Green Your Baby’s Nursery

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By Mary Jane Horton

In the last few years we’ve all become aware of the “green” movement. We know that if we don’t change some of our wasteful and polluting habits, the earth—and our children—will suffer. You probably do your bit; most likely you recycle, keep your thermostat at 68 degrees F in the summer (a little warmer in the winter) and maybe you even drive a hybrid car. But now that you’re expecting a baby, you might wonder if that is enough. The answer is simply no.

The impact of the environment, including carcinogens, on babies is 10 times more severe than on adults, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Having a green, or environmentally friendly, nursery, as well as habits that spill over to the rest of your house, can not only protect your brand new bundle from toxins, but can also help protect the environment that she will inherit.

Going green is not just about using non-toxic items in your home (those with low or no VOCs, PVC, phalates—more about those later), but also about “sustainability,” a term that means whatever products and chemicals we’re using now should not compromise the earth for future generations.

Other aspects of a green nursery include using local products, reusing products and using items that have recycled content. Once you start becoming aware of using sustainable and nontoxic products, you pass that enlightened attitude on to your child by modeling. There has never been a time as ripe for this earth-friendly attitude as right now.

With more and more environmentally conscious products available on the market daily, green choices have become much more accessible. “This movement is accelerating rapidly,” says Alan Greene, M.D., a pediatrician, spokesman for the green movement and author of Raising Baby Green: The Earth-Friendly Guide to Pregnancy, Childbirth, and Babycare (John Wiley & Sons, 2007).

“We have entered a great place where modern science and ancient wisdom are combining to make the world a safer place for our babies.” A baby is extra vulnerable during her first year, so it’s a great time to reduce the amount of toxins and threats in her environment, says Christopher Gavigan, CEO and Executive Director of Healthy Child Healthy Worlds (formerly CHEC), the Los Angeles-based nonprofit organization dedicated to protecting children’s environmental health. “There are so many unseen dangers, such as inhalants. And in this year—which is essentially the fourth trimester—babies’ immune systems are still developing. Their environment should be like a womb: as safe and healthy as possible.”

Go to the next page for tips on how to “green” your nursery…


The room

“Most new parents want to paint a room,” says Gavigan. “Painting is an air pollutant, so it’s best to use paints with no or low VOCs [volatile organic compounds]. These compounds keep the paint liquidy in the can and help it dry on the wall, and while experts disagree on how harmful they are with everyday use, some have been shown to cause cancer in some studies and others can cause damage to organs. Natural milk paints and other natural paints are less toxic than traditional paints.

Milk paints are odorless, and made from milk protein (casein) and earth pigments such as lime and clay. They come in powdered form, to be mixed with water. Milk paints contain no preservatives or biocides and should be applied quickly after mixing. It is definitely best to paint early, before you are pregnant, but whenever you do paint, take precautions. “You should always get as much ventilation as possible whiel painting [which means opening windows and using fans], even with low-VOC paints.

Use a good paint that will cover in one coat, if possible,” says Tom Natan, research director of the National Environmental Trust, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit organization that educates people about environmental problems and their effects on their life and health. As for wallpapers, traditional ones are made of polyvinyl chloride (PVC).

The manufacture of PVC creates dioxins, among other industrial by-products, which enter the food chain and get into the fat of animals (including humans), where they can cause cancer and harm the immune system. So they aren’t a good choice for a baby’s room. Instead, think about natural wall coverings, such as bamboo, raffia, rice paper, cork, recycled paper and grass coverings made from vines. Be especially careful about the glue you use to adhere these coverings: Use a water-based nontoxic one.


Floors are another consideration. “Hard surfaces are usually the best,” says Gavigan. “Wall-to-wall carpeting holds in bacteria, mold, pet dander and dust, and then a baby is often putting her mouth on it. Just by taking your shoes off—the soles hold about 80 percent of the dust and dirt inside the house—you can cut down on it.”

If you are changing the floors, opt for wood bamboo, cork or reclaimed wood that has been certified by the FSC (Forest Stewardship Council, a nonprofit organization devoted to encouraging the responsible management of the world’s forests). If you have no choice but carpeting, Gavigan suggests putting a simple cotton blanket (that can be tossed in the washer) down on the floor for the baby, or using a cotton or wool throw rug.

If you’re getting new synthetic carpet, let it air out in the garage or outside before it’s installed so that it can off-gas (release volatile chemicals into the air). Finally, vacuum the baby’s room well and often using a vacuum with a HEPA (high efficiency particulate air) filter, which traps large amounts of very small particles, unlike vacuums with other kinds of filters.


Crib and furniture

Many experts agree that if you’re going to make one major green investment, it should be an organic crib mattress. “Think about it—a baby is on his mattress for 12 to 14 hours a day,” says Greene. “And the baby’s face is very close to it.” From an environmental standpoint, choose a mattress that doesn’t have PVC, the surface material used in nearly all baby mattresses.

Mattresses also contain phthalates, which have been associated with asthma, reproductive problems and cancer. Chemical flame-retardants used in mattresses may also pose a threat. “With organic crib mattresses, you don’t get any of the off-gassing that you do with conventional ones,” says Greene. Organic mattresses are made from clean, safe, certified cotton and organic wool.

