Babies! Cute little bundles of boundless fun and exhaustion! Since our family has just added our sixth child, we believe we have attained enough expertise to write something for an issue of Wise Traditions focusing on babies—and especially to write something about the stuff that goes into caring for a baby.
New parents confront two basic questions: What do you and your baby really need, and how do you make sure it is safe? After six babies, we can start off with one simple piece of advice: You don’t really need all that much baby stuff. With each additional child, the amount of stuff we thought we needed has decreased, because we have learned over time that we really don’t need it. At most, we now consider about 20 percent of the stuff that we had on hand for our first child to be necessary.
CLOTHES: WHAT TOUCHES YOUR BABY MOST
Other than you, what your baby has the most physical contact with is his or her clothes. So clothing is one of the important things to invest in for your child’s health. Overall, we think it is better to have fewer but higher-quality items than a lot of low-quality clothes. Fortunately, organic clothing is now more common than when we first started having kids. When we cannot get organic clothing, we focus on finding used clothes in good condition, because many of the residual chemicals are washed out after the first year. Above all, avoid clothes treated with flame retardants or other chemicals.
As a big family facing the challenge and expense of feeding and clothing six kids, we often shop for clothing at our local thrift stores. Jessica has found numerous articles of organic baby clothing in such stores, for which we pay from twenty-five to fifty cents per item (versus ten to fifteen dollars per item when new).
Prices for new organic items have also come down quite a bit; while they still cost more than conventional items, the price difference no longer makes them unaffordable. Even stores like Costco carry organic options that are affordable and these options often also go on clearance.
For our new baby’s first few months, we only had to buy a handful of new articles of organic baby clothing, plus a few sheets and blankets, to round out what we already had or were able to find in thrift stores. For example, we found a five-pack of cute organic onesies for sixteen dollars; in comparison, a five-pack of conventional onesies ranged from ten to eleven dollars (for plain white or colored). An absolutely lovely set of three organic swaddle blankets in a gift box cost twenty-three dollars, versus eighteen dollars for conventional blankets. And this was just price shopping—not looking for sales or going to any extra effort to find deals. So while waiting for sales and comparison shopping are good ideas, the price difference to go organic may not be as significant as you think!
Unfortunately, every baby item you buy— including personal care products—is a potential hazard to the new little person in your family. According to one parenting website, a shocking “77 percent of the ingredients in 17,000 reviewed children’s products have never been assessed for safety by industry or government.”1 The website reports that each day, the average baby is exposed to twenty-seven untested chemicals just in baby care products.1
In a study of leading children’s bath and body care products conducted by the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics—titled “No More Toxic Tub”—82 percent (twenty-three out of twenty-eight products tested) contained formaldehyde, 67 percent (thirty-two out of forty-eight products tested) contained 1,4-dioxane and 61 percent (seventeen out of twenty-eight products tested) contained both.2 Formaldehyde and 1,4-dioxane are both, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), probable carcinogens.
Because formaldehyde and 1,4-dioxane are manufacturing byproducts (toxic ones) rather than formal or intentional ingredients of these baby products, the Food and Drug Administration does not require manufacturers to list them on the ingredient labels.2 In fact, as the “No More Toxic Tub” report explains, the FDA (1) “lacks basic authority needed to ensure that products are actually safe”; (2) “cannot require companies to test products for safety before they are sold”; (3) “does not systematically review the safety of ingredients”; and (4) “does not set limits for common, harmful contaminants in products.”2
If the labels are leaving you confused about the safety and quality of a particular baby product, the Environmental Working Group’s (EWG’s) Skin Deep database can be a useful tool.3 However, rather than go overboard on lotions and creams, we personally love the simplicity and effectiveness of coconut oil, jojoba and other traditional and natural oils.
BABY GEAR: PLASTIC AND MORE PLASTIC
While you don’t need much, there is some baby gear that you really can’t do without. Unfortunately, most of it is plastic. Freshly manufactured products that contain plastics and other synthetic components—such as fabrics, liners and covers—usually “outgas.” What that means is that they give off dangerous volatilized chemicals (that “new product smell” most of us are familiar with). As a result, car seats, strollers, bouncy chairs and other such items cause a lot of chemical exposure.
Our first rule for baby gear is to try to borrow, which helps us minimize the amount of total plastic we put into circulation. However, borrowing isn’t always possible. In that case, we buy used (and then regift) because we want to avoid the outgassing that brand-new items generally produce during their first few months of use.
