Dressing newborn babies is a fine art. Getting tiny flailing limbs to shimmy down a long sleeve. Easing a floppy little head through a neck hole. Keeping their infinitesimal socks from falling off their feet. Just when you get it figured out, new tests begin; including the mastery of stain removal and the miraculous feat of keeping a toddler clothed at all. No matter which skill you are perfecting, you will always need to know how to select the safest fabrics.
Many new parents assume that cotton is the best fabric for their baby’s clothes and bedding because it’s a natural fiber, but conventionally grown cotton is one of the most pesticide intensive crops grown in the US. After the cotton is picked and milled into fabric, a soup of chemicals that are known to harm human health are used to dye and finish the fabric. Chemicals like formaldehyde and urea resins are used to increase stain resistance, wrinkle-proofing, and even disinfecting. Most “finishing” chemicals contain volatile organic compounds that are often sensitizers and suspected carcinogens. Often, the clippings from fabric mills are so loaded with chemicals they are handled like toxic waste, while the products made from these materials are considered safe to bring into our homes.
Now take a deep breath and relax – your baby is okay. There are safer options and solutions other than immediately ripping the onesie off your baby. Residues on baby clothing and bedding are minimal and have only been shown to cause contact dermatitis (generally in people with sensitive skin). Still, we really don’t know what long term health impacts may arise from the subtle, but constant exposure to chemicals in clothing and bedding.
Luckily, we don’t have to wait to find out. We can select safer fabrics today:
Organic Cotton: Perhaps the most obvious choice is organic cotton, grown without the use of pesticides. Look for options that are not only grown organically, but are also untreated (i.e. they are finished and dyed using natural, non-toxic processes). You can also look for organic, untreated wool which is naturally fire-resistant and a good choice for children’s sleepwear.
Bamboo: Another fabric increasing in popularity is made from bamboo, which has a natural softness and sheen similar to silk or cashmere. Bamboo is completely biodegradable and can be grown without pesticides or chemicals. Look for fabrics certified by Oeko-Tex which ensures that fabric made from bamboo fibers is chemical-free.
Hemp: Surprising to some, hemp is another option and is naturally pest resistant so requires few, if any, of the pesticides used on conventional cotton. Still, there’s no certification process, so you can’t be sure that the hemp has been grown pesticide-free.
More options: Other choices include linen, soy, inego (corn-based), and even recycled plastic (which Patagonia has been using in their fleece for quite some time). Given the textile industry’s penchant for pollution and people’s growing concern over the health of the planet, new eco-fabrics are popping up everywhere. You just need to do a little research.
While the availability of safer fabrics is increasing, you may find that your baby budget needs to increase in order to purchase them. Unfortunately, green garments typically are more expensive than their conventional counterparts. For example, a conventional cotton onesie costs about $2; an organic cotton onesie is about $15-$20 (although through some persistent hunting I did find some for $5); and a bamboo onesie will cost you about $20 – $25.
The good news: Eco-fabrics, in addition to being safer for your baby and the planet, are also more durable, meaning they’ll last longer (if you master stain removal). Still, babies grow out of clothes extremely fast, so what good is durability? Hold on to them for potential siblings, trade with friends and family, sell them at consignment shops or on-line. They are beautiful, high-quality garments meant to last, and healthier for the planet, which our children will inherit.
If you can’t afford organic, natural fibers, don’t fret. The big rule is to always wash all fabrics, stuffed toys, linens before they come in contact with your little one – preferably in a non-toxic laundry soap. Also, the greenest option is also the cheapest option: buy second hand. Gently used clothing has typically been washed enough times already to eliminate any fears of chemical residues. So don your green-halo and hit the thrift stores, Craigslist, Freecycle, or Ebay. With the money you save, treat your baby to a luxurious untreated, organic cotton blanket that he’ll use for years.
You can start your eco-layette today by visiting the following sites: CottonMonkey.com, Babysoyusa.com, Bamboosa.com, Ecowise.com, Greenbabies.com, Kee-ka.com, KidBean.com, Nuiorganics.com, Positively-organic.com, Purebeginnings.com, Sagecreeknaturals.com, Speesees.com, Underthenile.com.