From Doula to diapers: bringing up a green baby

tiny baby foot photo

A new baby entering your life can create an enormous number of unexpected changes. Along with the little one comes a whole new category of things to purchase -- not only the obvious large items like furniture and diapers, but also all the unforeseen extras that seem to accumulate. While having a baby is consumer heaven, the key is to not be gulled into an unnecessary buying frenzy. In truth, a baby has very minimal needs. On the flip side, there is more to a sustainable life with your baby than cloth diapers, organic baby food, and fair-trade clothing...read on for more.

Top Green Baby Tips


  1. Choose the right diapers
    Studies are divided on the subject of environmental impact of disposables vs. cloth. But knowing that your baby will use approx 6,000 diapers before toilet training, and that disposable diapers take 200-500 years to decompose, this is certainly a key issue to ponder. Washing cloth diapers takes water and energy (not to mention time), but it's a great way to avoid chemicals. Use natural laundry detergent then set it out in the sun to bleach out any stains. You could also consider the benefits of a laundering service. One study has found that home-washing cloth diapers has only 53 percent of the ecological footprint of disposables, and if you use a diaper laundering service that impact is halved again. Another plus is that the same cloth diapers can be passed down to future babies.

    Cloth diapers: Reusable diapers aren't what they used to be and the days of diaper pins are all but bygone. Go for fitted cloth diapers with Velcro or snap closures for convenience, made from an eco-friendly material such as hemp, bamboo, or organic cotton. Use an organic wool cover that is both warm and breathable, minimizing diaper rash and cold bottoms at night. Use either removable or flushable liners and when washing either use a laundering service or wash at home at lower temperatures. With a new baby around you'll probably notice a lot more laundry piling up, so make sure you've optimized your setup with an efficient machine and non-toxic detergent. If you can line-dry, that is ideal, but don't bother ironing.

    Biodegradable diapers: Made with plant-based plastics (also known as bioplastics), these diapers are non-petroleum based and are compostable. While these have been found not to break down under landfill conditions, there are other options to compost them such as using a composting toilet, an earthworm system, or a highly active and properly conditioned composting area. Hybrid diapers, like gDiapers, have removable inserts that can safely biodegrade when flushed. But be careful, some so-called 'green' diapers, like Seventh Generation, can contain petroleum gels,so make sure to do your research first!


  2. Feed your little one: From breast or bottle?
    This one's a no-brainer: breastfeeding is best. It's free, has health benefits for mother and baby, has no environmental impact, and is a precious bonding experience. However, in our commerce-driven society there are products for everything, and breastfeeding is no exception. For breast pads, ditch disposables and try re-usable organic cotton or wool felt pads. While there are many great, organic nipple creams available, some locally produced olive oil or organic lanolin does a great job. If bottle feeding becomes a necessity, pumping your own is the first choice. Beyond that, using a fair-trade organic infant formula is preferable. If this is neither affordable nor accessible, then the next best thing is to ensure the brand of formula you buy is from a company not profiteering from marketing their product to developing countries. These companies disregard or try to get around the marketing code set by The World Health Assembly.

  3. Chow down on solid foods
    At about six months, babies starts to eat real food. Rice cereal and mushy veggies turn to combinations of fish, meat, eggs, legumes, and vegetables--yep, a regular person's diet. Buying jars of food is sure convenient, but as an adult you don't live out of jars, so why should your baby? For those occasional situations, purchase organic or fresh frozen baby foods. Otherwise, make your own. Cook up veggies, casseroles, or tofu and lentils, whatever is your thing, and freeze it in tiny containers or ice cube trays ready to take out and defrost when needed. (Be sure you discuss any concerns over dietary requirements with your health professional)

  4. Dress your baby in smart green clothing
    All those designer baby clothes are cute and oh so hard to resist in their fruity colors. But be careful. Not only does a baby grow out of clothes amazingly fast, they are constantly sending bodily fluids flying onto those precious outfits. The baby couture might be better replaced with convenient one-piece suits in practical white terry cloth. Choosing organic hemp or cotton, bamboo or wool fabrics made without toxic chemicals are best against a baby's sensitive skin and last longer with the constant washing. Second-hand clothing is the cheapest and most sustainable option. Get hand-me-downs from friends and family or look in thrift shops, Craigslist, or Freecycle.

  5. Lather up with natural skin care
    It's very easy to get sucked into the constant advertising of baby powders, creams, and lotions, but avoid soap on a baby's delicate skin - less is more for their skin care. The best baby lotion is plain old olive oil or coconut oil--cheap, natural, and un-perfumed. As for other products, keep it as natural, organic, and fragrance-free as possible. Weleda diaper creams and lotions are great. For more on this, take a look at our guides for How to Go Green: Women's Personal Care and Everything you need to know about natural skin care.

