Your guide to setting up a natural nursery
Author: Una Phelan, Environmental Scientist, mum and owner of Econscious Living. The recommendations made by Una in this blog are based on her experience and neither Econscious Living nor Wholehearted Family Health has an affiliation with the products or brands discussed. Econscious living and Wholehearted Family Health have a business relationship.
Are you expecting a baby?
Perhaps you’re thinking of painting or decorating your nursery and would like to ensure the room is a healthy and non-toxic environment to give your child the best possible start in life…
If so, here is a guide to creating a natural nursery with non-toxic products and my general recommendations, based on my own experience as both a mother and an Environmental Scientist.
My children are now nine and four. Over the past ten years, I have learned a lot – mostly, about what not to do!
I worked non-stop during my first pregnancy. Most of my working career was spent chasing deadlines, one after the other, yet one of the biggest deadlines of my life, motherhood, I didn’t pay much attention to. This meant that when my firstborn arrived, I got a lot of stuff right, but plenty wrong too (and some of the time I just got lucky!).
So while I’m sure most of you would agree there is no book or advice in the world that can ever prepare you for the life-changing experience that parenting is, I’d love for you to be more prepared than I was, with these tips for giving your child the healthiest start possible by removing non-toxic products from their environment.
Remember children are not little adults. Their skulls are thinner than ours and their immune and detoxification systems are all underdeveloped. Furthermore, exposure to certain compounds has been associated with a higher risk of developing allergies 1, 2.
Whether it is flooring, clothing, furnishings, cot, mattress, or bedding you are considering, always think natural. Common natural products include linen, wool, cotton, hemp, silk, wood, leather, and stone. Avoid plastics, particle board, foams and anything that smells!
Don’t do it unless you really have to. Paints, glues, furniture, upholstery, curtains and flooring, particularly when new, give off toxic gases such as formaldehyde, that we all inhale. These toxic gases can actually cross the placenta and affect your fetus. If you are organised, try to do any painting and decorating before you get pregnant. If that’s not possible, here are some tips to make the whole process a lot less toxic.
Test for lead in your home before you start sanding or knocking anything down. It is not good to disturb lead as the dust generated causes harm when inhaled. It’s found in houses built and painted before 1997 and especially those before 1965 when paint contained 50% lead. As a heavy metal, there is no safe level of lead in the blood. It is associated with lower IQ, learning difficulties and hearing problems. You can easily test for lead using lead test strips found at hardware stores. If you really want to remove it, follow the Australian Government Safe Lead Painting Guidelines issued by the Department of the Environment.
Use plant-based paints. One popular choice is Livos. They do not contain the toxic chemicals that synthetics do. There are other synthetic ‘no’ and ‘low VOC’ paints but my preference is plant-based. Solver is one of the better-known brands that stock low VOC paints. Mainstream paints off-gas chemicals in the form of VOCs (Volatile Organic Compounds) for days and often months after having been applied. Ventilate the room well during and after painting and use an air purifier to make sure the paints have well and truly off-gassed.
Buy Australian-made wooden cots and furniture to avoid toxic chemicals. Much of our imported furniture is not subject to the same regulations as furniture made in Australia. For example, formaldehyde, a known carcinogen, is often found in imported furniture, whereas it is banned in Australian-made furniture.
Buy a cot mattress that is made from natural and preferably certified organic materials without inner springs. Most mattresses are made from synthetic materials, usually polyurethane, which often contains flame-retardants and formaldehyde, a known carcinogen. Instead, seek out natural materials – certified organic cotton and 100% natural latex is great. Heyeva make fabulous pure latex and organic wool mattresses, and the Natural Bedding Company make wool. Organature make organic cotton futon mattresses. Inner springs made of metal are not ideal as they magnify the effect of electromagnetic fields, which interfere with sleep, as well as other health effects (see below).
Buy bedding that is made of natural fibres preferably certified organic. Cotton is one of the most heavily sprayed crops in the world, laced with pesticides and chemicals. Linen, bamboo and hemp are all good alternatives. Hemp and bamboo use little if any pesticides but the bamboo manufacturing process can be quite toxic, so organic bamboo lyocell is a better option. There are lots of certified organic cotton options available such as Organature.
