For new parents it’s an age-old tradition: when a baby is on the way, they want to create the perfect space for their little bundle of joy. They paint soothing colors on the walls, lay down soft new carpet, buy a new crib and dresser, lovingly choose fresh blankets and bedding, and stock the room with a landslide of adorable plush toys, many of them gifts from friends and relatives.
But while the baby’s bedroom may look picture perfect, many of the substances found in those paints, furnishings, flooring and toys can be tough on tiny airways and developing immune systems – and according to some studies, can even increase the risk for allergies and asthma. And if a young one starts showing signs of allergies or respiratory troubles, it’s all the more important to keep that child’s space healthy.
Of course, expectant parents already have more than enough to worry about. So how can they make the nursery both safe and special without adding to their apprehensions?
Problems with VOCs
There is a growing body of science about how many of the materials we use to build, renovate, furnish and maintain our homes can be bad for our health – especially for babies and small children whose immune systems are just beginning to develop.
In fact, one 2010 Swedish study found that children who experienced the highest concentration of volatile organic compounds – propylene glycol and glycol ethers (PGEs) in particular – were twice as likely to develop asthma, more than two and a half times as likely to have eczema, and over four times more likely to have allergic rhinitis.
The study also showed that babies whose homes were painted immediately before or after their birth had 63 percent higher concentrations of PGEs in their bedrooms than children whose homes were not freshly painted.
Another study from France reported increased bronchial responsiveness in asthmatic children with dust-mite allergies after a 30-minute exposure to a low-level of formaldehyde – which is common in many household products – and another linked increased health risks to painting during pregnancy or within a year of the infant’s life.
Painting Baby’s Bedroom
“And pretty much everybody paints the room, and they will buy new furniture. But they don’t ask the question, ‘What’s in those paints, and what’s in that furniture?”’
When it comes to paint, Freed skips on those that are low in VOCs – that is, volatile organic compounds that can trigger asthma and other reactions – and instead opts for ones that are zero VOC, or “no VOC”. Favorite brands include AFM Safecoat, Benjamin Moore’s Aura or Natura lines and Mythic Paint. For all-natural wall coverings, try clay paints and plasters by companies such as American Clay.
He also recommends painting the nursery weeks or even months before the baby arrives, so the space has plenty of time to air out; and, if the expectant mother is helping with the painting, she should do it with the windows open and added protection such as gloves and a respirator.
“Zero VOC doesn’t mean zero chemicals. It just means zero drying agents being released into the air,” says Freed. It’s also important to keep in mind that, while a base paint may be zero-VOC, the tints that get added to it when you choose a color often contain the off-gassing chemicals; so once tinted, many paints will no longer be entirely VOC-free.
“There is still going to be a paint smell and there are still going to be chemicals, so you want to not only let the room dry, but flush it with fresh air for two or three days,” he says.
If new parents are opting for wallpaper to cheer up the room, Freed recommends sticking with all-natural papers rather than vinyl wall coverings. The vinyl options can up the VOC load and introduce phthalates and other potentially harmful chemicals to the indoor environment. Also, vinyl adds an impermeable barrier to the wall, so when it’s warm inside and cold outside, condensation can form behind that type of wallpaper and lead to mold.
Look for green-certified brands on the Greenguard website, and when it comes time to put it up on the wall, make sure to use a natural adhesive, or even whip up a homemade one, such as Freed’s do-it yourself paste here.
Under Foot in Baby’s Bedroom
Many parents are tempted to go with carpeting in the baby’s bedroom because it’s soft on tiny feet and hands, and it dampens sound. Problem is, carpet also traps dust mites, pollen, animal dander and mold spores, and can emit (or “off-gas”) harmful VOCs.
Freed says you’re better off with a natural hard-surface flooring such as a hardwood that’s easy to clean and doesn’t off-gas. Cork is also an excellent option because it’s softer underfoot, absorbs sound, and has a smart, warm look.
But if you’re still set on carpet, go for washable area rugs instead of wall-to-wall and clean them regularly to keep allergen levels down.
When it comes to furniture, Freed recommends avoiding VOCs by going with solid wood – not particle board – and even picking up antique items such as dressers and chairs, which have off-gassed long ago. These often become great conversation pieces.
“I had direct experience of this with the birth of my daughter. My wife found this dresser that she fell in love with. So we brought it home, and it reeked so bad of formaldehyde and other drying agents that I poured baking soda into the drawers, left them open, took them all outside and put them in the sun.” He repeated this process over several days.
“That took away most of the odor, but if I had to do it over again I would have bought an old piece of furniture,” says Freed. He did end up buying a used crib that was made from solid wood.
When it came to outfitting the bed, he went for a blank white baby bumper made with natural materials. Then he sketched on an animal design using non-toxic markers. “I drew a giraffe and put her name on it at the headboard, so that was cute,” says the expert. “So the quest to be healthy also became a design opportunity, and we got exactly what we wanted.”
“We want to promote these nice, soothing environments,” says allergist Dr. Dave Stukus, an assistant professor of pediatrics at Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus, Ohio and a spokesperson for the American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology. “But anything with a scent or fragrance can be irritating for their respiratory tracts or their skin, so it’s best to avoid things like that.”
“Babies have done great for generations without them,” he notes, “and if your baby is prone to allergy or asthma, then these could be harmful.”
In addition, Stukus recommends using unscented detergents, and avoiding powdered laundry soaps, because they can irritate babies’ delicate skin and potentially trigger eczema, which can affect even very young children.
Down with Dust Mites
But one of the biggest things that new parents tend to do wrong, says Stukus, is to overload the baby’s bedroom and crib with stuffed animals. In addition to being a suffocation hazard, they can promote dust-mite growth.
“Dust mites are one of the more common causes of indoor allergies, and they love stuffed animals. They collect inside them and are very hard to get rid of. So anybody who is exposed to lots of stuffed animals is just going to increase their exposure to dust-mite allergen,” explains Stukus. He recommends keeping the crib completely free of plush toys, pillows and other objects.
“There is no reason to have any stuffed animals inside a crib,” he says. “Just a regular mattress, no pillows or anything like that,” he advises. “Babies do great if they learn to sleep in that environment.”
To keep dust mite and other allergen levels down, Stukus also recommends going for hard surface flooring such as wood and linoleum, changing furnace filters at least every six months, getting ducts cleaned, and keeping pets out of the bedroom altogether. He also suggests regular vacuuming using a machine with a HEPA filter, wiping down surfaces, and laundering all bedding and toys in hot water.
Don’t Sweat Small Stuff
Any new parent will tell you that the copious amount of advice they receive can be overwhelming, and the pressure to do everything right is immense.
But Stukus reassures parents that, if they take simple steps in the baby’s bedroom – things like avoiding carpet, scented products, VOC-containing paints and too many stuffed toys – they can go a long way toward keeping their baby safe and breathing easy.
“There’s so much to worry about, you can drive yourself crazy. And the more you read, the more it can make your head spin,” he says. “Anything we do in life has the potential for adverse effects, but really focusing on what’s important and realistic can provide a lot of peace of mind.”
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