They are chemical-free, and most are waterproof and fireproof. To make the purchase of an organic crib mattress more cost-effective for the long run, get a crib that can be made into a toddler bed. In terms of the actual crib, as well as other furniture in the baby’s room, look for FSC-certified wood and make sure that the crib is finished with low- or no-VOC paints.


Gone are the days when organic crib bedding was drab and boring. The colors and patterns—because they are all natural—are a little more subdued (not to mention more expensive) than conventional products, but there are still many great organic bedding products to choose from.

To conserve money, spread out your purchases. Your newborn probably only needs a flat sheet and a couple of receiving blankets; you can add more items as she grows. “Conventional cottons use lots of insecticides,” notes Greene. “Organic is such a nice choice for bedding, and it’s so gentle on the baby’s skin.”


Hand-me-downs are also a good choice for bedding. Even if they are conventional cotton, the fumes and toxins will probably be long gone by the time you get them. Wash everything before you use it. And on a warm day, air it all out—crib mattress included—outside.


“So many of the toys, which usually go directly into a baby’s mouth, are plastic—which has its own concerns—or have lead in them,” says Greene. “Go for the old-fashioned toys made of sustainable wood and cotton.” Besides the old standbys, like books and wood rattles, there is a whole new generation of rag dolls and stuffed animals made with organic fibers such as cotton, hemp and wool.

Although much more research is needed in the area, certain plastics may be something to avoid. “In general,” Greene says, “plastics that are labeled [for recycling purposes] 1, 2, 4 or 5 are safe for normal use. Those with numbers 3, 6 and 7 all have problems—especially 3, which is PVC. Number 7 is problematic because it has some of the worst offenders as well as some of the newest compounds, made from potatoes and corn, which are good.” Greene suggests making toys out of everyday objects.

“At home, when my kids were young, we took a basket and put in fun, natural things—a wooden spoon from the kitchen, a whole lemon—it is pretty and smells great—other fruits and vegetables, brightly colored fabrics.” After all, a baby doesn’t know to ask for the latest plastic toys on the market (as a parent, you will have plenty of that kind of pressure in later years).

Major toy retailers have voluntary bans in place preventing themselves from using diisononyl phthalate (a chemical compound used to increase plastics’ flexibility) in toys that are intended for the mouth for children under 3 years old, so if you buy teethers, rattles, etc., at a retailer like Toys R Us, they will probably be fine. Try to keep your infants and toddlers away from soft toys intended for older children (such as Barbie dolls).


Water and air filters

If you are making your baby’s environment pure, you will also want to take a look at what she is breathing and drinking. “I have an air filter for my baby’s room,” says Gavigan, “but the least expensive ‘filter’ is to open the windows to the baby’s room for at least 10 minutes a day.

Taking the next step, however, and purchasing a filter is definitely a good precaution against airborne particles. HEPA filters are the best. And, as pediatrician Harvey Karp [author of The Happiest Baby on the Block] says, white noise is essential in soothing a baby, and these filters produce constant white noise.”

Everyone’s tap water is different, and in order to know what kind of filter you need, you have to know what’s in your water. “To see what the content of your water is like, you can get a report online from the Environmental Working Group [],” suggests Greene.

Or you can get your water tested, which is a good idea since lead pipes, joints and faucets in your home can be leaching lead into the water. A report will also give you specifics about what contaminants you will want to filter out (to find a certified drinking water laboratory in your area, log on to the EPA’s Web site at Point-of-use devices, such as carbon filter pitchers, distillers and reverse osmosis units, treat the water as it comes from the tap.

They can be freestanding or attached to your faucet. Point-of-entry water filtration systems treat water as it comes into the house and include carbon or aerating systems. Hundreds of chemicals can be found in drinking water, and since only a small percentage of those are monitored by the EPA, it’s definitely a good idea to take matters into your own hands.


Bottom line

While it’s definitely beneficial to you—and your baby—to be aware of environmental concerns, it’s important not to let these issues stress you during this exciting time. Natan sums it up: Don’t panic or get rid of everything. Most of what you have is probably okay, or you can work with it.

Mattress covers that block allergens can help reduce any flame-retardant dust coming from mattresses. Look for the right toys. If you don’t feel comfortable using glass baby bottles, choose bottles made not from polycarbonate but from one of the softer, translucent polypropylenes or polyethylenes. Keep your nursery clean with soap and water, supplemented with salt, vinegar and citrus-oil cleaners. Don’t use disinfectant sprays; it’s not necessary to “kill” germs, just remove them.

Great books we reccommend:

Healthy Child Healthy World—Creating a Cleaner, Greener, Safer Home (Penguin/Dutton 2008) by Christopher Gavigan, with forward by Meryl Streep, and contributors including Gwyneth Paltrow, Tom Hanks, Sheryl Crow and Keri Russell

Organic Baby: Simple Steps for Healthy Living (Chronicle Books 2007) by Kimberly Rider with photographs by Thayer Allison Gowdy

Raising Baby Green: The Earth-Friendly Guide to Pregnancy, Childbirth and Baby Care (John Wiley & Sons 2007) by Alan Greene, M.D., Jeanette Pavini and Theresa Foy DiGeronimo


Essential tips to create a healthy environment for your baby.

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