  6. Wash up: Green laundry and washing
    It's quite possible that our war on germs is actually making things worse. Studies have shown that children brought up in over-cleaned houses are more likely to develop allergies, asthma, or eczema. The best thing you can do for sensitive baby skin is not to cover it with synthetic chemicals. Wash nappies with pure soap and warm water. Make your own non-toxic cleansers with simple ingredients such as baking soda and vinegar. For more, see How to green your cleaning routine.

  7. Make play-time green-time with greener toys
    Get back to basics and try old fashioned wooden toys and organic cotton or homemade teddies. Because babies put most things in their mouths, go as natural as possible, then when baby is a little older, get hold of second-hand toys. Also aim for toys that help build a child's bond with nature and the natural world. The sad truth is that the average American kindergartener can identify several hundred logos and only a few leaves from plants and trees.

  8. Rest easy with green furniture and accessories
    Babies don't need much--a secure place to sleep, a car seat, a high chair, and a way to be trundled around. Go for second-hand furniture, everything except cot mattresses (some research suggests a link between second-hand cot mattresses and sudden infant death syndrome) and car seats, (which can have invisible accident damage). If you buy new furniture, purchase high quality, durable pieces made of sustainable, low-toxicity materials. Think about some alternatives to the regular old wooden baby bed; try using an organic cotton baby hammock or a cot that extends into a bed and lasts 6-7 years. The most ethical option for stroller (pram) is recycled. For more on furniture, see our guide for How to choose green furniture.

  9. Improve your indoor air quality and maintain a healthy household environment
    It goes without saying that alcohol consumption and cigarette smoking while pregnant are bad for a baby. But it is also very important to avoid exposure to the synthetic chemicals contained in everyday products such as paints, carpet, furniture, bedding, and pesticides which make up Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs)in the air you and your baby breath. When decorating the nursery, use natural and low-VOC paints and don't lay new carpet before the baby is born. Suspicious new items should at least be left outside to off-gas for a few days before bringing inside.

  10. Wipe out chemical cleaners and disposable liners
    Diaper wipes and liners commonly include propylene glycol (a binder also found in antifreeze), parabens (a family of compounds commonly used as preservatives) and perfume, which can be made from up to 600 different chemicals. Try using good natural organic cotton wool and water and avoid disposable changing mats and perfumed diaper bags.

Babies use A LOT of diapers every day by Sean Dreilinger/Flickr/CC BY 2.0

Green Babies: By The Numbers


  • 6000: The number of diapers the average baby uses before potty training.

  • 200 to 500: Years it takes petroleum-based disposable diapers to decompose.

  • 49 million: The estimated number of disposable diapers used per day in the United States; Australia uses 2.2 million, Japan uses 6.7 million, and the U.K. uses 9 million.

  • 53 percent: A home-washed cloth diaper has only 53 percent of the ecological footprint of disposables, and a diaper laundry service has a mere 37 percent of that footprint.

  • $1.4 billion per year: The estimated amount of money Americans spend on complicated births due to smoking while pregnant.

Josh Dubya/CC BY 2.0

Green Babies: Getting Techie


Toxic chemicals can have great impact in babies' lives since they do so much growing and developing early in life, so it can be more important to keep them out of our youngsters' systems. Here are some of the worst:

Bisphenol a is an endocrine disruptor -- meaning it mimics hormones in our bodies, upsetting the delicate natural balance and changing the way babies develop -- used often in polycarbonate plastic water bottles. When it's done in baby's body, it enters the water system, where it effects the hormonal development of fish and other aquatic life. The FDA acknowledges it's risky for youngsters.

Lead, which was used in paint for many years, and still pops up in some kids toys even today (yikes!), is a banned neurotoxin that can disrupt your child's brain development. Learn more about getting the lead out of your home.

Attachment parenting, involving sleeping with and wearing your baby, while not for everyone, is said to promote a strong bond leading to a sensitive, emotionally aware child. It is based on the theory developed by Dr. William Sears that babies are born with a need for nurturing. Attachment parenting has been a controversial parenting method in the media and the extent to which it can be considered 'green' is debatable. Many parents who are opposed to attachment parenting feel that letting the baby sleep alone or not responding every time it cries teach a baby independence. Find out what feels most natural and go with it. Trust your parenting instincts.

Elimination communication is a technique of timing, signals, cues, and intuition to help baby/infant express his or her poo-related needs; using it may help you not use diapers at all. This is best begun before six months of age, and while it is most commonly used in third-world countries where parents are in constant contact with their children, it has been used in the West with some success.

With reporting by Manon Verchot

Tags: Babies | Diapers | Furniture | Skin Care | Toys