The Ultimate Guide to Zero Waste Baby Essentials
Have you ever noticed that babies come with so much stuff? Clothes, toys, diapers, blankets, car seats, strollers… your 10 lb. baby comes with about 50 lbs. of accessories. Even before going Zero Waste, I tried to find ways to cut down on both unnecessary items and the waste produced by the stuff we actually needed. All of that baby stuff is so cute, it can be hard to resist getting just one more thing. However, Zero Waste baby care can actually be pretty easy--not to mention save quite a bit of money--if you can resist the temptation. Places we’ve reduced our baby waste include:
Interested in learning more about how we cut down on baby-related waste? Read on for my ultimate guide to Zero Waste Baby Essentials!
Baby clothes are irresistible. I get it. However, those clothes do not need to be brand new: your baby is going to grow out of them so quickly, it makes sense to buy them used whenever you can. We’re fortunate to have a few children’s consignment shops in town, and I’ve found adorable, clean, and barely used clothes in my baby’s size. Also, shops like ThredUP and Poshmark carry second-hand baby clothes. If you do need to or decide to get some things new, try to purchase from sustainable brands such as Boden and Pact or look for sellers on Etsy with sustainable business models such as CharlieAndNellCo. When your baby grows out of the item, donate it or resell it so it doesn’t get thrown away.
I have an entire post on sustainable diapering that you can read here. In a nutshell, traditional disposable diapers take 500 years to break down (so every plastic diaper ever made is still in existence). However, there are more options for sustainable diapering out there than there ever have been before, so you have good options regardless of whether you prefer disposable diapers, reusable diapers, or hybrids. DYPER sells disposable diapers made from sustainable bamboo, that are biodegradable under all circumstances and fully compostable with their REDYPER service. There are also good options for hybrid and reusable diapers including Green Mountain Diapers and GroVia.
Diaper Bag and Accessories: Earth Hero has zero waste diaper creams and other baby care supplies, and you can find excellent quality diaper bags from sustainable materials like this one on Etsy.
Bathing your baby doesn’t have to be fancy as long as it is safe and your baby gets nice and clean. Honestly, if you have a big enough sink that you clean regularly, the sink is a great place to bathe your baby--no infant-sized plastic tub required! If you do prefer to have a designated baby bath, the Stokke Flexi-bath is a great little tub. We had one for our first child, and we loved that it could fold up to save space. The tub is also a great size to use as a sensory bin or toy bin after your child grows out of it.
There are lots of fancy baby soaps and lotions out there but your baby already has perfect skin. They just need a few gentle products to help them stay clean and to moisturize their skin. A baby shampoo/soap bar will clean their skin and hair (if they have any) and a lotion bar will butter them up nicely. We use a Baby Castile soap bar (it is gentle but not tear-free) and the Ethique baby massage bar for lotion. I also like to keep some unscented Doctor Bronner’s Magic Balm handy for any extra dry or chapped skin.
For very small babies, plain coconut oil is also a good option for chapped hands and faces, because if they get any in their mouth while sucking on their hands or fingers, it is safe. (When my first child was born, a lactation nurse advised me to use coconut oil on cracked and dry nipples because it would be safe if any of it was transferred to the baby during nursing. It worked like a charm to soothe my sore nipples until they healed!)
We also recently discovered Konjac sponges. These are great for bathing the baby, especially for very small babies who are still getting sponge baths. They last a long time, and when they do finally wear out, they can be composted. And of course, a hooded towel like this organic bamboo baby towel is a must for snuggling your little one after bathtime.
For about six months your baby will get all of their nutrition from either breastmilk or formula. I am grateful that I was able to successfully breastfeed both of my children, but I will never shame anyone for feeding their baby formula regardless of whether it is by choice or they are unable.
I will note that purely from a sustainability standpoint, breastfeeding definitely produces the least waste and is much less expensive than purchasing formula. If--like me--you are a working/breastfeeding mom, you’ll likely need to pump while at work. If this is the case, opt for reusable milk storage bottles instead of disposable breastmilk storage bags to cut down on the plastic waste related to pumping. Glass-made pumping bottles are hard to find, and they may break on the trip to and from work, so I suggest opting for silicone breastmilk bottles instead. Also, check with your insurance company as many medical insurance plans cover a free breast pump for new moms (even if it is your second baby and beyond).
If you are formula feeding, work with your pediatrician to determine the best formula for your child in order to meet their nutritional needs. If possible, opt for powdered formulas rather than premixed formulas, as these tend to use less packaging and use less fuel to ship. They also allow you to mix formula based on your baby’s appetite, so you don’t end up with as much leftover formula that ends up going to waste.
