It's lovely to say you'd like to raise your new baby as naturally as possible, but what does that really mean? Do you ban all synthetic fabrics from your house? Begin a granola and tofu diet, or move to a self-sustaining farm in the countryside? Relax, say the experts, a natural lifestyle doesn't have to be an all-or-nothing endeavor. Even following a couple of the tips below can improve your baby's health and well-being. Here are four key areas to focus on, whether you're pregnant or a new mom.
food: from organic farms to breastfeeding
If you're ever going to make an effort to eat healthy, now is the time. "Pregnant and nursing moms should try to make as much of their diet organic as possible," says Robert Sears, M.D., co-author of HappyBaby: The Organic Guide to Baby's First 24 Months. "We know that pesticides can harm developing brain cells, even in small amounts." If going organic is outside your budget, Dr. Sears suggests buying at least the "dirty dozen" organically: apples, blueberries, celery, cherries, grapes (imported), kale, nectarines, peaches, potatoes, strawberries, spinach and sweet bell peppers. "These 12 foods have more pesticides than any others," he says. Produce that's okay to buy non-organically includes asparagus, avocado, cabbage, eggplant, mango, onion, sweet corn (frozen), sweet peas (frozen) and watermelon.
Other diet do's for pregnant and nursing moms, says Sears: Eat the right fats, which nourish baby's developing brain and nervous system. Think cold-water fish like wild salmon, walnuts, pumpkin seeds, and tofu. And don't forget to drink at least eight glasses of water per day to stay hydrated; nursing moms should sip throughout the day.
For baby, breast milk is the ultimate natural food, says Alan Greene, M.D., author of Raising Baby Green. "You can't get any more organic." Of course, not all moms breastfeed exclusively. If you use formula or expressed breast milk to feed your baby, make sure you choose BPA-free bottles, cautions Dr. Greene. BPA, aka Bisphenol A, is a chemical found in many plastic containers, including baby bottles. Its estrogen-like effects may disturb the hormonal system and an infant's hormonal and sexual development. "BPA is also found in some pacifiers, teethers and the like," says Dr. Greene. "So double-check labels and make sure anything your baby frequently puts her mouth on is BPA-free."
air: a fix for harmful fumes
The air in your house may not seem dirty, but it is, thanks to fumes from harsh cleaning products, secondhand smoke and residue from building materials such as particleboard, says Dr. Greene. Limit what you can: Don't allow anyone to smoke in the house, skip harsh chemical cleaners, and change your furnace filter frequently. The best all-around defense against harmful fumes is the simplest: Bring the outdoors in. "Open the windows whenever you can," says Dr. Greene. With a baby under 12 months, don't worry about pollen and other outdoor allergens, he adds. "Some degree of pollen during their first year is probably a protective thing," he says. "Studies show that if kids visit a farm, even once, during their first year of life, they are much less likely to develop allergies." Another path to cleaner air: green growing things. "Believe it or not, house plants are a huge help in removing pollutants from indoor air," says Dr. Greene.
Most discount stores now carry a range of affordable, organic cleaning supplies, notes Lauren Feder, M.D., author of Natural Baby and Childcare. Another option is to use natural cleansers you already have in your fridge or pantry. "Vinegar is an antiseptic that kills most bacteria, viruses and mold," says Dr. Feder. "Hydrogen peroxide has antiseptic qualities and is considered a safe and natural cleanser." Pour vinegar and hydrogen peroxide into two separate spray bottles and use in tandem to clean countertops and wood cutting boards. Other natural cleaning agents to try: baking soda for scouring stove tops, and lemon, which kills household bacteria and removes rust from copper and stainless-steel pots and pans.
skin: the outside scoop
Be careful about products you slather on your skin when you're pregnant or nursing, says Dr. Greene -- and of course, watch what you put on baby's delicate skin as well. "Many moisturizers and sunscreens contain chemical preservatives called parabens," says Dr. Greene. "Studies have shown they are absorbed through the skin and have been found in breast cancer tissue." Although it hasn't been proven that parabens directly cause cancer, it's best to err on the side of caution when pregnant or nursing, he adds; chemical additives can also cause skin irritation and allergic reactions. "Avoid sunscreen where a chemical is the main ingredient," cautions Dr. Greene. "Instead, look for ones that rely on minerals such as zinc and titanium." Likewise, avoid moisturizers that list "fragrance" on the label. That's a catchall word that can mask a variety of additives. "The word 'fragrance' can mean just about anything; manufacturers don't have to disclose ingredients listed that way," says Dr. Greene. "It's fine to buy a scented moisturizer, but choose one made from essential oils, which are natural."
germs: they aren't so bad
Good news: In the "what not to worry about" category are -- drum roll, please -- germs. "Most new parents honestly worry too much about germs," says Dr. Sears. "In general, they are harmless." At home, he adds, there's no need to run after baby sterilizing everything he wants to touch. Of course, be careful anytime you're around sick children such as at the doctor's office or child-care center; then, it's probably worth cleaning items that may end up in your baby's mouth. Again, stick to the methods listed above, and remember, old-fashioned hand washing is still the best -- and most natural -- defense for you and your baby.