I still clearly remember the day I slammed a bulging trash bag of brand new, sweet-smelling baby supplies into the dumpster, furious that I'd been pampering my newborn with what turned out to be a diabolical cocktail of toxic ingredients. Why doesn’t anybody tell new parents that so many baby products aren't healthy for babies? How are we supposed to know? And where are the safe alternatives?
That catch for parents is that unless an ingredient has been proven harmful to humans, current regulations classify it as "generally recognized as safe" – in other words, innocent until proven guilty. Confusing labeling requirements (such as the lack of any real meaning for the term "natural") leave consumers scratching their heads over what's safe to buy, from toys to food. "You … should be able to walk into a grocery store, pick an item off the shelf and tell whether it’s good for your family," declared First Lady Michelle Obama on Twitter recently.
"I think for a new parent, it has to be overwhelming," commiserates Mary Ann Block, D.O., a Hurst author and holistic medicine expert. "But I think it can be simplified, and I think parents have to come to grips with their own abilities, their own financial state – because it is financially more difficult to be completely pure where your baby is concerned."
You can make the process manageable by prioritizing, Block advises. At the top of the list: things babies eat, things they put in their mouths and things they spend many hours lying on or next to. Since the effects of the toxic chemicals babies breathe in and rub up against are cumulative, keeping their surroundings free from additives like those found in fabric softeners, air fresheners, disinfectants and antibacterial cleaners can lessen or prevent their chances of developing chemical sensitivities or reactions.
One of the most common toxins to avoid are phthalates, a group of chemicals used to make plastics more flexible and more difficult to break. They're found not only in plastic products babies use but also in personal care products like soaps, shampoos and lotions. Phthalates have been implicated in poor birth outcomes and birth weight, lower sperm production, male genitalia abnormalities, asthma, obesity and early puberty. Because they can be hidden as "fragrance" on product ingredient lists, avoiding phthalates can be a challenge.
A second toxin to watch for in baby products is BPA. Exposure to bisphenol A, another chemical used in plastics, has been linked to concerns over its effects on babies' and children's brains, behavior and hormones. While major American manufacturers no longer use BPA in products designed for children, it's still ubiquitous in water bottles, the linings of canned food and other products.
Here's a look at the top priorities for parents seeking healthier, less toxic products for their babies.
Things babies eat
Organic food is best for babies and children because it bypasses pesticide residues and the chemical soup of additives often included in mainstream processed and packaged foods. While organic baby food is widely available today, it's not always the most affordable choice. A small food grinder makes it easy to whip up convenient, small portions of organic food every day.
Things babies put in their mouths
Bottles, cups, nipples, pacifiers
Latex rubber sounds safe and natural, but latex nipples can release nitrosamines when babies suck. They also tend to deteriorate more quickly than silicone nipples, creating cracks where bacteria can hide.Plastic bottles can contain BPA and phthalates. Better alternative: tempered glass bottles and silicone nipples.
Plastic toys are a concern for little ones because they so often end up in babies' mouths, and metal parts can contain dangerous levels of lead, a neurotoxin. Even older children often eat or put their fingers in their mouths at some point after playing with their toys. Better alternative: natural products from the many natural toy companies online.
Things babies spend many hours lying on or next to
Cribs, mattresses and nursing pillows
Cribs and mattresses are made with toxic foam, fire retardants, dyes and formaldehyde in adhesives and finishes. Better alternative: Crib futons made from unbleached cotton or hemp; order from a company like Pure-Rest Organics (purerest.com).
Bedding and clothing
Fabrics can contain plastic (polyester), pesticides (conventional cotton) and formaldehyde (wrinkle-free finishes, fire retardants in mattresses and pajamas). If you use conventional detergents (especially scented ones) or fabric softeners, your baby is constantly breathing in and touching still more toxic chemicals. Better alternative: organic fabrics from a company like Under the Nile(underthenile.com).
Be safe, go natural
Once you have the basics under your belt, you can start focusing on other ways to keep your baby free from toxins.
Risks: Babies need daily exposure to common bacteria in order to develop healthy immune systems; unnecessary antibiotic exposure can increase resistance, making it harder for babies to benefit from antibiotics when they truly need them. Better alternative: plain old soap and water.
Risks: talc, perfumes and dyes. Better alternative: soap and fresh air.
Risks: dyes, fragrances, plastic, toluene, xylene, ethylbenzene and dipentene. Better alternative: organic cotton or hemp diapers.
Diaper cream, lotions, bubble bath
Risks: phthalates, parabens, dyes and fragrances. Better alternative: natural or organic brands like Burt's Bees or Kiss My Face.
Alcohol, perfume, chlorine, dioxin. Better alternative: soap, water and a washcloth.
Switching out so many products at once can seem overwhelming, especially for families with a new baby in the house. Block assures parents that healthier baby products are achievable for every family: "It's a question of just doing a little homework and making the right decisions – the best decisions you can with your financial means – up front and giving them the best chance at good health for the future,” she says.
For more non-toxic baby brands and where to buy them locally, check out our list of Non-Toxic Baby Products.
Published March 2014