baby proof: natural baby

June 26, 2014
natural baby
For today, a post from my sister Cait on a topic near and dear to my heart: how to avoid chemicals in your baby care (without also making yourself crazy). 


I’ve said it before; I err just a teensy bit on the side of hysteria when it comes to choosing eco-friendly and chemical-free stuff over their conventional counterparts. (For the record: so does Erin).


Actually, hysteria is the wrong word. I don’t spend any time fretting about choosing environmentally safe products over mainstream ones; I just do it. Almost ten years ago, I first read this piece on toxic breast milk in The New York Times, and it’s affected pretty much every consumer choice I’ve made since. (It also contains this excellent sentence: “Human milk is like ice cream, Valium and Ecstasy all wrapped up in two pretty packages.”) Now, I’m the kind of person who doesn’t stock plastic wrap or own upholstered furniture, because I find it’s easier and less neurotic to go cold turkey on questionable household items than to worry about endocrine disruption and bioaccumulation. 


Still, having a baby strengthened my chemical boycott. Strangely, modern baby products are full of chemicals: plastics, foams, anti-bacterial agents. And in an ironic twist, many products that are specifically marketed as promoting safety and health—think anti-bacterial soap or foam-stuffed high-chairs—are in fact introducing chemicals in places they don’t need to be. And so I present to you: three super easy switches you can make to reduce your home’s chemical load, whether you’ve got a baby or not. 


It takes a little diligence at the beginning, but in the end, replacing conventional products with natural alternatives will make your home and family safer, your impact on the environment gentler, and your wallet fatter. 


3 Healthy Alternatives to Chemical Baby Care


1. Opt for wool, wood, stainless steel or glass. Somehow, we’ve been led think that babies can’t hold heavy wooden things, or that they don’t like the smooth coolness of a steel cup or spoon in their mouths. We imagine they need to be mounted like royalty on layers of puffy foam, or that they’ll immediately break any glass put within their reach. I’ve found all of this to be untrue. Oliver revels in lifting a heavy box of wooden blocks (sorry downstairs neighbors!). He takes great delight in banging (and eating with) stainless-steel cups and utensils. He’s obsessed with sitting on the floor matching lids to glass Ball jars. He’s been changed every day of his life on either a pile of blankets or a sheepskin. It gets marketed as snobby or precious, but the truth is that buying non-synthetic baby toys and gear is cheaper, nicer-looking and more durable. And in a lot of cases, looking for natural alternatives also led us to support local businesses, independent craftspeople and the barter economy over corporate monoliths like Babies-R-Us. The fact that you don’t have to think about your kid playing with carcinogens is the cherry on top. 


2. Use herbs and essential oils. Let’s be honest: babies produce lots of smells. And conventional baby products are obsessed with masking those smells with artificial fragrances, which companies are not legally compelled to test or disclose. Instead, we use odor-absorbing minerals (like baking soda), aromatic herbs and essential oils when we need to make the air smell a little sweeter. We hang sachets of dried lavender in Oliver’s closet where the diaper pail is kept, and replace it monthly, to keep the closet smelling good even when there are still three days to go until the diaper service comes. Likewise, we sprinkle baking soda in the trash can after certain incidents. In the bath, we use unscented soap and add a few drops of chamomile or rose essential oil to the bathwater. For clean-up on the floor or the bathroom, we stick with a couple of multi-purpose products whose companies are proud to crow about their totally natural ingredients. 


3. Watch what you put on yourself. Babies are deeply tactile creatures, and cuddling means literally rolling in whatever creams, detergents, sprays, perfumes or makeup you’re putting on your own body. Also, Biology 101: Our skin is our largest organ! We gotta protect it. I don’t wear a ton of makeup, but the products I do use I check against the Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep Cosmetic Database. It catalogues items that run the gamut of body care, from sunscreen and soap to bronzer and pimple cream, and assigns a score for most drugstore brands, so can you see how your usual brands do on the toxicity front. For my part, I find it’s easiest to identify a couple of brands that I trust and stick with those. I like the suite of chemical-free products from 100% Pure and Love & Toast. (Both companies commit to keeping their products vegan and eschewing parabens, pthalates, artificial fragrances, triclosan and petroleum among other hazards.) Sure, my hair doesn’t always ever look like a Pantene Pro-V commercial, but I’ve come to terms with that.

For the curious:
Erin’s organic Moses basket;
organic cotton mattress
and wool blanket (for extra padding)
See more Baby Proof posts RIGHT THIS WAY.
PS. The links in this post were updated after the birth of Erin’s second child (January 2017).
PPS. After publishing this piece, it became apparent that for some readers the use of term chemical struck a nerve. Rest assured, its use here is to connote those chemical compounds known to have toxic side effects. We’re not concerned about H2O (and neither should you be).

