natural motherhood, part 6: herbal baby care

i know that some of you out there love the super-informative posts, but i also know that there are a lot of folks who really love the project-y d.i.y. stuff—-this post is for both of you but will be a special treat to the latter.  (i’m right there with you, hands-on people!) for this entry, i wanted to take a good long look at all of the stuff we put on our babies (creams, ointments, lotions, oils, soaps, powders, balms…..oh my!) breaking everything down into the good, the bad, and the ugly.  a walk down any baby care aisle in the grocery store bombards us with all this crap (yes, most of it is crap), but because “that’s what you put on babies,” that’s what we all buy.  if you’re at all concerned about what goes into your baby, you should pay mind to what goes on her as well—pores, after all, are like little gateways to the bloodstream.

i’m going to take a look at what’s commercially available as far as baby products go, noting what’s generally considered safe and what’s not, i’m going to make some suggestions of natural and herbal alternatives, and i’m going to give you some yummy recipes.  as always, tweak recipes to your liking—none of this is written in stone!  most importantly, have fun whipping together your kitchen concoctions, and be sure to make a BIG mess doing it 🙂

baby powder

keep it breezy!

in actuality, baby powder is something that you don’t really need to use on a regular basis.  we’ve created the need for it by bundling up baby bums 24/7 in non-breathable diapers.  if bottoms get regular air, trench-butt is much less likely to happen.  fresh air and sunshine are yeast and bacteria’s worst nightmare!

traditionally, we’ve dusted babies with either talc or cornstarch-based powders.  most powders today seem to be moving to cornstarch because of a good deal of fuss surrounding talc.  before 1973, talc products contained asbestos (which naturally occurs in talc deposits) and even though the asbestos is removed today, there’s still a bit of heebie-jeebie lingering.  talc (perhaps due to pre-1973 use) was linked in the nurses’ health study (a go-to standard study for women’s health due to its tremendous scope) to a 40% increase in ovarian cancer.  this was later confirmed (give or take some percentage) in at least two additional studies.  one particular woman from a harvard study was cited in particular because her talcum powder use manifested in actual talc deposits in her pelvic lymph nodes.

pulmonary talcosis as seen in a chest x-ray

talc, due to the insanely small size of the ground particles in the powder, poses a terrible inhalation risk as well.  oddly enough, this risk first came to light when lung problems (specifically, a disease that, aptly enough, was named “pulmonary talcosis”) manifested in cocaine and heroin addicts who used products that had been cut with talc for increased weight.  the traditional shaker method for applying baby powder essentially creates a cloud of this stuff, and inhalation of talc in children has been related to pneumonia and a whole slew of other pulmonary problems.

yeast rashes are bright red and have definitive edges. learn to tell the difference!

so we moved on to cornstarch—much bigger particles, much less of an inhalation risk.  BUT what a lot of folks don’t think about is that diaper rashes are not just chafing-related or bacterial—they can be yeast infections as well.  the first impulse when we see a sore red bottom like the one in the picture is to cover it in silky-smooth cornstarch.  the problem with this, however, is that all you’re really doing is giving the yeast something to eat.  cornstarch is pure carbohydrate—just 1 ounce of it has 110 calories—and yeast goes crazy for it.  this can lead to a vicious cycle of impossible-to-clear-up yeast-related diaper rashes.  a traditional substitute for this has been arrowroot powder, but that is also a starch.

so what are the alternatives?

first and foremost, go with plenty of regular fresh air as a preventative measure, but when a rash occurs, go with kaolin clay and powdered herbs. kaolin clay is mild, and it is absorbent but will not over-dry the skin.  it contains zinc, which is healing to inflammations and broken skin, and it is mildly disinfectant.  i’ve profiled several herbs below that can be helpful additives as well, but the important thing to remember is that if  you don’t order them powdered, you have to grind the dickens out of them.  the last thing baby wants against a diaper rash is prickly grit!

herbal additives


calendula—calendula is really the queen of the baby powder herbs.  the sunny yellow petals of this relative of the garden-variety marigold are antibacterial and immuno-stimulant, and they help in the formation of collagen and in the reduction of scarring any time broken skin is involved.  you can get powdered calendula at mountain rose herbs, or you can buy (and set aside for non-coffee use only!) a coffee grinder and grind your own.  a word to the wise—buy it ground 🙂

lavender—lavender is antimicrobial and analgesic (pain-relieving), and it smells amazing!  like calendula, it is gentle enough for baby’s skin but will kick butt when it comes to bacteria.  this is also available powdered from mrh.

