The Parent Trap: Avoid Mistakes in Nursery Projects By Following Three Basic Principles

By following these three basic principles, you will avoid the usual traps that well-meaning parents often fall into.

It’s natural to want your home and nursery to be perfect for your newborn. Unfortunately, the remodeling that many people do in anticipation of the baby’s arrival is typically anything but natural.

But by following these three basic principles, you will avoid the usual traps that well-meaning parents often fall into and optimize your baby’s health – as well as yours.

Build in Outgassing Time and Deep Cleaning to Your Nursery’s Project Schedule and Budget

My biggest overall recommendation for any new nursery project is this: give sufficient time for complete outgassing of new materials. 

The reason is simple: the fetus and newborn are sensitive at levels well below what an adult might tolerate.

  • They are extremely vulnerable to even very low levels of toxic chemicals and other contaminants.
  • If you’re familiar with EWG’s Baby Body Burden study, maybe you already know that babies are born “pre-polluted”, as cord blood contains almost 300 highly toxic chemicals, proving that whatever the mother ingests, inhales and absorbs is passed on to the baby.(1)

Green products and materials are not necessarily completely non-toxic, and even the least toxic versions, newly installed, are usually too toxic for the developing fetus and newborn until all odors have completely dissipated. Even certifications still aren’t good enough, as their standards are limited in scope and are certainly not developed specifically for the newborn or fetus.

So even though you are decorating with healthy materials and products, make sure that the pregnant mom and newborn are not in the home during the makeover, and they do not inhale outgassing from new materials, no matter how “green” and “non toxic” the products claim to be.

Mom and newborn can re-enter the house only when ALL odors have dissipated 100%.

Avoid chemicals that never go away

In addition to using the lowest VOC materials and products you can find, vet all products, including green versions, for the chemicals that don’t smell, and never go away, called SVOCs, or semi volatile organic compounds.

Unlike VOCs, which eventually dissipate, SVOCs pollute the environment for the life of the product, by unbinding from the source and sticking to surfaces and house dust. Over time, these odorless chemicals, which become bound up with house dust, are inhaled and ingested by everyone in the home, including your baby. And the older the product, the higher the levels in the house dust. This means there is an unending chronic low level of chemical exposure from those materials that contain SVOCs.

So for all new products and materials for the nursery, including those with LEED and other green certifications, you’ll need to check with product manufacturers, because often SVOC chemicals are not disclosed on product literature.

Here are the worst offenders to screen for:

  • Phthalates: Phthalates are chemicals that mimic estrogen and therefore are highly toxic, especially for the developing fetus and children. They are commonly used as an ingredient in many formulations for building and interior materials and furnishings, from caulks and glues to wood fillers, spackles and products used to skim coat walls before paint is applied. Some toys contain phthalates, as do most kid’s activity mats. Any vinyl, aka PVC product contains phthalates, such as vinyl flooring, black out curtains and shades, vinyl blinds and even conventional crib mattresses. First, insist that all the materials and products used in your nursery are 100% PVC-free. For other sources of phthalates in new products, do this: Check all materials and products, for phthalates by reviewing the MSDS (material safety data sheet) for each product, then call the manufacturer for possible undisclosed lower levels of phthalates.
  • Organophosphate Flame Retardants: The organophosphate class of flame-retardants, whether the halogenated or non-halogenated types, is highly toxic, and some are carcinogenic. They are present in polyurethane foam of any kind and in any amount, whether it’s in mattress, sofa, and all foam joint sealants, insulation or weather-stripping. Organophosphate flame- retardant chemicals are usually not disclosed by manufacturers. Toxic flame-retardants are present in many building and interior materials, but by avoiding all sources of polyurethane foam, you’ll have eliminated the most common sources. For the crib mattress, window treatments, carpet padding and other furnishings, double check that they are all 100% polyurethane foam free, and 100% organophosphate flame-retardant free.
  • Biocides: Biocides include toxic anti-microbial chemicals, including both mildewcides and bactericides such as triclosan. Many baby products are treated with toxic antimicrobial chemicals that resist mold and bacteria. Antimicrobial chemicals are also present in many building and interior materials, including paints and finishes, drywall, caulks, and many other items. I suggest you use 0 VOC paints, which contain less chemicals than No VOC paints. A good synthetic brand, if you’re going for least toxic synthetic paint (meaning, made from synthetic petroleum products), is Mythic Paint.(2) If you prefer paint made with all natural ingredients, Bioshield Clay Paints(3) and Aqua Trim Enamel(4) for walls and woodwork provide a peaceful, soft and natural feel in the room.
    • The Mythic paint brand and a few other 0 VOC paints, including AFM and Yolo Colorhouse, generally have much lower, acceptable levels of biocides than other low and No VOC paints.
    • But to keep the total amount of biocides as low as possible in the nursery, I prefer to avoid biocides in as many other products and materials as possible.
    • Look for this red flag: if the manufacturer claims include “antibacterial”, “antimicrobial” or “mildew resistant” or other similar claims, check for chemicals. If you’re using new drywall or joint compound, see my articles on Green Home Guide for how to avoid chemicals, including biocides, in those products. 
    • Biocides also include pesticides. In wool carpets, pesticides to resist moths are almost always present, so to be extra safe, purchase wool carpets made of certified organic wool.

Clean Up Existing Contaminants

Just as important, before you start any nursery-decorating project. It’s important to check your home and nursery for existing sources of mold and moisture, and EMFs:

  • Check your nursery and home for sources of moisture: Whether or not you react to mold, mold is toxic, period, particularly for the developing fetus and newborn. (5)
  • If you suspect or smell mold, get a mold inspection: Hire an IAQA certified, independent mold inspector to survey your home. (Don’t hire a mold remediation company for the inspection.) (6)
  • Remove carpet with caution. Replacing carpet with wood flooring or other non-toxic hard flooring is a great idea. But carpet removal is toxic. Removing carpet stirs up high levels of toxic chemical-laden dust and microscopic particulates, which pollute the entire house. Remove carpet under airtight containment, and then deep clean the room afterwards. A mold remediation company can most safely remove it and deep clean for you.
  • Reduce EMFs (electromagnetic fields): There are many preventive steps you can take at no cost. Learn about EMFs, health effects and steps for reduction of EMFs for free on my website and blog:


(Image by Flickr member timsamoff, licensed under Creative Commons).