Many expectant and new families seek to get information about all sorts of things from purchases to service providers to care methods and in this process of community education, may or may not get good resources on how to have a smooth transition into early parenting with an eco-friendly lens, even if they would like one. It seems as if the messaging of BUY MORE and BUY FAST make it through more often than not.
Here’s why it’s important to consider the impact of the purchases and activities around new parenting have on the environment:
Natural Resources holds fast to the value of eliminating plastic from the baby and parenting products we make available through our store. This ranges from pacifiers and bottles for the newborn stage up to toys and mealtime essentials for your mobile babes. On the health and safety of your baby from conception and well into their life, let’s take a look at one particular common purchase -- plastic baby bottles.
Regardless of your decisions around how to nourish your infant, most families will likely invest in several bottles for feeding. The most common type of bottle is made of plastic; now most commonly advertised as BPA-free. Where this is a major accomplishment, seeing as BPA is a known endocrine disruptor, it’s far from the only chemical that makes its way out of a plastic baby bottle and into your baby. Chemicals like BFPA and BPS are often used in BPA-free plastic bottles, but have not been proven to be safer.
The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) issued a report recently urging families to limit the exposure of plastics to children, particularly with food containers, to limit exposure to chemicals known to leech known toxins which may have impacts on their overall health. There are countless other researchers who stress how important it is to not store food in plastics, particularly if those foods are high in fats (breastmilk and formulas are very high in fat) or acids, and/or if they will be heated (most families heat their infant food to around body temperature). Many studies suggest that infants are more likely to be vulnerable to the transfer of these chemicals than adults and suggest the strong need to be mindful of their increased exposure early on.
Most families now are told that they need to sterilize their baby bottles after every use, while in actuality studies show that only bottles containing formula need to be sterilized and even then, dish soap has shown to be adequate. Most brands have simultaneously created their own line of countertop sterilization gadgets ranging from $50-$120 per year. Add to that the microwavable plastic bags for sterilization that must be replaced after just a few uses. All of these items contribute to the estimated 66 pounds of e-waste and 220 pounds of plastic waste each person in the U.S. disposes of each year. Most researchers suggest storing food, including milk for feeding newborns, in glass or stainless steel bottles instead (check out this post to learn more). These reusable and safe options are also enormous cost savers over time since they can be easily cleaned and reused over and over again and many can eventually be used for other food storage after baby is no longer consuming stored milk.
How about looking at how environmental impacts largely affect communities of color in this country?
A recent meta-study looking at the outcomes of over 32 million births in the United States found that those exposed to more air pollution and higher temperatures had significantly worse birth outcomes across a variety of indicators. Those who suffered the most from these environmental problems were disproportionately African-Americans -- both pregnant persons and their babies. Families of color are significantly more likely to live in areas where heavy-polluting industries are based, as well as living in areas known as “heat islands” where temperatures can be 10 or more degrees hotter than in surrounding parts of even the same city.
And all this has a negative effect on BIPOC communities, systemically creeping through several generations since the worsening impacts of climate change start in utero. This means that Black pregnant folks are experiencing the disastrous and fatal effects of racism both within and outside of the medical system through systemic neglectful policies.
As national outrage over the 400 year mistreatment of Black folks leads us all to look deeper into our everyday practices and how they directly or indirectly impact communities of color, it is impossible to turn a blind eye to how our eco-footprints play a role in that continued oppression.
Beyond posting a black square for a day, listening to and amplifying Black voices, and directly supporting BIPOC-owned businesses, part of your anti-racist work must be to make significant lifestyle changes to slow the tide of climate change. These changes can be done on many levels as you begin your journey into new parenthood and it is important that the burden of this task falls squarely on the more privileged sector of our communities first.
Environmental justice must be intersectional and anti-racism must be environmentally focused.
What most researchers agree on is that in addition to holding corporations accountable for their polluting practices, it will take concerted effort to alter our daily routines to prioritize climate security over speed or seeming convenience in the short term.
One of my favorite things about being a doula, postpartum consultant, and sleep support guide is being able to give parents the option to do, spend, and stress less. It hits on so many points of easing anxiety about being “right” (the “good mommy” / “bad mommy” dynamic works wonders in getting folks to buy more) and helps parents focus on their true values as well as rest and vitality in their bodies and babies. It also makes the most significant impact on their growing family’s footprint.
