Monday, February 11, 2008

On bottles and butt cream

The news has been full of studies about the chemicals we expose our babies to and what that might mean (if anything) for their long-term health. As a parent, I’m on constant watch for threats to my little ones and these types of studies strike real fear in me. What else are my babies exposed to that seems so innocent now, but will hurt them in the decades to come? Like so many things, are we whipping ourselves into a frenzy about relatively remote risks, while ignoring the obvious risks because they are too familiar?
I turn this idea around in my head a little. Why is bisphenol A news, when we approach what most parents put them (infant formula) as a simple diet choice? The infant formula has known and well documented risks, not of some vague far away serious illness, but of serious morbidity and increased mortality in the first year and throughout the child’s life. While bottle-feeding is sometimes necessary (bottles can have breastmilk in them) and bisphenol A does exist in all kinds of plastic items that older children are exposed to also, it does seem that the major source of exposure and concern is the frequent feeding of infants using these bottles.
The concern is increased by the fact that to make powdered formula safe, it needs to be mixed with very hot (just short of boiling) water, which increases the leeching risk. I saw segment on the CBC where mom bought was breastfeeding, but had purchased some “Born-Free” bottles for later: it was a reasonably good segment, but I was left wondering why a baby ever really needs a bottle and why that wasn’t the angle they chose.
Shortly after the big bottle study, came a study about phthalates and how babies exposed to powder, soap and creams containing these compounds show significant traces of them in their urine. Why is this surprising? Tiny little people have a very low body to surface area ratio – it makes sense that chemicals you apply to them will soak in at a higher rate. The risk of phthalates vs. the pesticides in their food or chemicals in their diapers and clothes seems skewed, although certainly the diseases associated with phthalates exposure are worrisome.

As with the bottle debate, there’s a legitimate use for creams and soaps, but it’s actually smaller than the marketing machine from Protor Gamble and Johnson&Johnson would suggest. Babies are bathed far too often, too soon: a bath shouldn’t become a daily activity until kids really get themselves dirty and even then, they’re rarely dirty enough to require the kind of cleaning power we apply to them. My daughter went her whole first year with a single bottle of Molton Brown Wash Baby Wash (which they don’t make anymore!) and Thomas is barely through his first bottle baby soap.

Butt creams can be handy for an occasional rash, but there’s just no good reason to lather a heavy cream all over a baby’s sensitive genitals – as my midwives pointed out, you are more likely to trap irritants than seal them out. A better method is to clean well, get lots of air on the bum and change promptly. The only time my little ones have suffered from much redness was when something they ate didn’t agree with them – and on those occasions, we’ll apply a small amount of Burt’s Bees cream, but almost four years into diapering, we’ve only been through two tubes (though we’ve lost plenty along the way).

So, in the end, while I worry what’s out there and in my home, I also feel safer in that I know that by approaching our diet, our personal care and lives with a simplified, less is more approach, we’re ahead of the game no matter what the next study says.

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