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Baby's Natural Nursery

by Kathy Gibbons Ph.D., and Mindy Penny Backer

Picture your future child standing in her new white crib, contentedly gnawing on the bars.

You'd never want her to ingest pesticides or formaldehyde; however, most conventional paints and finishes, even those used on baby furniture, contain such toxic chemicals. Even if your baby never chews the furniture, it can offgas dangerous fumes that she'll inhale for months and sometimes years.

It's our job to make the environment, beginning with the nursery; as safe as possible for our children. And because many toxins cross the placenta, a pregnant woman should be cautious about her exposure, as well. "Many new parents give up smoking, and almost all begin to drive more carefully. Another way to make your infant's world healthier is to protect her from toxic chemicals in the home," says Harvey Karp, M.D., a Los Angeles pediatrician. Children's allergies, for instance, often have an environmental trigger, Dr. Karp says.

Just as lower risk tolerances should be established by the EPA for pesticides on food eaten by children, attention is increasingly being paid to the higher impact of chemical exposure to children in the home, as pediatricians Herbert L. Needleman and Philip J. Landrigan note in their book Raising Children Toxic Free (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1994). This, the authors explain, is because amounts of toxins that may be absorbed without discernable harm by most adults have a proportionately greater impact on children's smaller, developing bodies. Many of these toxins, such as lead, accumulate in the body over a lifetime.

These days, every conventional product a parent might select for a new nursery-wall paint; synthetic and pesticide-treated, stain-resistant carpets; baby furniture, bedding and clothes-can contain toxic or irritating components. This Green Guide, a preview of Mothers & Others' forthcoming book Baby's Natural Nursery, focuses on home issues that directly affect children, and suggests healthier alternatives.

Lead paint

Lead isn't a problem with new paint sold in the U.S. If there is lead in your old paint, though, and particularly if that paint is chipping and creating dust, it's a different story. "The time of elevated blood lead that correlates with lower I.Q. is the 18-month through 2-year period, which is also the time that children are walking around touching everything and putting their hands in their mouths," says Dr. Karp. Lead can also cross the placenta if a pregnant woman inhales lead dust. Lead was banned from U.S. paints in 1978; if your home is older than that, it might have at least one layer. What you can do about lead paint:

Contact the EPA Lead Hotline for free information, including lists of labs that will analyze paint chips or dust.

Only a licensed professional should remove lead paint.

Nursery walls and floors

As a general rule, since any paint gives off fumes to some degree, it is best not to paint during pregnancy or when you have a child under one year old in the house. Oil-based paints, waxes and polyurethane finishes include solvents known as volatile organic compounds (VOCs), which readily vaporize out of a liquid or solid form. Many VOCs, such as benzene, methylene chloride, formaldehyde and biocides, are known or suspected carcinogens.

What you can do:

Paint, refinish or varnish during warm weather, so that you can leave the windows open to aerate the room.

If you must paint during pregnancy, the pregnant woman should not do any of the work and should avoid the room until the surfaces are completely dry.

Water-based, "low-VOC" (specially formulated to be low in polluting emissions) paints are the most prudent choice, along with water-based floor finishes.

For information on natural floor coverings, such as untreated natural-fiber carpets and real linoleum, read Mothers & Others' "Flooring Fact Sheet" and The Green Guide #19 "Carpets"; for paints and other surface coatings, see #26, "The Green Home."

Baby furniture

When shopping, bypass cribs, bureaus, changing tables and shelves made with laminated wood, pressed wood, chipboard or particle board, as all these products release formaldehyde. If you can, select solid hardwood cribs protected with low-VOC paints or finishes, available at "green" stores like Manhattan's Terre Verde; if you can't find one locally, try The Natural Bedroom or Heart of Vermont catalogs. Or you can buy unfinished hardwood furniture and coat it yourself with a safer, water-based polyurethane sealer such as Crystal Air, available from N.E.E.D.S. and Nontoxic Environments.

Antique or used cribs or bassinets might be painted with lead-based paint, and the bars may be more widely spaced than current safety standards permit. Use a crib manufactured according to the latest federal safety standards. For a list of products that meet these standards, contact Consumer Reports for their "Guide to Baby Products."

Mattresses, Bedding, Clothes

Synthetic fabrics such as polyester and nylon tend not to breathe, trapping heat that contributes to rashes. Try to minimize use of any clothing that is "permanent-press" or has been treated with other finishes. These chemicals, even after washing, continue to release formaldehyde. The safest cloth for your baby and the environment is organically grown, undyed cotton.