This can include efforts like divesting from companies which have poor environmental practices (many of whom also have poor social policies, particularly toward minority communities,too). It also means purchasing fewer things that plug in and/or consume a lot of water (keep that lens in mind when looking at items made for babies/new parents) since home energy consumption is one of the biggest contributors to rising global temperatures. Or actively choosing not to buy something made of plastic or which is disposable (we could really get into the plastics in baby wipes, even in those touted as “natural”). This helpful guide on thinking about the “cradle-to-grave analysis” of items at the grocery store is a great tool to apply when considering postpartum purchases.
In chatting with a colleague recently, she and I had identical favorite messages to parents asking us for tips about postpartum supplies -- “If it plugs in, you don’t need it.”
It goes even further than that, in my opinion. If it plugs in, it likely won’t actually be that useful in solving or curbing the issue you are experiencing, and it could potentially be adding stress or harm, AND in the long run it’s creating more plastic and e-waste which added up over your child’s lifetime can contribute to more long-term global problems they could feel everyday though rising health issues.
I’m not going to get into the long tales of working with families who task me with disassembling and disinfecting stacks of 2-day delivered plastic items which wind up remaining in stacks in closets barely used -- their promises of saving your baby from crying or magically having them sleep through the night always unmet -- till I’m asked to come collect them five months later to donate. It’s too many layers of waste to efficiently write out in a blog post. Sadly, though, at this point it’s near ubiquitous in my practice and my colleagues lament the same in theirs.
This, I must stress, is not because we’ve come a long way in improving or increasing the things that parents need for a smooth childbearing year. I’ve been a doula for over a decade and can tell you that there was significantly fewer paraphernalia even just a few years ago and families I work with are still confronted with the same experiences, confusions, challenges, and triumphs as before, only now it’s more expensive and labored with a great deal more unnecessary junk to worry about buying.
The anxieties you are feeling as a new parent are largely because of cultural failings setting American families up to fail -- the worst obstetrical care in the industrialized world, rising costs of healthcare and life in general, faulty and confusing health data being pushed from all sides, not living near extended family structures for built-in support, and the misogynistic icing on the cake of internet mommy shaming at every turn. There is NOTHING that can be delivered by Amazon in a plastic bag to help you there. Nothing.
Spending money on community support is more environmentally sound in the immediate and in setting up long term habits. Plus, save for diapers and herbs and a few salves, there’s nothing on my very short list of necessary pregnancy and postpartum items you can’t safely, easily, and inexpensively get second-hand.
Additionally, the environmental impacts of our addiction to quick and easy shipping cannot be underestimated. The ease of buying something with your stored information on the market platforms and having it arrive sometimes the same day is particularly appealing to new parents already tasked with a great deal in the first few months of their baby’s lives. Where it seems harmless on the surface, the constant buying and the heavy polluting way it arrives has consequences, including growing postpartum stress and mood disorders.
Instead, focus your research and purchasing power on community resources. Natural Resources provides recommendations for new parent’s groups, childbirth education classes, breastfeeding support, and community building rather than spur of the moment purchases through Amazon.
So again, it will take significant lifestyle changes in order for real progress to be made. Buying less, buying secondhand, and buying better are the three major ones. If you feel pressured by the stress of a bad day with baby, know that it is unlikely that the cure lies somewhere in your shopping cart, even if it’s made of bamboo or recycled toothbrushes.
In general it’s not about being perfect, it’s about making progress. You likely won’t wean yourself from same day shipping overnight and it’s not about never shopping through a big corporation or touching plastic again. The judgement that goes along with perfectionism in environmental activism often leads folks to feel like they just can’t possibly be good enough or that it’s too hard to commit to and so they give up. Same is true, you’ll find, for WAY too much of the advice on how to manage the childbearing year and it’s partly why our abysmal status quo remains.
Instead, start with baby steps knowing that these behavioral changes will become deeply ingrained and seamless as your family grows. You don’t have to do it all at once!
Written by: Em Flynn