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Ask The Green Mama: Tips for natural living and parenting in the modern world

Thank you for a great website. What main tips do you have to be a natural mom and give my child a natural healthy and happy childhood in a world that most of the time appears to be the opposite?


Dear Sofi, thanks for your question. I feel ya! Even after 15 years as an ecological designer and green consultant, I still felt like it actually needed to be a full time job to figure out how to be a more natural mom. So much so that I wrote the book and have dedicated my entire working life to providing practical answers based on science and Grandma’s wisdom. I hope that because of all this it can be a little easier for you.  Here are 8 secrets (from my book) to get you started…

1. No guilt. I don’t believe in trying to guilt parents into going green. Everyone wants what is best for their children’s health and once parents realize that what is the healthiest for their child is also healthier for the planet, it becomes simpler to navigate a reasonable path forward. From that place, I recommend a person starts with what sounds fun or interesting. Yes, cloth diapers are the greenest choice but if you can’t in a million years imagine yourself doing it, then start with something that sounds fun. There is plenty to do.

2. There is no better time and no one more motivated than new parents. New parents actually grown new brain and lay down millions of new neurological pathways—that’s the groundwork for changing habits—overnight. These changes help parents develop new habits and new parenting smarts. It is why I get so many people interested in green as soon as they get pregnant or have children: they may not have considered themselves environmentalists before, or even now, but they suddenly see the connection between the health of the world and their child. They want help and they are making big changes fast. One day a parent finds herself surviving with only two hour chunks of sleep, talking—with real interest—about someone else’s poop, and willingly mopping up another person’s spit-up routinely. Compared to that, figuring out how to read labels, learning to wash diapers, or foregoing a toxic crib are pretty easy. Indeed, it feels exciting and empowering to enact these changes in a home: constructive habits to give their children the best chance possible.

3. Small changes can have big, beneficial impacts if you know where to start. I encourage parents to look at the space where their child sleeps (whether that is a nursery or a closet), food, beauty products, diapers, and play.

4. In the nursery beware of most baby furniture which can off-gas enough toxins, particularly formaldehyde to pollute the nursery and the rest of the house. Instead, look for real wood cribs, changing tables, and shelves. You can finish these pieces yourself with tongue oil or food-grade finishes. Or, many of these items you can forego altogether. Most furniture gets better over time so used furniture can be better for air quality and easier on the budget. This is not the case for mattresses. A truly natural mattress, without chemical flame retardants, for your child’s crib, co-sleeper, or bed is one item worth the extra money.

5. You are what you eat. Unfortunately, while parents are more educated than ever, our food choices don’t reflect that. Get back to the basics and start early. This includes prioritizing getting your baby breastmilk. If you aren’t able to breastfeed, there are still ways to get your baby breastmilk or to empower yourself to feed your baby healthier options in others. When it comes to feeding yourself and your children, prioritize organic foods in particular when it comes to all meats and dairy, the “dirty dozen” most contaminated fruits and vegetables, baby food and other concentrated foods, and any foods of which you eat a lot. As well, beware of food additives that go largely unregulated and can be particularly challenging to a child’s developing body such as artificial food colouring, nitrates, and sugar substitutes. The experts will tell you the same thing your grandmother will: children learn eating habits. Toddlers aren’t by nature picky eaters but they sure can become picky eaters if you let them. Some kids are easier to work with than others (I know!), but every kid can be a healthy eater.

6. What goes on your skin ends up in your body: particularly in children whose skin is even more porous than an adults. Pick up that bottle of sunscreen, baby shampoo, or bum cream and read the ingredients. Would you feed that list of unpronounceable chemicals to your child? Probably not, so don’t put it on their skin either. For young children especially, you need very little to help keep them clean and what you do buy or make should contain only a few, simple, food-grade ingredients.

7. Lots of parents are giving cloth diapers a try these days—you can too! I once met a mom of six children aged four and under and she was cloth diapering them all! She said it was easier to was a load of diapers everyday than it was to shop and dispose of that many disposables. Some parents are even trying something called elimination communication, which is often referred to as baby potty training. The idea, at its simplest, is that babies will learn to use the potty if you just give them a chance routinely. Either way, the current trend of keeping children in disposable diapers until almost four years of age has caused a number of counter trends. Despite how beautiful and high-tech the new cloth diapers and the popularity of internet support groups for E.C. and potty training, they are both reminiscent of a time not so long ago when almost all children were out of diapers by 18 months to 2 years.

8. Play is more important than any toy, more educational than any Learning App, and better at creating successful kids than any after school activity. When talking about play it is easy to discuss toys at length: what types, toy recalls, and the problems of little kids chewing on plastic or lead-coated choo-choos. I interviewed so many experts on this topic for my book, and the overall message is simple: kids have far too many toys, way too much exposure to media, and virtually no opportunity for imaginative, free play. The research suggests that free play—from letting a baby wiggle her hands and kick her legs on the floor to the more advanced imagining stories and acting out roles done by older children—is what children need to do well in school and become successful adults. Indeed, free play better prepares them for this than any toy, any educational computer game, or any extracurricular class.

Manda Aufochs Gillespie is the author of Green Mama: Giving your child a healthy start and a greener future. In her 20 years as an ecological designer she has helped green a large midwestern daycare, an orphanage in Guatemala, and one of the world’s only urban ecovillages. She lives in Vancouver, British Columbia.