Zero-Waste Babies and Toddlers

infant baby girl

When I recently asked the question on Instagram “What do you need help with?” several people asked for tips to reduce waste with babies and toddlers. Even though I hadn’t started living plastic-free until my kids were 10 and 16, I did implement many low-waste practices from their birth onward.

1. Arrange a diaper service before your due date

Or buy the cloth diapers and wash them yourself. I had a diaper service for both of my kids (one when we lived in Canada and one here in California). With both kids, after a few months, I cancelled the service, bought the diapers from the service and washed them myself once a week. The hospital in which MK was born in Canada used cloth diapers. I was surprised and impressed! It must have saved the hospital a fortune and also created jobs in the hospital laundry facilities. (Disposable products make workers disposable also, as companies need fewer of them.)

Choose cloth, and you’ll not only send less waste to landfill, you also won’t need to worry about the kind of information your baby’s diaper may be collecting and selling. Pampers has introduced an Internet of things diaper that senses urine and alerts you when you need to change your baby (the company has yet to work out poop). I am not making this up. And by the way, I live in Silicon Valley. No one here uses this junk. They only create the junk. And send their kids to the Waldorf school.

2. Pack reusables in your overnight bag

If you give birth at the hospital, you may receive postpartum disposable pads. Pack several heavy duty cloth pads in your hospital bag. You may also receive disposable nursing pads. When I was pregnant with Charlotte, I sewed a bunch of these out of scrap flannel fabric. They cost $0 and they worked. I just stuffed a couple into my nursing bras.

3. If you can, breastfeed

Breast milk is the first zero-waste food. Yes, I know some women can’t breastfeed their babies, either because of physical limitations or the appalling lack of support for new parents in this country or both.

When I was pregnant with my oldest daughter, MK, I was very excited about the prospect of breastfeeding her. But because of a fairly serious birth defect, I couldn’t. I fed her my expressed milk in a special bottle. That was really hard. When Charlotte came along later, able to nurse, I couldn’t believe how easily I could feed her. She would cry a little bit, I’d open the flap on my nursing top and instantly she’d chow down!

4. Make baby food

I rarely cooked anything at all until I had kids. I really don’t know what I survived on before then. When MK started to eat solids, we fed her puréed fresh produce, such as carrots, sweet potatoes, green beans and apples. MK and Charlotte both loved beta-carotene-rich foods so much that they each turned slightly orange. Steam the produce and purée it with either a fork or a food mill. Freeze in small glass jars or ice cube trays and thaw as needed.

fresh pumpkin purée
Pumpkin purée run through a food mill. A fork also works.

5. Feed toddlers smaller portions of food they like

One parent on Instagram asked me for ideas to reduce food waste. She said her toddler “wastes soooo much food!” I remember those days! Serving smaller portions works as a first line of defense. If your child eats it all and wants more, then serve more. If you can salvage the food your toddler doesn’t eat (my kids sometimes liked to smear their leftover soup into their hair at that age), store it in the refrigerator to eat later.

Tactics such as feeding kids food they like and feeding them when they are hungry also help reduce food waste. Of course if they only like Goldfish, you’ll want to broaden their palate. If they are hungry, they will more likely eat the soup you made for lunch.

6. Buy less baby paraphernalia

You really don’t need all that baby gear you see in the ads targeting you on your phone. You and your baby can survive quite comfortably without much of it, such as:

7. Choose secondhand clothing

Your infant might wear a new outfit twice before growing out of it. Search for hand-me-down clothes (and toys and books and dishes and strollers and other gear) and pay pennies on the dollar. Ask your family and friends for theirs, host a swap in your community and search the thrift shops.

8. Get over the ick factor

As a parent, you’ll deal with bodily fluids coming out of both ends of your child. Children smear food on the walls, they smear poop on the walls and they projectile vomit on the walls. If this comes as a horrifying surprise, you have not likely spent much time with young kids.

You can clean this all up with rags rather than disposable paper towels and live to tell the tale. Wipe up the mess, dunk the rags in the toilet to remove the solids (like you do with soiled diapers) and throw them in the laundry.

9. When your baby outgrows receiving blankets, use the fabric to sew pads

Or unpaper towels. (See above.) When I was pregnant with Charlotte, I bought several yards of flannel, cut large pieces of it and finished the edges to make receiving blankets. When she was about 5 years old, I cut these up and made pads and panty liners out of them, which have lasted for over a decade. Find a simple pattern here.

zero waste homemade cloth menstrual pads
Cloth pads and panty liners in the making

10. Eschew electronics and battery operated toys

When the batteries run out of juice and the toys inevitably die, you’ll have to dispose of all of this stuff somehow. Low-tech toys, on the other hand, tend to last, you can pass them down and I found they helped create more calm in my home. Plus kids like them.