slippery elm—the powdered inner bark of the elm tree is smooth and soothing, but do note that it is a starch and shouldn’t be used when there’s yeast.  if yeast isn’t an issue, slippery elm bark is a great additive to help with inflammation, and it is very absorbent.

myrrh resin

myrrh resin—the third wise man knew what he was doing when he gave myrrh to mary for the baby jesus!  myrrh, the resin from a trees in the genus commiphora, is disinfectant, wound-healing, anti-fungal (a great additive when yeast is involved!), anti-inflammatory, and stimulating to the circulatory system. do make sure to buy this one powdered!

plantain—this common yard weed is another skin-healing star.  plantain is antimicrobial, anti-inflammatory, and anti-toxic (it’s a good drawing herb for insect bites or weepy sores).  mrh makes it available powdered.

chamomile—this sweetly unassuming tea herb packs an anti-inflammatory, anti-viral, anti-bacterial punch—all while smelling like fresh apples!


thoroughly clean an empty glass shaker (spice or parmesan cheese jars work well!) and fill it with the following mixture (you can make a big batch if you like and then store the extra somewhere cool, dark, and dry)

10 parts kaolin clay

1 part myrrh powder

3 parts herb mixture of your choice from the list

kaolin clay from mountain rose herbs

if you’d like some added baby-safe scent and soothing power, you can add a few drops of organic lavender essential oil to the herb powder before mixing it with the kaolin clay.  just be sure to mix it well or it will clump.  to use the powder, shake it into your hand and then apply it to baby’s bottom.  this will prevent any inhalation problems.  an added bonus to this powder is that, if baby gets a bad rash, you can mix the powder with a little water to make a paste, paint it on to baby’s bum, and let baby crawl around on a blanket while it dries and cracks off (like a mask), taking any infection and inflammation with it.  you can do this once a day when there’s a problem.  if there’s yeast, consider mixing the powder with organic, whole-milk yogurt.

diaper rash ointment

the paste version of the baby powder is a great ointment in and of itself, but sometimes you just want something quick and easy to swipe over baby’s bum at a diaper change.  the traditional choice for this has been petroleum-based ointments like desitin, because they create a barrier between baby’s skin and moisture (wet, boggy skin is an essential ingredient in a vicious diaper rash!).  my issue with desitin is the chemicals that it uses to achieve this water barrier:  petrolatum, dimethicone, and mineral oil.

this has dimethicone in it too! yum

petrolatum (as you might have guessed) is a petroleum-based product and is therefore non-sustainable.  dimethicone is a silicone product and is non-biodegradable; it just accumulates after being washed down your drain.  it is also a bio-accumulator that can affect the liver and lymph system.  mineral oil, also a petrochemical, is intensely pore-clogging and can hinder the ability of cells to excrete waste material.  to me, this is too high of a price to pay when there are other, more natural ways to create a healing moisture barrier.

so what are my alternatives?

calendula oil from mountain rose

the best thing that herb mamas and papas can do is make (or buy) a natural baby’s bottom salve.  there’s no need to reinvent the wheel here, so i’ll direct you to my past posts for information on making an infused oil and turning that infused oil into a salve.  any combination of olive, apricot, jojoba, and coconut would be wonderful for your oil, and as for the herbs to use in your infused oil, i would pick calendula, lavender, and yarrow.  if you don’t have the resources to make herbal oil with fresh plant material, there are plenty of good places to buy it online (calendula oil is especially easy to find).  beyond that, all you need is beeswax and some essential oils like lavender (anti-bacterial, soothing) or tea tree (anti-fungal).

use your salve just like you would use something like desitin—apply it liberally to clean, dry skin to create a moisture barrier and to heal existing rashes.

baby oil

most of what needs to be said about baby oil has already been said.  the majority of companies include two ingredients in their baby oil: mineral oil and fragrance.  i’ve already mentioned the downsides to mineral oil, now don’t even get me started again on “fragrance.”   if you aren’t going to be honest with me about an ingredient (see “natural flavors” and “spices”) then don’t expect me to buy your product.  “fragrance”?  REALLY?  smells like a load of crap to me.  according to the skin deep cosmetics safety database, ” the word fragrance or parfum on the product label represents an undisclosed mixture of various scent chemicals and ingredients used as fragrance dispersants such as diethyl phthalate. fragrance mixes have been associated with allergies, dermatitis, respiratory distress and potential effects on the reproductive system.”  nope.

so what are my alternatives?

apricot---yum yum!

here’s a better alternative: apricot kernel oil—-period.  no funny business, no complicated recipes; just pure organic oil used liberally and without worry.  if you’d like, you can make or buy oil infused with calendula or lavender, but rest assured that the plain old oil is great for baby’s skin.

