Parenting: What Does It Mean to Raise a Child in a Green World?

Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD on February 14, 2011

More and more parents with children and babies are going green – and we're not talking about broccoli. Since 2002, sales of organic products, from strawberries to clothing and shampoo, have nearly tripled, according to a 2010 survey done by the Organic Trade Association. "I see lots of families asking questions about everything from organic infant formula to sleep positioners," says Paul Horowitz, MD, a pediatrician at Discovery Pediatrics in Valencia, Calif.

But before jumping on the green bandwagon, parents need to consider a variety of terms and factors before choosing what works best for them, their baby, and the environment.

What is organic? When it comes to food, the government defines what products can be labeled "organic". Products carrying the USDA Organic seal labeled "100% organic" must contain all organically produced ingredients. In other words, produced by farmers who emphasize the use of renewable resources and processing without most synthetic pesticides, genetic engineering, antibiotics, irradiation, or hormones.

Food can have two different types of organic designations. Food labeled "Organic," means the product is at least 95% organic. Food labeled "Made with organic ingredients," means the product contains at least 70% organic ingredients. Fiber products, such as clothing, bed and bath linens, tablecloths, and napkins, can also be certified organic if it has a minimum of 95% organic fiber content. Personal care products such as baby soaps, lotions, and shampoos can also be labeled organic if they contain organic agricultural ingredients, and meet USDA's standards of organic production, handling, processing, and labeling.

Meat, poultry, and eggs bearing the word natural contain no artificial ingredients or colors and are minimally processed, as regulated by the USDA.

Outside the agricultural realm, things get murkier. Some organic products can be voluntarily certified organic by independent, private certification programs. But the USDA doesn't oversee these claims.

For environment-conscious parents, there's no dictionary when it comes to terminology. In some cases, people use the word "green" to mean nontoxic. For example, a used dresser for a baby's nursery would be better for the environment than buying new, but when someone talks about finding a "green" dresser, they are most likely hoping to find one that uses sustainably grown wood and nontoxic paint, says Rebecca Kelley, co-author of The Eco-nomical Baby Guide. Parents may also describe something as "natural" if it uses no artificial ingredients or chemicals. The terms "eco-friendly" or "earth-friendly" usually means a product is less harmful or intrusive on the environment.

So now that you're armed with some basic knowledge, you might be thinking, "Does it all really matter?" As with most parenting questions, there's no right or wrong answer for raising children in an earth-friendly manner. The USDA says that science has not yet provided conclusive answers. For some parents, the choice rests on individual health issues such as their baby's sensitivity to specific pesticide residues or food additives. Parent choices can also come from an overall concern for using baby and child products and methods they feel will have less impact on the environment.

However, according to studies done so far, some general trends have emerged. On average, organic foods contain slightly higher levels of trace minerals, vitamin C, and antioxidant phytonutrients than conventionally grown crops. However, the studies point out, measuring the nutrient content of food is only partly indicative of how healthy a food is. It's also worthy to note that children may be more sensitive to pesticides because they are still growing. And by comparison, children eat more food for their weight than adults do.

When it comes to deciding what food products to buy for your baby, Horowitz says it depends. He recommends organic milk products. Horowitz also says he's a big fan of eating seasonal fruits and vegetables purchased locally, which are generally fresher, not to mention better for the environment because they haven't traveled half way across the world to get to you.

No matter who you speak to, going green does not have to be an all-or-nothing prospect. Organic products often cost more, and there are plenty of ways you can reduce your baby's exposure to toxins and do your part for the environment without breaking the bank.

Breast or bottle? Right from the start, you can begin with the most organic activity there is – breastfeeding. You don't need to clog landfills with formula containers and use countless gallons of water to wash hundreds of baby bottles. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends exclusive breastfeedingfor your baby's first six months.

Infant formula. If you choose not to breastfeed your baby, infant formulas are available that display the USDA Organic Seal, which certifies that the ingredients are grown without the use of certain pesticides, and that milk-based formulas come from cows that aren't given hormones, antibiotics, or other chemicals. Don't use bottled water to mix with your formula, you're only adding to the local landfill -- tap water is fine. Try using glass baby bottles or try BPA-free plastic baby bottles.

