For all its joy and wonder, life with a new baby can leave you awestruck with the overwhelming responsibility of caring for another's well-being. Along with protecting your baby from the obvious dangers, it's important to safeguard your infant from the not-so-obvious threat of environmental toxins. "Infants are so vulnerable when they come into the world," says Victoria Larson, ND, a pediatric naturopath in Sandy, Ore., "and environmental toxins can affect babies strongly." Larson notes that during the first year, childrens' cells are multiplying rapidly and their immune, respiratory and nervous systems are still developing. Because their metabolic systems are immature, they are less able to detoxify and excrete the pollutants they are exposed to in everyday life. But a few simple substitutions can help make your baby's world a safer one.
When it comes to feeding your newborn there is little dispute that breast is best. But some parents, whether out of choice or necessity, rely on infant formula to nourish their little ones. Yet a DNA analysis of the three top-selling brands conducted by Consumers Union found genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in their powdered soy formulas. The topic of GMOs is highly controversial, and some parents fear that GMOs may put their infants at risk of developing new allergies and increased antibiotic resistance.
Milk-based formulas aren't much better. Bovine growth hormones, antibiotics and steroids can find their way into your baby's bottle. Highly processed, milk-based formulas also contain refined sugars and soy oils that may also contain GMOs. To give your baby a healthy start, opt for labeled organic, GMO-free formula.
What about commercial baby food? Pound for pound, a baby consumes two to seven times more fruits and vegetables than his or her parents, so it's important to ensure baby food is as safe as it is nourishing. According to a 1999 study sponsored by the Environmental Working Group (EWG), infants who are fed commercial baby food—particularly apple juice, applesauce, pears and peaches—are exposed to unsafe levels of organophosphates. These constitute a class of pesticides that accumulate in the body's fatty tissue and can affect an infant's developing brain and nervous system. "Pesticides also interfere with how the body processes essential fatty acids," says Larson, "a potential problem since these nutrients are critical to building new cells." To avoid these toxins, savvy parents can choose from a growing number of organic baby foods to provide wholesome fare sans pesticides.
The Bottom Line
Once upon a time, clotheslines across America were filled with freshly washed diapers dancing gently in the breeze. Today, only one in ten babies' bottoms are covered with cloth. But this convenience takes a heavy toll on the health of your infant and the environment. "One-quarter of a million trees are consumed in the production of disposable diapers each year," says Pam Lundquist of Mothers & Others for a Livable Planet. What happens to those soiled diapers once you toss them in the trash? According to Lundquist, 18 billion discarded disposables end up in landfills annually, making them the third largest source of solid waste in America.
Of more immediate concern to parents are the possible health effects of disposable diapers. A recent study, conducted by Anderson Laboratories in West Hartford, Vt., found that three of the four leading brands off-gassed toxic chemicals—including toluene, xylene, ethylbenzene, styrene and isopropylbenzene—and may contribute to asthma. And, while parents may think those "whiter than white" disposables are more sanitary for baby, Lundquist notes that they may contain traces of dioxin. Dioxin is a byproduct of industrial pulp and paper bleaching that has been linked to cancer, birth defects, liver damage and hormone disruption. Fortunately, safer disposables are as close as your natural products store. Made with cotton padding instead of wood pulp, these dioxin-free diapers also contain no superabsorbent gels, synthetic dyes, perfumes or conditioners that can irritate baby's sensitive skin.
Regardless of whether you choose cloth or disposables, your baby will probably suffer from occasional diaper rash. But don't automatically reach for a drug-store remedy. In 1992, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a notice that over-the-counter diaper rash ointments have not been shown safe or effective. It's no wonder. Although most ointments rely on zinc oxide to create a barrier against further irritation, conventional brands include talc and synthetic preservatives such as diazolidinyl urea, which can release formaldehyde and parabens. A recent study by Danish researchers with the USD Odense University found that parabens can evoke estrogenic activity comparable with bisphenol A, a known hormone disrupter. To soothe baby's burning bottom while protecting his or her health, try a natural ointment containing herbal healers such as calendula, chamomile and lavender.
Nothing smells better than a freshly bathed baby. Yet baby soaps often include perfumes and lanolin derivatives that can result in allergic reactions. Baby shampoos that boast tear-free lather, although gentler than their adult counterparts, contain preservatives such as quaternarium-15, a germicide that releases formaldehyde. And baby lotion can be packed with petrochemicals. "Parents can inadvertently make their babies into little lab experiments by trying every new and improved product on the market," says Steve Nenninger, ND, a Port Jefferson, N.Y., naturopath. Instead, he recommends cleaning and moisturizing baby gently with nontoxic soaps, shampoos and lotions containing natural oils and herbs such as sweet almond oil, aloe vera and chamomile. "These plant oils and herbs have been used safely by many cultures for thousands of years," says Nenninger.
One of the most dubious products in the baby aisle of the supermarket is talcum powder. Although many leading brands of baby powder are talc-based, a study by Boston's Brigham and Women's Hospital has linked talc use in the genital area to ovarian cancer. What's more, talc is a lung irritant that can cause coughing, vomiting and even pneumonia when inhaled by infants. To keep baby dry and comfy, opt for a talc-free powder with a base of cornstarch, arrowroot, kaolin clay or tapioca powder.
By making a few natural and environmentally-conscious choices, you can keep your infant healthy and happy without forgoing convenience. After all, if you feel your baby is the most precious gift in the world, you'll agree that nothing could be more important than making his or her world a safer, better place.
Kim Erickson is a freelance writer who writes frequently on natural health.