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Sustainable Baby Care

The User's Profile Amanda Witman September 10, 2013
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Where there are humans, there will be babies.  We are evolutionarily driven to reproduce ourselves; it’s human nature.  Although there is good reason to be concerned about worldwide population growth, it’s also a fact that babies will continue to be conceived and born.  Perhaps you are a young parent or parent-to-be.  Perhaps you are not yet a parent but may be someday.  Perhaps you’re an auntie or uncle or neighbor to a baby whose parents would appreciate resilience-minded mentoring.  Read on.

What do babies need?  What do new parents need?  If you get your information from the mainstream media, as many of us in the Western world have, you may discard that information now.  There is a huge industry predicated on the story that babies need all sorts of gadgets, devices, and mass-marketed items to survive and thrive. 

What exactly do babies need, and how can those needs be met in a resilience-minded, sustainable way? Lets explore the basics and discuss our own experiences with resilient & sustainable baby care.

Babies need nourishment 

From birth, babies need to be fed.  For about the first six months of a baby’s life, babies consume only mother’s milk or a substitute.  As mammals, female humans are physically capable of feeding their infants using nothing but their bodies.  Breastfeeding mothers typically need little more than proper hydration and good support from those who are knowledgeable about the particulars of breastfeeding.  But for decades, a large percentage of the world’s babies have been fed instead with a substitute:  mass-produced, scientifically engineered infant formula.  “Breast or bottle” is popularly considered a matter of empowerment, preference, and personal choice.

But when times call for resilience and sustainability, families who use formula are at a clear disadvantage.  Formula-feeding requires clean water (as well as hot water for washing), special equipment (bottles, caps, rubber nipples), and access to a steady just-in-time supply of expensive, factory-made powdered mix. 

Most significantly, what initially was a choice between breast and bottle quickly becomes a non-choice, as those mothers who do not continually and regularly make use of their milk soon lose the ability to produce it.  So babies who are fed primarily with formula do not have the option to later switch back to breastfeeding.1  Those of us who are resilience-minded and prepping for potentially challenging times will do well to keep this in mind. 

Some breastfeeding mothers find that a breast pump can be very helpful at times when mother and baby must be separated.  But what if a pump is unavailable?  It is usually simplest to keep the baby with the mother, but for times when that is not possible, or for babies who are physically unable to suckle at the breast, or for a baby who is being fed with donated milk, it is possible to express breastmilk by hand using the Marmet Technique, which relies on gentle hand pressure to release the milk.

And what about bottles?  They can be helpful, but in some situations they will not be available.  Cup-feeding is a good alternative.  Even very tiny babies can be cup-fed using a small open cup with a relatively straight lip; a shot glass or medicine cup can work well.  For the smallest babies, this works best with just a small amount in the cup; touch the cup to baby’s lips and drip the milk slowly as baby licks or slurps the milk.  Older babies may eagerly open their mouths and even try to “help” as the cup comes toward them.  Knowing about this option can be reassuring if equipment such as bottles is not readily available.

Sometime between 6-12 months of age, most babies begin eating solid foods.  For the past few generations, the majority of American babies have been served pureed, processed food from jars.  This has become such a rite of passage that sometimes people forget that what is in the jars is roughly equivalent to mashed-up regular food.  It is possible to feed a baby solid food without even pureeing it first.  Just choose non-allergenic foods that are naturally quite soft, such as avocado, sweet potato, or ripe peach, or cook vegetables such as carrots or peas until they are mushy and then squash them further with a fork or other implement.  If a baby can only tolerate puree, s/he may not yet ready for solids and may need more time to mature developmentally before accepting food with texture. 

Babies need clean bottoms

In some areas of the world, parents employ a practice that Americans have recently come to call “elimination communication” – the practice of managing babies’ output without diapering.  In China, for example, infant pants are designed with an open crotch to facilitate this practice.  If practiced from birth, this can be an effective way to reduce or eliminate the need for owning and washing diapers and covers.  This is a truly minimalist and sustainable option, with the baby’s sanitation needs being met in the same way as the parents’.

For those who prefer the traditional Western practice of diapering, the more typical first-world baby’s bottom is kept clean and dry with disposable diapers, which must be purchased and thrown away – not an ideal option for a resilient household.  A basic supply of plain, thick cloth diapers and a handful of waterproof covers in various sizes is sufficient for a sustainable diaper supply.  Modern fashion has given us a wide variety of designer diapers and accessories at designer prices, but the plain version works just as well.  Diapers can be made at home of (soft) recycled materials.  Very large, thin diapers called “flats” (which are folded into multiple layers before putting on baby) dry more quickly than their thicker cousins, “prefolds,” and are an especially good choice for a bug-out backpack or a situation where only a few diapers will be washed frequently by hand. 

Cloth diapers require water-resistant covers to keep the contents from escaping. There are many different kinds of diaper covers, but my three favorite materials are made of soft, woven polyester (such as “industrial-strength” Bummis), fast-drying nylon taffeta (such as classic Dappi pull-ons), and felted wool (requires a bit of extra care; must be re-lanolized periodically to remain water-resistant).  Homemade wool “soakers” can be hand-knit or made from old sweaters.  In a pinch, any flexible waterproof material wrapped around the diaper will do, even a plastic bag, a scrap of tarp, or a piece of a vinyl poncho.

If you think someone in your family may be needing diapers, I highly recommend getting a good stash of diaper pins in advance.  The really excellent German ones from my babies’ diapering years are no longer made, and I am glad to have kept them.  Stick the sharp tips in a bar of soap when not in use to help them slide easily through fabric.  Diaper pins are also great for many other uses after babies are grown.  There are other types of fasteners available, such as the Snappi, which is a stretchy elastic clip sort of thing.  Some diapers have Velcro or snaps incorporated into their design, but when the Velcro wears out (as it inevitably does), it’s helpful to have some good old-fashioned pins on hand.  Some diapers have ties worked into their design, eliminating the need for fasteners altogether.