Make sure your cot is not lying against a wall that has a meter box, fridge or oven on the other side. The meter box and large appliances emit strong magnetic fields, which are associated with serious health conditions such as childhood leukemia. Move the cot at least 2 metres away from the wall and ideally move the appliance to a room further away.
Avoid carpets, install wooden floors and use rugs. Carpets are great for collecting dust and chemicals and can exacerbate allergies. Furthermore, the backing, underlay and glues used in carpets are toxic. Alpaca carpets are the best, as no dyes or synthetics are used in their manufacture. Pure wool is a better choice than synthetic carpets but the underlay and glues will still be problematic. You can also buy organic carpets and rugs such as those available from Blessed Earth. If you do install a carpet make sure to buy a vacuum cleaner that has a HEPA filter – this will capture tiny particles of dust which also contain chemicals rather than recirculate them back into the air which is what most vacuum cleaners do.
Avoid stain-resistant carpets and fabric. Stain-resistant fabric commonly found on carpet and upholstery contains perfluorinated chemicals such as PFOAs and PFOS or similar. These are linked to many health effects including cancer and are best avoided.
Buy second-hand furniture which will already have off-gassed most of the volatile organic compounds. This does not apply to mattresses or child car seats, which for health and safety reasons should always be bought brand new.
Avoid products that contain fire-retardants (e.g. brominated flame-retardants or PolyBrominated Diphenyl Ethers (PBDE)). These toxic chemicals are found in a high percentage of portable cribs, strollers, pillows, car seats and infant carriers. They are required because synthetic material originates from petroleum, which is flammable.
Many of these chemicals have been linked to health effects including cancer and birth defects. IKEA does not use brominated flame-retardants in any of its furniture or mattresses. When buying furniture, stick to natural fabrics: leather, wool and cotton, as they are natural flame-retardants. Unfortunately, it is not possible at this time to purchase an Australian compliant car child seat that does not contain fire retardants.
Also be aware that pyjamas or baby clothes can contain fire retardants. These are mostly found in synthetic fabrics such as polyester and nylons. Stick to cotton and bamboo. Any brand new clothes should be washed a couple of times before using to reduce any chemicals used in their manufacture.
Avoid products made using polyurethane foam. They too are likely to contain fire-retardants. These are commonly found in mattresses, pillows, furnishings and carpet underlay.
Avoid curtains, use blinds instead. The block out fabric on curtains commonly contains endocrine-disrupting chemicals such as vinyl which off-gasses but also traps dust which can be hard to get rid of. Either skip the block out altogether or install blinds made from a natural material being careful also to avoid vinyl. External shutters would also work well.
Incandescent and soft lighting is best. I spent years fiddling with the light in my son’s bedroom to help him sleep better. The best light is the old-fashioned lighting – incandescent bulbs in the evening and pitch dark at night. If you really need a light on at night, go for a soft red light such as those from BlueBlockers (we use these) or second best is a Himalayan salt lamp.
Reduce the Electro-Magnetic Fields in your nursery. This is a big one. Wireless baby monitors will not help your baby sleep. They emit really strong electromagnetic fields (EMFs), which interfere with melatonin production and hence sleep and are associated with other health effects. A wireless baby monitor at less than 1 metre away from a baby’s cot was found to be roughly equivalent to the microwave radiation experienced from a mobile phone tower only 150 metres away. The wired analog versions are best. Failing that, if you really feel you need a baby monitor position it as far away as possible from your baby’s bed – at least 2 metres. An added bonus – turn off your WiFi at night.
Take a breath!
If you have already set up your nursery but feel you haven’t done exactly as I have advised, take a breather it’s OK. Here are a few things you can do to relieve your anxiety. Air the nursery as much as possible – open the windows and doors and allow any chemicals to off-gas. Regularly air the mattress, bedding and pillows outside in the sun. As you add or replace items in your nursery, always think natural.
Get in touch with me for a free 20-minute consultation. Check out all my services here including a complete Healthy Green Home Audit, Electro-Magnetic Field Audit, and Individual Nursery or Bedroom Audit.