If you’re formula feeding or you’re pumping at least part of the time, you’ll need bottles. Ideally, your baby will respond well to a high-quality glass bottle, but depending on your little one, they may refuse certain bottles or nipple shapes. If that’s the case, do whatever it takes for your baby to get the food they need, and rest assured the other efforts you make to reduce waste are making a real difference. In addition to reducing waste, part of the reason I recommend glass bottles is due to concerns over microplastics getting into formula or breastmilk from plastic baby bottles as outlined in this NPR article. Again, don’t panic if a plastic bottle ends up being your best or only option, but the article does give lots of food for thought.
When your little one is ready for solids, I strongly recommend making your own baby food. Not only does this cut down on a lot of waste (so many plastic baby food jars!), it will also save you a lot of money. Baby food is ridiculously expensive for the amount of food you get, but making your own will barely make a difference on your grocery bill.
There has also been a lot of information in the news lately about heavy metals being found in commercial baby food. I’ll be honest, it’s unclear whether these heavy metals are in all food sources and we're just finding them in baby food because we are testing for them, or if the heavy metals are more prevalent due in baby foods due to the specific growing and processing practices used to produce those baby foods. Out of an abundance of caution, we make our own baby food and limit foods that are known to have higher concentrations of heavy metals, such as rice, which can contain arsenic.
I suggest investing in a set of reusable glass baby food jars. One set is more than enough for most families because babies only need to eat so much at a time. Some foods like avocado and bananas are perfect first baby foods because you can just mash them and serve (be sure to watch out for those little avocado stems before serving). Other foods like sweet potato, apples, pears, and zucchini can be peeled, steamed, and puréed, and then frozen for future use if you’re not using them right away. Some bamboo baby spoons are also a great choice.
Honestly, you can skip the forks for a while because your baby will either be eating off of a spoon or eating with their fingers for quite a while. Self-feeding with a fork is a long way off. Some reusable straws are also handy to have around! I started letting both of my children share my morning green smoothie (made from blueberries, spinach, banana, and whatever non-dairy milk happens to be one sale) with me as soon as they started solids at 6 months. I just popped a straw in and let them sip as much as they wanted.
As your baby gets bigger and is introduced to more foods, you can simply puree whatever the family is having for dinner. Once they progress to finger foods, you can chop dinner into small, toddler-safe pieces for them to feed themselves. As long as it doesn’t present a choking hazard, I’m a big fan of introducing kids to a variety of flavors and textures right away! Both of our kids ate curries, gumbo, stir-fries, and other flavorful dishes before their first birthdays.
Toys & Entertainment:
Kids tend to accumulate a ton of toys--even as babies--even though in reality they play with very few of them. For very small babies, a few rattles and teething toys that are safe to put in their mouths and a playmat for tummy time and sensory stimulation is plenty. As they get older, you’ll want some sorting toys and blocks, chunky wooden puzzles, noisemakers, and toys that encourage pretend play. Of course, if you are fortunate to have a very large and/or generous family, you may accumulate more toys than you had planned to. If that is the case, my advice is to be gracious, and either donate or give away what you don’t want or no longer need to someone who can use it. Green Toys and Begin Again Toys are great places to shop for toys made from recycled or other sustainable materials.
Books are essential for babies of all ages. It is never too early to start reading to your baby. I know that some zero waste families have stopped purchasing paper books, however, I can never see books as a waste. Reading together is one of the best ways to bond with your children and prepare them for school and any number of life’s situations. I strongly believe in introducing babies to physical books before exposing them to screens.
Your public library should have a selection of sturdy board books to borrow, which is the best way to get books in a Zero Waste way. However, I do maintain a supply of our own board books purchased either new or second-hand, so I don’t have to worry about the books getting thrown around, chewed on, etc. Young babies respond well to high contrast images (such as black and white, yellow and purple, etc…). These nontoxic fabric baby books are perfect for even the youngest infants. For older babies and toddlers, Sandra Boynton and Eric Carle board books are some of our favorites due to their fun illustrations and bright colors. When your child gets a little older, be sure to check out my list of the Best Picture Books for Zero Waste Kids.
Baby items like swings, bouncers, and jumpers are really a judgment call. Some babies love them, and you definitely will run into those people who tell you you HAVE to get a swing. However, some babies just aren't that thrilled with them. I'm rather ambivalent. I think they take up a lot of space and can be quite expensive for something that isn't going to get much use, so if you aren't sold, skipping these items can save a lot of plastic and other waste. If you do want any of these things, try getting them second-hand to cut down on waste. Good Buy Gear sells gently used baby gear, including swings and similar items.