Solid foods. Once your baby is on solids, if you want to try making your own baby food, you can peel and boil, bake, or steam the food and blend it with some extra water, breast milk, or formula until it reaches a texture suitable for your baby's age -- the younger the baby, the smoother the texture. Make individual portions that are easy to remove by pouring it into silicone ice cube trays, cover with freezer bags, label them, and store in the freezer, Kelley says.

Fresh fruits and veggies. If you can't see the extra cost to buy all organic fruits and vegetables, you can lower your child's pesticide consumption by nearly 80% by avoiding the 12 most contaminated fruits and vegetables and eating the least contaminated produce, according to the Environmental Working Group. The EWG recommends the organic versions of the following produce items:

  • Celery
  • Peaches
  • Strawberries
  • Apples
  • Blueberries
  • Nectarines
  • Bell Peppers
  • Potatoes

Non-organic produce items that are lowest in pesticides include:

  • Sweet corn
  • Pineapple
  • Mangos
  • Sweet peas
  • Kiwi
  • Cantaloupe
  • Watermelon
  • Sweet potato
  • Honeydew

You can also go organic on only the foods your child eats most, like milk and apple juice.

When it comes to diapers for your baby, is cloth always greener? Since cloth diapers have to be washed, the way you clean them is important, says Kelley. Her tips for earth-friendly washing and diaper care:

  • Always wash full loads for maximum efficiency.
  • Wash diapers in cold water.
  • Use a high-efficiency machine.
  • Don't soak diapers, use a dry pail instead.
  • Hang your diapers instead of using a dryer.
  • Don't iron diapers.
  • Save diapers for your next baby.
  • If you use a diaper service, ask them about their washing methods. Do they use chlorine bleach? Eco-friendly detergents? How much water do they use?

If you don't want to use cloth, check out earth-friendly disposables, which are nontoxic, hypoallergenic, and chlorine-free.

Dressing Your Baby. Look for 100% certified organic cotton on the label, and avoid synthetic fibers. Or buy used baby and children's clothing at garage sales, thrift stores, and consignment shops, where clothes have likely been washed enough to reduce any chemical residues

Skip the "stuff." It's a myth that babies need lots of gear. For example, instead of bringing your newborn home to a pricey bassinet, put your baby in the crib right away. Don't bother with lots of sterilization equipment – your dishwasher will do just fine. Instead of buying dozens of baby toys, keep your child occupied with measuring cups, plastic storage containers, pots and pans, even the laundry basket.

Get used gear. Buying second-hand on big-ticket baby and child items can save you oodles of cash, not to mention it's better for the environment. Trade or borrow used baby items from friends and family, go to garage sales, and shop at consignment shops. Make sure to check for the status of product recalls and remember that car seats have expiration dates.

Go to the library. Instead of buying loads of children's books and DVDs, visit your local library.

Skip the daily bath. Save water by bathing them every few days instead of daily baths.

Don't track chemical residues, pollen, and dust into your home. Remove your shoes at the door.

Show Sources


Organic Trade Association, 2010 Industry Survey, executive summary, "Total US Organic Sales and Growth 2002 – 2009."

Paul Horowitz, MD, pediatrician, Discovery Pediatrics, Valencia, Calif.

USDA Agricultural Marketing Service National Organic Program: "Understanding Organic Labeling," "Cosmetics, Body Care Products, and Personal Care Products.

Soo Kim, spokesperson, USDA.

Rebecca Kelley, co-author, The Eco-nomical Baby Guide.

United States Department of Agriculture, National Agricultural Library: "Should I Purchase Organic Foods?"

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency: "Pesticides and Food: Why Children May be Especially Sensitive to Pesticides."

American Academy of Pediatrics: "AAP Releases Revised Breastfeeding Recommendations," 2010. Environmental Working Group: "Shopper's Guide to Pesticides,"2010.

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