*note—i distinguish here between infused oil (oil that’s had plant matter soaking in it for 4-6 weeks) and essential oil (the tremendously concentrated aromatic oil naturally occurring in the plant) because the former is preferable for large-scale everyday use.  infused oils are much gentler—save the essential oils as additives for local application, like in a diaper rash formula.  don’t slather them on baby every day.

teething care

one thing that really makes me cringe is seeing moms “deal” with teething issues by pumping baby full of tylenol, especially in light of the recent recalls, in which mcneil consumer healthcare noted the following of infant tylenol: “some of the products included in the recall may contain a higher concentration of active ingredient than is specified; others may contain inactive ingredients that may not meet internal testing requirements; and others may contain tiny particles.”  pardon my french but holy shit!  tiny particles? over-dosages? substandard ingredients? tylenol’s website notes that physicians have trusted its products for 50 years—recent news makes this appeal to tradition worthless.

so what are my alternatives?

mesh pacifier

instead of filling your baby with pain killers (and particles), turn to the herbs!  two of my web-teachers, herbalists john gallagher and heather nic an fhleisdeir suggest some ingenious ways to help baby through teething.  john suggested making popsicles out of chamomile tea.  if your baby can handle a popsicle, go ahead and do it the traditional way (with unsweetened tea of course), but if you’re worried about possible choking hazards, several companies make ingenious little mesh bag pacifiers that can be loaded with ice cubes—just make your ice cubes from chamomile tea!  the ice has a numbing effect, and the chamomile helps decrease pain (and mental anguish!) and risk of infection.

heather’s suggestion to combat teething woes was easy and a little less messy.  she suggested getting a cotton muslin bag (small enough for baby to hold and large enough not to be a swallowing hazard), filling it with equal parts lavender and chamomile, and handing it to baby for a gum-fest.  the cotton muslin is just abrasive enough to help baby cut teeth, but the slobbery chomping will release all sorts of juicy pain-relieving and antibacterial properties from the herbs inside.  after several hours of nom-noming, the bags can be washed and reused.

*note—some people assume that clove oil can be used for teething since it is a “natural” adult oral pain reliever, but clove oil is entirely too strong for baby’s mouth and can burn his delicate gum tissue.

baby bath

the go-to product here for a lot of people i know has been tear-free formulas like baby magic.  my biggest issue with baby baths, even the tear-free kinds, is that they contain sodium laureth sulfate (look on the back of everything in your shower—this stuff is everywhere!)  sls is a cheap and effective lathering agent, and that’s why it’s in so many bath products.  its is (oddly enough) a known skin and eye irritant, and the fda keeps a close watch on sls because of contamination issues. as the skin deep database notes, ” the carcinogen 1,4-dioxane contaminates up to 46% of personal care products tested (OCA 2008, EWG 2008). the chemical is an unwanted byproduct of an ingredient processing method called ethoxylation used to reduce the risk of skin irritation for petroleum-based ingredients. though 1,4-dioxane can easily be removed from products before they are sold, its widespread presence in products indicates that many manufacturers fail to take this simple step.”  so a chemical that companies use to cut down on irritation is itself a carcinogen.  sigh.

so what are my alternatives?

dr. bronner's baby mild soap---don't be scared by the preachy gobbledygook that covers the label; weirdos make good soap!

this one is part product recommendation and part fun herbal booster.  my number one choice for baby soap is dr. bronner’s “baby mild” castille soap. the ingredients are simple:  water, organic coconut oil, potassium hydroxide (as with all soaps, no lye remains in the finished product), organic olive oil, organic hemp oil, organic jojoba oil, citric acid, and vitamin e.  nothing scary—yay!

the fun part to baby’s bath is including bath herbs. for bath herbs, you can use two techniques.  the first is to brew up some strong “tea” with your herbs and then strain it into baby’s bath when it’s cooled.  the other option is to throw some herbs into a muslin bag, toss it into a piping hot tub, wait for the tub to cool down to a baby-friendly temperature, and then add baby.  you can squeeze the bag to let out all of the herbal goodness, and then you can give it to baby to play with.  good herbs to use in a bath blend are (i bet you can guess!) chamomile, calendula, and lavender.  these are all good for baby’s skin, and the chamomile and lavender will help relax them for a good night’s sleep.

*note—i wouldn’t recommend just throwing herbs into the tub.  you’ll be picking plant matter out of baby’s folds and rolls for an eternity!

there are so many other ways that herbs can be used for babies.  i plan on looking into some safe and easy medicinal applications soon, but as far as general grooming goes, this should give you some good alternatives for basic items.  as always, feel free to tweak recipes to your needs, and remember to share the information with anyone who might benefit from it.



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