MK and Charlotte loved their wooden train set, stuffed animals, puzzles, books, art supplies and, when they were older, LEGO bricks (and also cardboard boxes and pots and wooden spoons).

Yes LEGO bricks are plastic. But unlike single-use plastic, your kids will play with them for years and you can probably get at least some hand-me-down bricks from a friend or relative. If your kids have outgrown the LEGO and you can’t find anyone to pass them on to, send them back to the company through its Replay program. LEGO will pay your shipping costs, clean the bricks and donate them to Teach for America and the Boys and Girls Clubs of Boston.

11. Go to the library often

Libraries were zero-waste before zero-waste was cool. Borrow as many books as you can and also meet other families at story time, music time and other children’s events.

The zero-waste therapist is in

Do you have a zero-waste dilemma you need help with? Please send us your dilemma here. I might answer it in a future blog post.

11 Replies to “Zero-Waste Babies and Toddlers”

  1. Meredith Mashburn says: Reply

    Thank you for this! I love your candidness. I would love to have a child someday and being prepared with zero waste options makes me feel better about their care as well as earth care. 💖

    1. Thanks, Meredith 🙂 There are so many zero-waste options for babies and kids. They just take a bit of thinking ahead.
      ~ Anne Marie

  2. Another great way of doing zero waste baby food is to use Baby Led Weaning. Basically your baby eats whatever you eat (just less salt, no honey and nothing round as it is a choking hazard). It is also a big time saver!

    1. Great idea, Rachel. It’s so easy to make an extra bit of whatever you’re eating.
      ~ Anne Marie

  3. One tip re: freezing homemade baby food. I found ice cube trays hard to pop the food out and clean. Instead, line a cookie sheet or dish that fits in the freezer with wax paper and place the food in dollops on the paper. Set in freezer for about 20 mins (flash freeze) and then pop the little piles off to store in a container. When ready to use, the little piles defrost faster & more evenly than an ice cube. The waxed paper can be used several times. If you have silpat sheets, I imagine those would also work & be easy clean-up. For runnier food, I borrowed a set of silicon muffin holders that a friend had but never used. I have since adopted them. These work beautifully and can be frozen with the food in them, or you can pop the food out & freeze as above. I still use them for freezing small amounts of citrus juice & zest.

    1. Thanks for sharing your tips Jeanine!
      Anne Marie

  4. Kristina Lundbergh says: Reply

    I don’t know if this is relevant today as my first child was born 27 years ago. I found them that the fitted diapers where great but not the ‘plastic/rubber’ pants that went on top. My mom send me a couple of woolen knitted pans. They were nice and soft, but the genius thing is they still contain the lanolin – a ‘stuff’ that protects the sheep from getting wet and cold – and together with urine works like soap and there by keeps the pants clean and non smelly.
    I just rinsed the pans if they got soiled and ones every 5-8 weeks I would hand wash in a lanolin soap.
    They have survived at least 3 children.
    Same idea when I got a nasty inflammation in my breasts with my second child as she too was born unable to feed naturally: woolen baby t-shirts with a folded flannel napkin inside, popped onto my bra, a breast pump and the nurse and I made it through.
    Best wishes to all the new parents out there ☺️

  5. Comotomo nipples fit on mason jars! And if you pump, you can pump directly into the mason jar with a maymom pump adapter and freeze the milk in the jars; no need for special plastic breastmilk bags or baby bottles!

    1. Thank you for the tip, Taylee. I wish those had existed back when I was pumping! So smart!
      ~ Anne Marie

  6. Feeding Baby Green (especially) and Raising Baby Green were very helpful for me in terms of food. The author is a pediatrician and had recipes for the whole family including baby. He also had this cool chart thing to help you eat (while pregnant and nursing) and feed the baby a wide variety of foods so they’ll be healthy eaters. My kids adore chickpeas and tofu:-)
    We did cloth diapers with both of ours and just washed diapers every 2 days. A friend made us wipes and with kid 2, we got a bum gun/diaper sprayer that attaches to the toilet, which was nice. I use it as a bum gun now that we’re out of diapers and we spray the tub out with it before baths.

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