Fewer toxins, healthier babies

September 20, 2021

by Kyra Naumoff Shields, PhD

How can chemicals in the environment harm your baby’s developing brain?

Most of us aren’t aware that in the U.S., one in six children have a neurological disability. These include autism, IQ loss and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

During the first few years of life, a child develops neural connections at an incredible rate of 1 million per second. These connections, whether they thrive or weaken, create what the Harvard University Center on the Developing Child  calls “the architecture” of your child’s brain—a foundation with lasting effects on every child's future.

Diverse experts agree that before and after birth, exposures to toxic chemicals and pollutants significantly increase your baby’s risks for neurodevelopmental disorders. These include chemicals in commonly used household products and others that we come into contact within our communities.

Toxic chemicals are not the sole cause for lifelong learning and developmental deficits, but they are among the most preventable. Read on for two examples.

Phthalates – Phthalates are added to plastics to make plastic products soft and flexible. Some products that contain phthalates are vinyl shower curtains, air fresheners, lotions, shampoos and other products with fragrances. Phthalates can be released from these products by heat, agitation, or long-time storage and can enter our bodies by breathing, eating or drinking things that have been in contact with phthalates. Phthalates can cross the placenta during pregnancy, and human studies have linked prenatal exposure to some phthalates with neurological problems in children.

Arsenic –This is a natural element in the soil, water, air, plants and animals. Arsenic is very toxic to humans. The following three food products – infant rice cereal, apple juice and rice – account for about 70 percent of total daily exposure to arsenic.

What can you do to reduce toxic exposures for your baby?

Though toxic chemicals are present in our daily lives, it doesn't mean that there's nothing parents or caregivers can do to keep their little ones safe and healthy.

At mealtimes:

  • Feed your baby cereals that are naturally low in arsenic, such as oatmeal and multigrain.
  • Choose rice-free snacks.
  • Focus on variety when it comes to fruits and vegetables. Some fruits and vegetables have higher levels of toxins than others. For example, even though sweet potatoes and carrots can have higher levels of heavy metals, they are a great source of vitamins and nutrients. Alternate sweet potatoes and carrots with other choices that are lower in contaminants, such as bananas, green beans, peas, squash and pears.

For tips about reducing potential toxic exposures for your baby, Healthy Babies Bright Futures has information about:

What can our government do to reduce toxic exposures for all babies?

All babies are impacted by neurotoxins in their everyday environments, but babies of color are disproportionately affected. A recent systematic review of nearly 33 million births outcomes in the United States examined the link between toxic air pollution and low birthweight, both risk factors for lower IQ and neurological problems. This systematic review also evaluated the link between race/ethnicity and health disparities. This review showed that Blacks, Asians and Hispanic pregnant people exposed to certain levels of air pollution had a higher risk of having a baby born with a low birthweight, compared to White pregnant people.

While our own choices can create a healthier environment, we also need our government officials and leaders to do their part. They can help dismantle the unjust systems that put families of color at a disadvantage and affirm each baby’s right to a brighter future.

To learn more visit marchofdimes.org

There are several non-profit groups and organizations working to raise awareness on important issues such as this to help families stay prepared and informed. For example, March of Dimes and The Honest Company regularly partner together for important programs to help address the challenges moms face when welcoming children into this world and ensure that families everywhere have the opportunity for a healthy life. Most recently, the two partnered to shine a light on the impact of environmental justice on motherhood, with Honest joining the March of Dimes’ Mom and Baby Action Network.