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  • Reply Anonymous June 26, 2014 at 2:16 pm

    Thanks so much for this post! Perfect timing as I'm expecting my first in October, also in NYC, and am trying to figure out what to register for. There's a lot of pressure to go mainstream, that's for sure!

    Cait, how long did Oliver sleep in the Moses basket for? Where does he sleep now? I'm finding the whole bassinet/co-sleeper/mini crib/crib/pack n' play/rock n' play)/bouncy seat/swing to be quite befuddling.

  • Reply Erin June 26, 2014 at 2:28 pm

    Hi there! This is Erin chiming in! The moses basket is actually ours! Cait used a combination of wooden cradle and co-sleeping in the early months (I'll let her give the details on when she switched to a crib/co-sleeping combo). We opted for the moses basket because it's super mobile and we can move it around the apartment. So far we've opted out of any other crib/mini crib/pack n' play, swing, etc., but we have tentative plans to add a mini crib once Faye is more mobile herself! I'll be working on a full sleep post one of these days soon!

    • Reply Caitlin June 26, 2014 at 7:21 pm

      Yes, to elaborate: we did a wooden cradle until Oliver was about 5 months, at which point we got a traditional crib (with a gently pre-used, all-wool crib mattress we found on Craigslist). Oliver also co-sleeps with us, starting out the night in the cradle (and now crib) and transitioning to the bed with us in the wee hours.

  • Reply Anonymous June 26, 2014 at 3:35 pm

    Very helpful, Erin, thank you! I would appreciate all advice you could provide in these departments. Glad to hear the Moses basket is working out well for you.

  • Reply Deborah June 26, 2014 at 3:48 pm

    But please do be careful with essential oils and wee ones. Lavender and chamomile were the only two considered suitable for babies when I did my aromatherapy training, and check what your rose is because pure rose essential oil is very expensive. My stash, which is Turkish rose, works out to several dollars a drop. I use it in blends, mostly. Rose water (hydrosol) is great though.

    • Reply Caitlin June 26, 2014 at 7:18 pm

      Yes, indeed! We stick with baby-approved oils, for sure! And yes, our rose oil was a gift, but good to keep in mind that some essential oils are pricey (especially if they are sustainably harvested).

  • Reply ALo June 26, 2014 at 6:28 pm

    A friend of mine made me these natural baby products for my shower. They've been essntially all we've needed in the first year and seriously easy to make at home.

    • Reply Caitlin June 26, 2014 at 7:21 pm

      Awesome! Excited to try some of these.

  • Reply dina June 26, 2014 at 7:35 pm

    All great suggestions! I do think as our babies grow, we have less control over their world. I have to prioritize in order to find a balance, or I'd go nuts. At home, I choose to focus on the food my son eats and household cleaners and bath and body products, Doterra Oils rather than OTC for minor ailments. That's about it. When he is out in the world, he swims in chlorine, eats cake with blue dyes at parties, climbs on playground equipment with peeling paint, etc. Neutral colors and wooden toys don't hold their interest forever. My 10 year old loves yellow and turquoise and legos and plastic action figures and dollar store army guys. And I'm at peace with that. All comes down to balance, I suppose. Prioritize, do what you can, don't beat yourself up for what you can't.

    I also wonder, in a 100% non-snarky way (I'm in NO position to be judgmental), how you reconcile
    your desire for clean living with living in NYC. I ask in all honesty.

    • Reply Caitlin June 27, 2014 at 3:18 am

      Great point about balance!

      Re: NYC: Yes, it's a big, dirty port city! But it's also an amazing place to experiment with living lightly on the earth: awesome public transit, teensy apartments, the lowest rate of car ownership of any American city, proximity to a fertile agricultural valley…We do the best we can with what we've got!

  • Reply Anonymous June 26, 2014 at 7:45 pm

    So that's three. Are there more? Just curious. Love these ideas!

  • Reply Erin June 26, 2014 at 7:53 pm

    Whoops! Sleep-deprived editor error 😉

  • Reply infusionfibers June 26, 2014 at 8:08 pm

    I love you Boyles more all the time! So down to earth, smart and practical in the best possible ways. AIso love that you mentioned 100% Pure. I discovered them last year, and continue to be impressed by their nearly edible products. It's been fun to play around with a bit of makeup again, which I'd pretty much left behind in high school.

  • Reply Colleen June 26, 2014 at 9:45 pm

    I'm not a mum, but still interested in using environmentally friendly and non-toxic products. Thanks for the suggestions. But I haven't heard, what are the harms of upholstered furniture?