Given that horse-and-buggy travel isn’t a thing for most modern people, one necessary piece of baby gear is a quality, unexpired baby car seat. Unfortunately, in terms of chemical exposure, car seats are some of the worst offenders! Not only are they always made of plastic, but many are also treated with flame retardants.
Gentle Nursery has a helpful (though slightly dated) breakdown of car seats with the least (or even no) chemical treatments.4 Because new companies and improvements are constantly emerging, it is also important to look for (or do) up-to-date research.
CARRYING, SITTING, SLEEPING
Baby carriers and slings go back thousands of years, and we have found that having a few is quite useful. Over time, we have used the Maya Wrap sling and the Ergo baby carrier as well as others. As with clothes, organic options now abound, and used baby carriers and slings are not hard to find. Even in our rural, non-crunchy area of Kentucky, we found an organic Ergo baby carrier for two dollars at a thrift store! Many areas also have buy, sell and swap baby groups, which are a great place to look for baby items you may need.
Once baby is bigger, a high chair or booster seat may be desired. Fortunately, numerous high-quality, all (or mostly) natural options are now available, made primarily of wood and with safer, non-toxic finishes. We had a lovely wooden Eddie Bauer model with minimal plastic parts that endured five kids and fourteen years of near constant use—retired solely because of the need to replace a few parts that were no longer available.
For bedding, the resurgence of wool over the past two decades has been a wonderful thing for families as well as farmers. Wool is naturally antibacterial and anti-smelly. Wool pads can help keep the parental bed (if co-sleeping) or the baby’s bed (if not co-sleeping) much easier to clean. Wool is also great for diaper covers and many other uses.5
For teething and rattle toys, wooden and organic fiber options now abound. There are also organic or all-natural rubber options as well as plastic options purported to be safer, though we recommend caution and suggest you still keep these to a minimum. Many (or most) are made in China, or with materials manufactured in China; unless the company is doing independent post-production testing, I would consider claims of safety suspect at best.
For our younger kids, Jessica made several of their first stuffed animals using simple patterns, organic cotton (now widely available) and all-natural fillings like wool or buckwheat hulls. If you are not interested in the DIY approach, ask around in your community, as there is almost certainly someone who has the skills and interest. If not, all-natural toys are also available online, such as on Etsy, and as a bonus, you can support small businesses. As with clothing, we feel that it is better to purchase a few high-quality play items rather than dozens of dangerous and junky ones.
No doubt, babies are mess-making machines, and there are many ways parents can tackle the diapering issue. Rather than engage in the arguments and unnecessary guilt that diapering discussions sometimes create, we prefer to describe the options.
For all of our children, we have used a mixture of infant potty training—also known as elimination communication (EC)6—along with cloth and disposable diapers. We mostly reserve disposable diapers for travel or sometimes for nighttime use (as we have heavy wetters and hard water)—or when life gets crazy (for example, a stomach bug sweeps through the family). We have also found that breathable clothing, along with attentive parenting when it comes to potty use and diapering needs, can go a long way in minimizing common baby discomforts such as diaper rash.
You may wonder how two newly-married, completely mainstream Americans learned about EC. Not long before we wed, Jessica spent three months in Indonesia, and I spent over a month in the Mideast. Both of us were exposed to traditional ways of dealing with this particular challenge and were fascinated by how other cultures worked with a child’s natural instincts and rhythms to get them potty-trained much earlier—and with far less stress—than what we had observed in Western cultures. To me, it just made sense; no creature wants to sit around in its excrement. And if kittens and puppies can learn soon after birth, how much more so human babies?
As with any traditional practice, there is a learning curve for EC. Rather than focusing on “success” or speed, the goal is to work with your new family member, showing respect and not worrying about misses and accidents. Nonetheless, the result has been that most of our kids were potty-trained by eighteen to twenty-four months, which allowed us to cut both cloth and disposable diaper usage by about 75 percent (give or take).
According to the EPA (as cited by the EWG), disposable diapers generate over four million tons of waste annually.7 However, if you are primarily using cloth diapers and/or EC, the impact of occasional disposable diaper use is small in the scheme of things. For disposable diapers, we do encourage parents to purchase the best brands possible, and especially brands that are free of chlorine, fragrance, dyes and latex.
Be aware that the Consumer Product Safety Commission does not require diaper manufacturers to test their products or materials for hazardous chemicals.7 Conventional disposable diapers use petroleum-derived crystals (Super Absorbent Polymers or SAPs) to absorb as much moisture as possible—up to thirty times their weight in liquid.7 Studies indicate that sodium polyacrylate, a SAP commonly used in disposables, can be contaminated with acrylamide (a probable carcinogen) and acrylic acid (a strong skin and eye irritant).7
Fortunately, better disposable options are coming to market, many of which claim to be either more biodegradable or even completely biodegradable.8 Between bamboo and hemp, even more eco-friendly options should soon become available. Moreover, these types of disposable diapers are not necessarily more expensive. Look for sales and buy in bulk to bring down the cost per diaper.
