It’s exciting to outfit your new baby’s nursery, but be careful about the choices you make.
Nobody told me there was such a thing as a male nesting instinct. Which is why I found it odd to be standing alone in front of a department store crib at 9:03 am on a Tuesday morning with a credit card in my hand.
No, my wife Krista didn’t send me. In fact, she had no idea I was even here. You see, I had the perfect room in mind for my little girl (or boy, if that was how things turned out) and wanted to surprise her. But I soon learned that the gorgeous crib that I had my eye on was not the best choice. At least not when it came to the health of my soon-to-be offspring.
While our instincts tell us that baby deserves brand new furniture, a coat or two of colourful paint, or comfortable new flooring, we have to be very careful about the choices we make. That’s because tiny little lungs are delicate and unable to process the harsh chemicals that come with these products. They’re also more susceptible to the irritation that comes from inhaling dust and fine particles of dirt.
So before Krista and I embarked on decorating our baby’s room, we talked to some experts on the subject about how to reduce health hazards in the nursery. Here’s what they had to say.
First up, paint. Many traditional types of paint contain high levels of volatile organic compounds (VOCs). These toxic chemicals (including formaldehyde) can have long lasting health effects.
The chemical offgassing of paint is most noticeable immediately after applying it – and so are the short term effects, such as nausea, headaches, and skin and eye irritation. VOCs will continue to offgas for weeks and even months after application and there are increasing concerns about their long-term health effects. Links have been made between VOCs and incidents of liver disease and cancer.
“When painting a nursery, you are going to want to look into low-VOC or zero-VOC brands,” says Stephen Collette, air quality expert and owner of Your Healthy House. “While purchasing paint, be sure to ask about both the base and the tint of the products you’ll be using. While the base may be zero-VOC, the colour that you are adding to it may very well not be.” (Note: even paints listed as VOC-free will still contain up to 5 grams per litre of paint, and some low VOC paints still contain formaldedhyde. Be sure to ask your paint dealer about the best choice for baby’s room.)
To be on the safe side, someone other than the expectant mom should paint the nursery. And the painting should be done several months before the baby is due. Be sure to open windows to ventilate the work area.
Jen Feigan, a builder and educator with the Endeavour Centre and owner of Canada’s Greenest Home, suggests that there are even safer options. “We’ve used clay paint, lime paint, and vegetable casein paint and found each of them easy to use and very well formulated. Plus, they are non-toxic and completely safe to use in sensitive areas like nurseries.”
While most mainstream manufacturers don’t carry these products, they can be ordered directly from distributors. The go-to company in Canada for alternative wall coverings is Tockay Natural Paints in Montreal (www.tockay.com/en; 514 691-4065).
Krista and I opted for a VOC-free paint and ensured that the tint was also free of toxins. Because we chose to not learn the gender of our child, we painted the room a lovely – and neutral – sage green.
Say no to carpet
The first rule of thumb when it comes to picking out flooring for a baby’s room is texture. As anyone who has used a vacuum knows, carpets trap more dirt than any solid surface. “It’s a no-brainer,” says Collette. “Solid surfaces are easier to clean, are typically less toxic, and hold dramatically less dust than carpet.” This is particularly important when you realize that the floor is a major breathing zone for infants and toddlers.
But not all solid surfaces are created equally. Wood is a natural choice, but only if the correct finish is used. “For the health of your child, try for a low-VOC finish,” says Feigan. “We use a factory-applied, VOC-free UV-cured urethane product to ensure good indoor air quality.”
Laminate flooring is definitely a more affordable option. Unfortunately, it can be a significant source of VOC and formaldehyde offgassing. This can be particularly problematic if the nursery is going to be inhabited within weeks or months of laying the floor. Unlike other types of flooring, such as vinyl, the offgassing of laminate will level off over time. Therefore, the earlier you can lay it, the better.
Many designers and decorators are now turning to cork for nursery floors. It is warm and soft to the touch, doesn’t present any health risks, and is environmentally friendly. Unfortunately, it can also be quite expensive.
One of the most affordable, healthy, and durable choices is a surprising blast from the past. Linoleum is made from natural sources such as linseed oil, pine rosin, ground cork, limestone dust, jute and pigments. Don’t confuse it with vinyl, which is always toxic.
Looking at the grungy 30-year-old carpet in what was once my office, we knew a change to a solid surface was in order. Like many first time parents, budget was definitely an issue for us. In the end, we decided on a laminate that we installed several months before our due date. We did, however, pick up an organic cotton chenille area rug for comfort. The great thing about smaller cotton area rugs is that they can be thrown into the washing machine regularly.
Wood cribs best
Old-fashioned wooden cribs are sought after for their beauty. Soon to be parents may also want to seek them out as safer options for their children. These cribs, however, are getting tougher and tougher to find. The best option is often secondhand online sites such as Kijiji.
A couple words of caution, though. If an older crib is painted, there is a good chance that the paint used is lead-based. In which case, it should definitely not be used. In addition, older cribs may not meet current safety codes for slat distance and drop sides. Be sure that slats are no more than 2 3/8 inches apart and that the side either does not drop or has been equipped with a no-drop converter kit.
Collette suggests that newer wooden cribs should, again, have a no-VOC finish. He does not recommend particleboard “wood product” cribs. “They usually contain formaldehyde,” he explains, “which are an endocrine disruptor that can cause many, many long term health problems, such as cancers and developmental disorders. Imagine your child chewing on her crib, and then imagine why this isn’t such a good idea.”
According to Collette, some brands do have safer products. “Interestingly, IKEA, of all places, probably has the safest particleboard furnishing,” he notes. “They prepare their products to the highest environmental standards of the countries that they ship to. In the case of furniture, they have to keep up with Germany – which has incredibly high offgassing rules.”
We ended up purchasing a secondhand wood crib. While it is not the most attractive piece of furniture on the planet, it is safe and non-toxic.
As for other furnishings in the room, the same rules apply but are a bit less stringent. Parents should note that, unlike cribs, dressers and changing tables are less likely to be chewed on by a growing child.
When it comes to decisions about painting, floors, and furnishing in the nursery, it is important to ask questions. Find out what products are made of and what health impacts they might have on your child. Whenever possible, ask more than one retailer for their advice. Research products online before you purchase them. And, if all else fails, ask an expert.
After all, your baby is going to be the most precious thing in your life. And she deserves the very best – or the best that you can provide. Because, really, none of us are perfect.
Except, perhaps, for our brand new little girl. Clara Grace Campbell Fraser is a gorgeous little bundle of joy. And at the tender age of just one month is already comfy and cozy in a nursery designed with her health in mind.
Even if I’m still looking for that crib made for a princess.
Once parents have made the larger decisions around floors, walls, and furnishing, they’ll want to continue to make wise choices in some of the smaller purchases.
Blinds. Experts recommend blinds or louvers as window covers. Not only do they shut out more light and noise, they are much easier to clean than curtains. Aluminum or wooden slats that are untreated or are finished with VOC-free coatings are preferable to vinyl slats, which may offgas. Fabric curtains on the other hand, absorb pollutants and attract dust, making them harder to clean and more likely to negatively affect air quality.
Crib Mattress. Nearly all new crib mattresses contain polyurethane foam, vinyl, phthalates, chemical fire retardants, and an extensive list of other chemicals. Your only way to avoid these contaminants is by purchasing cotton-based mattresses that are labeled organic. Note: “Green” or “Eco” do not necessarily mean organic. Be sure to read all labels.
For information on creating a safe sleeping environment for your new baby, and additional safety considerations related to the nursery, go to www.caringforkids.cps.ca Search for “safe sleep for children” and “basic home safety.”