Cleaning in homes with babies and toddlers demands balance. On the one hand, you want surfaces and floors to be spiffy clean for all that tummy time, crawling, falling, eating off the floor, and curious hands that are constantly going into mouths, touching eyes, and so forth.
On the other hand, you need to be careful about introducing harsh chemicals, fumes, and residues that can do more harm than the original dirt and germs you’re trying to clean. Little ones’ eyes, airways, and skin are all super sensitive and susceptible to irritation from harsh cleaning chemicals. What’s more, there is still much that is unknown (but suspected) about other health risks such as endocrine disruption, cancer risk, and so forth.
Poisoning — be it from repeat contact with cleaning-chemical residues or direct ingestion of unsafely stored solutions is another risk, especially for curious toddlers who are on the move and not always within eyesight.
Finally, there is research to suggest that making an environment too clean and free of germs may be a factor in precipitating allergies, asthma, and other autoimmune disorders (this is known as the hygiene hypothesis).
It all sounds pretty scary but fear not! There are plenty of things you can do to keep your home spiffy clean while also minimizing risks to babies and toddlers. Here are some key approaches:
Shift the model. A popular model for cleaning was devised in 1959 by Dr. Herbert Sinner who worked for Henkel, a German detergent maker. Dr. Sinner’s Circle Cleaning Model suggests there are 4 key variables to control cleaning results: chemical strength/complexity, time, temperature, and mechanical energy (how hard you scrub). When you decrease one — in this case, chemical strength and complexity — you can offset by increasing one or more of the other variables. For example, allow a surface to soak for a bit longer than usual, use hotter water, or add more elbow grease to your scrubbing action.
Clean more frequently. If we’ve said it once, we’ve said it a thousand times! The longer you allow dirts, grimes, soils, oils, stains, scums etc. to sit untreated, the more complex and harder-to-clean they become, requiring harsher and more complex chemicals to clean effectively. Clean often, and mild baby-safe cleaning solutions will be all you need.
Keep dirt outside. In addition to upping cleaning frequency, adopt practices such as removing shoes at the door and grooming pets out of doors to prevent dirts and grimes from ever entering your home.
Invest in reputable brands. Reputable cleaning brands may cost more, but — because they have reputations to protect — they typically invest substantial sums in science, safety research, and testing to back their products. The same cannot necessarily be said for cheap, no-name options.
Read labels! Avoid cleaning products with labeling containing such terms as toxic, poison/poison control, and hazard. Some specific ingredients to avoid (note this is a non-exhaustive list) include phthalates, volatile organic compounds (VOCs), sodium lauryl sulphate (SLS), phosphates, petroleum-based compounds, fragrances, and anything touted as antibacterial, which typically contains triclosan, a suspected carcinogen. Note that terms such as natural, green, and enviro-safe do not necessarily mean a solution is safe for use around babies and toddlers. On the other hand, if something is biodegradable, there is a decent chance it’s one of the safer options. Many cleaners marketed as baby-safe use either baking soda or olive-oil-based Castile soap as a starting point.
Also in the read-the-label category, use only the recommended amount of a cleaning solution and always dilute and rinse as instructed by the manufacturer. You might be surprised by how rigorously rinsing is supposed to be done with many cleaners! Be sure to re-seal cleaning solution containers as quickly as possible after use to avoid unnecessary release of fumes, and clean or dispose of rags, sponges, and cloths promptly after cleaning.
Avoid exposure. When harsh chemical use is unavoidable, consider having a partner, relative, or friend take babies and young children out of your home while you clean, ventilate well, and give fumes plenty of time to dissipate before they return.
Extend regular cleaning task list. Finally, living with babies and toddlers means there are a few additional items that require weekly (sometimes even daily) cleaning. These include toys and stuffed animals, security blankets and other luvvies, pacifiers, teething rings, and anything else that goes into baby’s mouth; diaper-changing area and pail, feeding chair and surrounding floor area.