Getting out and about with your baby is a lot of fun...with the right gear. Believe me, you don’t need the most expensive stroller or travel system on the market, but having something that is good quality and comfortable for both you and the baby is definitely a must if you’re hoping to successfully make it out for a walk, a hike, or through the grocery store. Personally, my favorite way of getting around is babywearing. I have several baby carriers that I’ve accumulated as hand-me-downs or that I’ve purchased myself (you can read more about my baby carrier obsession in my post on Zero Waste Hiking with kids). My favorite carriers are the Boba-wrap and the Ergo-Baby Omni 360. If you prefer not to buy your baby carriers new, many children’s consignment stores will carry used baby carriers and Ergo-baby even has a second-hand baby carrier program called Everlove. However, we use our baby carriers so much, I was okay with getting our Boba-Wrap new and I’ve had our Ergobaby for over six years since our son was a baby. It still wears like it’s brand new after several years of almost daily use.
Strollers are another item that you may be able to find second-hand at children’s consignment stores or through Good Buy Gear. Just make sure that whatever you get fits your lifestyle, that you can push it comfortably, and that any used stroller you might buy doesn't have a recall associated with it. We’re a hiking, running, biking family so a jogging stroller was a must. Again, I feel like a stroller is worth getting new if you’re going to use it a lot, and you can always pass it down or donate it when you’re finished with it. The Mountain Buggy is our favorite stroller of all time: it is fabulous to jog with, folds easily, and is light enough for me to carry it around with one arm. If you’re very active, the Thule Chariot Cheetah is a great option to cut down on waste because you can use it for biking, jogging, strolling, and cross-country skiing (once they’re old enough, of course). You’ll only need one trailer for all of those sports (though you will need to get the different conversion kits).
One thing I recommend you NOT get second-hand is a car seat. Car Seats actually expire, and they can become less effective with wear and tear. Older models may be subject to recalls that may not be disclosed if you buy one second-hand. Brands such as UPPAbaby and Nuna sell non-toxic car seats. While there isn’t a 100% zero waste solution to car seats yet, the bottom line is that your baby’s safety comes first.
Depending on your family sleep arrangement, your baby will likely need a bassinet while they are very small and then graduate to a crib when they are a little bit older. I will admit, both our crib and bassinet saw very little use because we ended up co-sleeping with both of our kids (even after I swore we wouldn't do it with our second one). That is not to say that I think everyone should co-sleep or I am telling everyone they should do it too. It's just how things worked out for us.
As long as your crib or bassinet meets current safety standards, there isn't any reason you couldn't use a used crib or bassinet that you either purchase or get second-hand from a family member or friend. Look for GOTS certified sheets to make ensure the sheets are free of harsh chemicals as well as GOTS certified swaddling blankets.
Managing Gifts from Others:
You will have family and friends who will want to give you new clothes and other items. I understand how that can make you feel torn: on the one hand you are grateful for their generosity and support. On the other hand, you’re inwardly wincing at all of the unnecessary waste and plastic. While every relationship and situation is unique, here is my best advice for dealing with these situations:
If you are expecting and creating a registry, be very specific about what you want and need. Generally friends and family won’t mind purchasing sustainable alternatives as long as you gently lead them in the right direction. If the items are more expensive than non-sustainable alternatives, see if your registry will allow for group contributions to gifts. You can create a baby registry of sustainable items at Earth Hero or add items from any store to a Babylist registry.
If you feel your family would be receptive, talk to them about purchasing second-hand gifts, or getting no gifts at all if you feel you don’t really need them. If they really feel they must get you something, try to gently steer them toward things like books that last a long time and have enduring value or ask them to donate the money to the baby’s college fund instead.
Just let them. You can’t control the actions of others. Personally, I wouldn’t want my commitment to Zero Waste living to cause a rift or strain in my relationships with close family and friends. Of course, I want those close to me to also live more sustainably. However, each person is on their own journey, and we can’t force others to live exactly as we live. Instead, I’d rather accept those I love as they are and hopefully, over time, help them make sustainable changes as they become ready. In the meantime, I suggest accepting their kindness and generosity for what it is: their way of showing their love and appreciation for you and your baby.
Remember, babies don't need a ton of stuff. They need to be fed, cared for, and loved. The best way to limit waste is to refuse unnecessary items in the first place, and then be conscientious of the things we do buy.
If you're looking for more information on being a conscientious consumer, be sure to check out my posts on Sustainable Shopping Alternatives, Avoiding Upstream Waste, and Sustainable Diapering.