects on our health. But we can take a few simple steps that will dramatically reduce baby’s exposure to pesticides, hormones and additives.
First, it’s good to choose certified-organic milk, fruits and vegetables (even in prepared baby food) when possible. Fruits and vegetables grown here and abroad can be exposed to pesticides. By choosing certified-organic, you avoid the pesticide residue in the food. If you are managing a tight budget or lack access to a variety of organic produce, don’t worry. Learn the “Dirty Dozen” list of fruits and vegetables published each year by the Environmental Working Group. This list, which includes baby food staples like apples, strawberries and peaches, documents those produce items with the highest amount of retained pesticides. By avoiding the top 12, you can reduce pesticide exposure by 80 percent. Choosing certified-organic meats, milks and cheeses provides another opportunity to reduce exposure to growth hormones and antibiotics that are given to the animals.
Processed foods often contain concerning additives like artificial colors, flavors and preservatives. In Europe, artificial colors have been phased out of children’s foods due to concerns about the connection between food dyes, preservatives and attention disorders like hyperactivity and ADHD. If you see a color followed by a number on a label (Yellow 5, for example) — that’s an artificial color. Preservatives are usually found at the end of a food label and include nitrates and nitrites (meats) or BHT (cereals). A great guideline for reading a label, whether at a natural grocery store or regular grocery store, is to ask yourself whether you could buy the individual ingredients in the product and put them in your pantry. If you can’t, the food is probably over-processed.
Finally, it’s not just the food itself to consider, but also what you heat, store and serve it in. For example, plastic containers can leach chemicals into food, especially when heated. California recently banned a concerning chemical called BPA, found in some types of plastics, from infant products like sippy cups and bottles. However, research has shown that other plastics can also leach. Simply switching to glass or ceramic for the microwave will eliminate the risk of leaching.
Final Step: Around Your Baby
Your home is your sanctuary, especially those first few months after baby is born, when you’re spending quality time indoors getting to know one another. There are three simple steps that can dramatically improve the air quality your baby is exposed to at home, assuming that the obvious first step — no smoking — has been accomplished.
The first few ideas are remarkably simple. One is to remove your shoes at the door and open the windows. Removing shoes can reduce chemicals, like lead and cadmium, coming into your home by nearly 60 to 80 percent. Given babies spend so much time on the floor, this easy step is particularly important. Also, did you know indoor air is five to 80 times more polluted than outdoor air? Yes, even in a big city. By opening windows, you keep fresh air circulating in the home and provide cleaner air for baby to breathe.
Finally, consider what you are putting into the air through furniture and carpets, paints and cleaning products. Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) are chemicals that waft into the air, particularly from new synthetic products. They can accumulate, particularly in infants, and trigger respiratory issues as well as long-term health issues. Some major sources of harmful VOCs are new paints, dry-cleaning solvents, synthetic carpets, adhesives and sealants, and also products made from vinyl and foam. To keep these chemicals out of your nursery, you can switch to using no-VOC paints, natural wood furniture and toys, a natural cotton or wool rug and a mattress that does not contain vinyl, petroleum-based foam or synthetic flame retardants in it.
Most experts, including the President’s Cancer Panel, agree these steps will likely have positive effects on the long-term health of a child. And that can help calm any new parent’s well-founded concerns about chemicals and get them re-focused on that next most-pressing concern: how to get baby to sleep. —Susan Hunt Stevens
Susan Hunt Stevens is the founder of the website PracticallyGreen.com. Visit Practically Green
to discover more easy ways you can green your baby’s life — and your own.