Fire-resistant and flame-retardant finishes must, by federal law, be applied to mattresses and infants' and children's sleepwear. Fire safety considerations should guide parents' choice of what their children wear for sleep. However, we can reduce our children's contact with these chemicals by selecting untreated clothes for waking hours. In all cases make sure your home is fire safe and equipped with smoke alarms, fire extinguishers and escape ladders.

The typical new crib mattress, stuffed with polyurethane foam and covered with fire and water-proofed, synthetic material, emits a host of VOCs, including toluene. Mattresses stuffed with conventionally-grown cotton can offgass formaldehyde.

Recommended Alternatives:

A completely untreated organic cotton mattress can be purchased from Crown Mattresses, but you'll need a doctor's prescription to release you from fire-retardancy requirements. For a crib mattress, fireproofing is the prudent choice. However, this might be a good time to invest in an organic adult mattress, as the mother generally nurses the newborn several times a night in the parents' bed. For both children's and adult mattresses, try Nontoxic Hotline, Nontoxic Environments and Crown Mattresses. Note: the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) cautions against letting infants sleep on adults' beds, because this increases the risk of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS). In June 1996, the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development announced that putting babies to sleep on their backs or sides rather than on their stomachs has reduced deaths from SIDS by 30 percent.

Crib mattresses should be covered and stuffed with undyed cotton or wool, and untreated with pesticides, disinfectants and any other finishes besides the flame retardants required by law.

Or, try to find a used, conventional crib mattress that has off-gassed, but make sure any mattress, new or used, is firm and flat -- criteria the CPSC suggests to reduce risk of SIDS.

Naturally waterproof wool mattress pads are available through The Natural Baby Catalog. (Use flat pads, not the furry sheepskin mats that may pose an increased risk of SIDS).

Organic cotton baby clothing, receiving blankets and flannel crib sheets can be found in "green stores" and through catalogs (see The Green Guide #22). Lilling carries natural woolen baby clothing.


Every new parent faces the disposable/cloth choice. Disposables-made of paper, plastic and absorptive acrylic gels-log our landfills. Cornstarch, added to so-called "biodegradable" plastics, helps the diaper's plastic to break apart, but doesn't actually make the diaper biodegrade. Also, the chlorine bleaching of paper pulp causes carcinogenic, endocrine-disrupting dioxins to be released into the environment. Mothering and Greenpeace magazines report that studies have detected furans, a group of chemicals in the "family" of dioxin-like chemicals, in paper diapers. Furans, like dioxins, can migrate from paper products to the skin.

Cloth diapers have their own environmental costs: in fuel consumed and air pollution caused by diaper service trucks, and water pollution and energy use from laundering. Because cloth is less absorbent, pediatricians often recommend disposables, which keep skin drier and less prone to rashes.

In most areas (except where there is a water shortage), cloth diapers laundered at home with vegetable-oil-based soaps are better; use disposables according to such circumstances as rashes, travel and the limits of your home laundry (and your own physical energy).

Recommended Alternatives:

Organic cotton diapers are sold by Snugglebundle catalog. The Natural Baby Catalog and Baby Bunz & Co. sell "green" flannel diapers. Rubber pants trap heat and moisture; instead, try naturally water-repellent wool diaper covers, carried by Biobottoms.

Fragrance-free disposable TushiesTM are filled with cotton and wood pulp rather than acrylic gel.

Rather than commercial baby wipes, which contain perfumes and alcohol, mix one cup water with one teaspoon baking soda; apply this mixture, which helps prevent yeast infections, to soft flannel squares or paper towels, and store in a zippered plastic bag until needed.


As a general rule, buy unperfumed laundry soaps. Avoid chlorine bleach; look for non-chlorine bleaches or add 1/4 cup lemon juice or white vinegar in the wash cycle to brighten clothes. Sunlight is a natural sterilizer.

Avoid the use of a deodorizer cake in diaper pails. The fumes are toxic. Instead, soak diapers in hot water and borax, which sanitizes and deodorizes, until ready to wash. Cover pails and keep out of children's reach.

We can't protect our children from everything, but there are simple environmental measures we can take from the start to promote our children's comfort and the development of healthy bodies and minds. A natural nursery should be at the top of every expectant parent's list.

Author's note:

She received a Ph.D. in biochemistry from the University of Illinois.

She is coauthor with Mothers & Others, of Baby's Natural Nursery, a book to be published in 1997.