Last but not least in the “babies need clean bottoms” category are what we call “baby wipes.” Simple washcloths or cut-up cotton terrycloth towels do the trick very well.  Some parents feel that plain water is the best and simplest washing solution; others like to add a little soap or a few drops of essential oil to the water.  If the baby develops a rash, it’s good to have something on hand to soothe and protect the skin.  Cooking oil, lanolin, or a salve made from oil and beeswax makes an effective barrier between sore skin and bodily wastes so that the skin can heal without irritation.  Oil or salve infused with lavender or calendula is particularly nice.  For yeast rash (red spotty rash), add some tea tree oil, if you have it available.

The most important part of sustainable diapering is washing and reusing the diapers.  Dispose of any solids in the same way you dispose of adult fecal waste.  Soak wet diapers in a lidded bucket of water if you wish (and consider using the water later as garden fertilizer).  If you have access to an automatic washing-machine, that would be the easiest way to get them clean.  If not, you may find that a (clean) toilet plunger in a bucket is a reasonable substitute for a mechanical agitator.  You will need washing soap or detergent of some kind, and if you have the option, a cold wash followed by a hot wash is good and thorough.  If you diapers develop a lasting odor or if you are concerned about sanitizing, you can soak them in boiling hot water and/or hang them to dry in full sunlight – either of those steps will help to kill the odor-producing germs.

Babies need to be kept safe and close

Popular culture and mass media would have us believe that babies need high-tech gadgetry to be kept safe and occupied.  Traditional cultures would disagree.  For as long as humans have walked upright (and perhaps longer), human babies have been carried.  There are many different kinds of carrying devices that can be purchased, and if that option is available to you, go ahead and set yourself up with whatever carrier(s) suit you best. 

If not, or if you prefer homemade simplicity, consider acquiring or fashioning a traditional carrier from a simple piece of cloth.  You might take inspiration from Africa, Guatemala, Japan, or any number of other cultures where traditional baby slings are used.  Teach yourself to use it properly with the help of online resources, or find a mentor who can help you learn to comfortably and proudly carry your baby in any number of positions.

Some resilient families will find it essential to invest in a more rugged baby carrier or a bike trailer, and these are good things to have if you walk or bike regularly. If you expect to be traveling with your baby in a vehicle, a car seat is a wise thing to own.  However you travel, be sure your baby is in a safe device or carrier appropriate to your mode of transportation.

And what about when you don’t want to be holding your baby?  Babies need a safe place to be put down.  “Safe” is relative to the baby’s age and mobility level, the maturity and capability of other children in the household, and whether or not you have indoor pets.  A blanket or mat on the floor is a simple and safe solution if pets and siblings are not a concern.  If a safety gate is not available, it may be possible to devise a solid barrier to block off a room or other area for the baby to play or sleep. 

For nighttime, similar safety considerations apply.  A crib is not necessary if you consider cosleeping to be an option; the “family bed” is a safe and healthy choice for many families, but if you have concerns, do your research and come to a decision you are comfortable with.  Or consider using a drawer or large box as a bassinet, or create a firm but comfortable pallet on the floor.  Above all else, trust your own instincts about nighttime safety and proximity.

What else do babies need? 

Babies need clothing and warmth. Babies need attention. Babies need connection and love. Babies need shelter. Babies need the support of a community.  Just like adults!  With a few exceptions, babies’ needs are not all that different from those of their parents.  So if you take steps to ensure that your own basic needs are met, and let your baby go along for the ride, you’ll both be all set.  Be sure to explore the Self-Assessment if you haven’t already.

And what do parents need?

It’s not often talked about, but please give careful thought (and practice) to contraception.  Given the issues of resource scarcity that we collectively face, it’s important to do our best to ensure that our families are only as large as we choose them to be.  It is possible that over-the-counter and prescription contraceptives will not be as readily available in our future.  What’s your backup plan?  Hey, we’re human – it’s inevitable that many of us will continue engaging in behaviors that can lead to conception. 

Fortunately, there is at least one proven, low-technology way to control family size.  I highly recommend the book Taking Charge of Your Fertility by Toni Wechsler.  This book thoroughly discusses ways in which women can learn to reliably read their own body’s fertility signals with daily use of a simple basal thermometer (which could be a good addition to your prep kit, particularly if you can find one that does not require a battery).  Be forewarned that periodic abstinence is also an important factor in this method.  But unlike the old and unreliable “calendar” and “rhythm” methods, this fertility awareness method is scientifically proven to be reliable – as long as you follow the instructions with consistence.

Another option that is available to many people now (but may not be in the future) is permanent, surgical contraception – vasectomy or tubal ligation.  Currently these procedures are commonplace and covered by many or most insurance companies, but that may not always be the case, so now is a good time to consider having it done if you are so inclined.  This option removes all doubt and ensures no future offspring for those who find permanent pregnancy prevention to be in alignment with their values. 

It may feel radical in our modern world to opt for simple, sustainable parenting choices.  Above all, always trust yourself and go with the options that feel right for you and your family, regardless of what others might say or do or suggest.  Whatever your options, whatever your choices, whatever your baby’s individual needs, remember that humans have been raising babies in a mostly very low-technology environment for thousands of years, and you can feel confident doing the same. 

~ Amanda Witman


1 Relactation is sometimes possible with a significant investment of time, support, and effort, but it is not a realistic solution in most situations.