    • Reply Caitlin June 27, 2014 at 3:11 am

      Read the NYT piece linked above! Mostly: flame retardants.

  • Reply Casey June 26, 2014 at 11:58 pm

    It's scary what's in baby products (or, really, human products in general) these days.

    One note, though, from a science nerd. Everything is a chemical – saying you're avoiding chemicals is humanly impossible. We have a tendency to associate "chemical" with man-made (and toxic), when it reality it's everything that we put on our bodies, naturally occurring too. You should approach ALL products, even if it was grown in your backyard and bottled in your kitchen using your own hands, from the perspective of "this is a chemical, it has properties that can affect human beings, are those effects negative for my baby?" There are definitely places out there where a synthetic is the better, safer choice and better for the environment (i.e. there is a serious misconception that essential oils are always better than synthetics, whereas for something that is as endangered as, for example, sandalwood, it's not always the case). You have to think through everything, which makes being a parent these days pretty hard and confusing.

    • Reply Caitlin June 27, 2014 at 3:13 am

      So true! I use "chemical" as shorthand for toxic sometimes, and it's not very accurate. Thanks for sharing!

  • Reply Linh + Tina June 27, 2014 at 12:45 am

    this is so simple and smart and helpful. thanks for sharing! 🙂

  • Reply Anonymous June 27, 2014 at 5:13 pm

    lovely post – when mine were little (oh so long ago) my dread enemies were disposable diapers and those horrible, sticky, perfumed baby wipes. to avoid the wipes, I kept dozens of those small, cheap white washcloths and used them for practically everything. when we went out, at least one damp one in a plastic container went into baby's bag.
    Congratulations, Felicitations, and All Good Fortune!

  • Reply Caitlin June 28, 2014 at 12:59 am

    I love the washcloth idea! Thanks for reading!

  • Reply Jennifer July 2, 2014 at 5:00 pm

    I applaud your efforts at getting (both) your babies off to a great start! I’m late to this thread, but I wanted to expand on the idea of bucking mainstream ‘trends’.

    My experience has been that this is infinitely more manageable at the stage you're in. I, too started out wanting a simple, wholesome environment for my wee one. And the suggestions you offer for new babies above are totally doable despite marketing campaigns coming out of the big box stores. Just as you described, infants really don't need much in the beginning. No arguments from me about keeping things simple!

    It seems however, that the ‘hysteria’ you mention will change form and as parents, our anxiety over exposing our kids to chemicals or synthetics compared to the ‘simplicity’ of some mainstream conveniences becomes a tangible burden. As they get older and more independent (not to mention opinionated!), you have less and less control over their care. And then brother (or sisters, in our case) come along and the sanity-seeking goes up a notch. Keeping all plastics, electronics, battery operated toys, and gender-neutral clothing becomes unrealistic. My girls love experimenting with their fashion choices and I would never dream of crushing their spirit by not allowing them to wear something that wasn't ‘organic’ or that their gender-stereotyped diamond ‘tiara’ was mass produced in China. With three kids and two full time jobs, we may or may not have let them rip open a box of artificially colored crayons and scribble on some non-recycled paper, or worse, stick a pair of headphones on their head, shove a tablet in their lap and close the bathroom door. Least of all on days where it grants us 15 minutes of peace.  As with all things in life (particularly parenthood) I think it’s important to educate ourselves and our kids, but with a healthy dose of balance. There are so many expectations that come without any real qualifiers about what it means to be a ‘good parent’ and you may be able to preserve your sanity by letting go, just a little.

    I have thoroughly enjoyed following this blog and I do hope that it doesn't go the way of many others in similar content that equate sustainable living with aesthetic perfection. You know the ones – their beautifully curated images highlight the kids playing with handmade dolls or vegetable-dyed wooden toys reading vintage books, at the expense of the kid’s actual affinity for the gaudy flame retardant polyester fleece pillow in the corner? Take my word for it: your child will probably delight in banging on kitchen pots, picking berries and tracing leaves, but a little further down the road they may also want to wear character pajamas, eat neon-blue colored frosting and watch television shows about underwater sea stars. And it’s ok. It happens to the best of us. 🙂

  • Reply Elizabeth July 6, 2014 at 5:43 pm

    Hi Caitlin and Erin,

    This is such a helpful piece. I'm eager to hear more about your choices for babies.

    I'm curious about what you opt for in place of upholstered furniture. Zero flame retardant sofas are so expensive. I'd love to explore some other options.

    Thank you!

  • Reply thefolia February 13, 2015 at 3:23 am

    Cheers to chemical free products…I am looking into crib mattresses and it's driving me mad!

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