If you plan to cloth diaper, it is important to realize that what works for one person may not work well for you. Fortunately, there are many available options. For our last several babies, we have used OsoCozy organic flat diapers. We have found them to be inexpensive and effective, and they do not have the issues with ammonia build-up that we previously encountered with prefolds, all-in-ones or pocket diapers. Perhaps due to some combination of our hard water, laundry detergent, washing machine and other factors, we have also found the OsoCozy diapers to be the easiest to keep clean.
We have used a combination of wool and PUL (polyurethane laminate) covers to go with the cloth liners. Because PUL “leaves something to be desired in terms of air-flow and breathability,” one cloth diapering website recommends alternating with natural fabrics to “provide a chance for tiny bums to air out from time to time” as well as giving baby some diaper-free time in the sun.9
PARENTS, NOT PRODUCTS
Ours is a consumeristic culture that often tries to solve so-called problems by spending more money. Over our years of parenting, we have learned to save the money and instead solve the problems with time— time that we now have more of, since we are not trying to earn so much money to pay to solve the problems! Sure, you can get self-rocking and shushing cradles and chairs, or toys that will sing and speak—but really, what baby most wants (and needs) is YOU.
A VERY MOODY BABY LIST
If a summary checklist of baby essentials will help you or someone you know, here you go. We do not include clothing in our list, given that specific clothing needs will be highly dependent on your baby, your situation and your climate.
- A place for baby to sleep: If you are not co-sleeping with baby (or even if you are), a bassinet or Pack‘N Play-type system can still be very useful
- A bouncy chair or swing are nice and let you keep baby close even when you are on the move
- High chair or booster chair
- Stroller (not a must-have for us, but for many this will be a staple item)
- A car seat system
- A baby quilt or floor blanket (quite useful when out and about—we prefer this to a playmat)
- Diapers, wipes and (if using cloth diapers) diaper covers
- Diaper bag (including a changing pad, a “wet bag” in which to put soiled diapers and clothes, and a nursing cover)
- Swaddle blankets (three to four)
- Burp clothes (we use old-style receiving blankets that are too small for swaddling but great for absorbing stuff and protecting clothing)
- Baby carriers (we like having both a ring sling and a soft structured carrier)
- Nursing pillow
- Baby oil (we often use coconut), baby powder and diaper/rash cream
- Toys (for example, wooden blocks, teethers, soft toys)
- Play gyms—you can now find plans online to make your own wooden play gym!
THAT PARKED CAR: AIR IT OUT
If you park outdoors, especially on warm, sunny days, it is always a good idea to air out your car before you and baby enter it. Warm days cause the release of chemicals not just from the baby plastics in the car but also from other car components and contents. We try to always park in the shade for this reason. Installing window tints and shades can help further reduce how much your car heats up.
- Gillespie MA. Baby care products expose infants to toxic chemicals. ecoParent, August 16, 2019. https://www.ecoparent.ca/eco-wellness/baby-care-products-expose-infants-toxic-chemicals.
- Sarantis H, Malkan S, Archer L. No More Toxic Tub: Getting Contaminants Out of Children’s Bath and Personal Care Products. Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, n.d. https://static.ewg.org/reports/2009/Campaign-for-Safe-Cosmetics-Report-No-More-Toxic-Tub.pdf.
- EWG’s Skin Deep. https://www.ewg.org/skindeep/.
- Moussa Y. Non-toxic car seats: how to avoid toxic flame retardants in car seats. The Gentle Nursery, n.d. https://www.gentlenursery.com/natural-baby-registry-guide/non-toxic-car-seats/.
- Buckley S. Mothering, mindfulness and a baby’s bottom: an introduction to elimination communication. Natural Parent, March 23, 2018. https://thenaturalparentmagazine.com/mothering-mindfulness-and-a-babys-bottom-an-introduction-to-elimination-communication/.
- Swanson S, Lieba N. EWG’s healthy living: guide to safer diapers. Environmental Working Group, December 10, 2020. https://www.ewg.org/research/diaper-guide/.
- Brice M. 8 best biodegradable diapers of 2021. Baby Advisor, n.d. https://www.babyadvisor.org/best-biodegradable-diapers/.
- Green M. What is PUL? Everything cloth, April 14, 2011. http://www.everythingcloth.com/what-is-pul.html.