Whether you’re a new parent or already have children at home, products that make feeding time easier seem to be worth the hype and investment. In fact, the nursing products market is expected to reach USD $8.2 billion by 2028. Nursing pillows are super popular because they can reduce strain and provide support, making it easier for Mom to hold the baby at a comfortable height for nursing. What’s not to love about that?
WHAT TO BE WISE ON:
When it comes to nursing pillows, start by focusing on the fabric touching the baby’s skin. Nursing pillows that use an organic cotton case - though usually more expensive - rely on less water, fewer pesticides, and have a lower global warming potential. Look out for the GOTS and OEKO-TEX certifications to verify these claims. It can be tricky to find an inner pillow filling that scores highly in our book, but recycled content is a great place to start since it reduces the need to source raw virgin material.
THE FACTORS TO CONSIDER:
Since the material on the outside of the nursing pillow is what a baby will be snuggled up against while feeding, it needs to be soft, durable, and easy to wash. The vast majority of nursing pillow cases are made of cotton.
Conventional cotton is a super thirsty crop. It’s usually a “monocrop” meaning it’s grown by itself on the same soil over and over. Enter: pesticides. When crops aren’t rotated or supported by cover crops, they can deplete the nutrients in the soil where they’re planted leading to heavier irrigation and an increase in pesticide use to compensate for the loss.
Organic cotton, on the other hand, has a 46% reduced global warming potential (GWP) and needs about 90% less water than conventional cotton. That number can of course vary due to regional climate and rainfall.
Overall, the production of organic cotton means also contributing to other healthy practices like supporting nutrient-dense, carbon-sequestering soil, and healthier working conditions for farmers. Organic may end up being pricier than conventional, but if you can swing it, it’s one comparison that we feel good about encouraging.
Sometimes spandex is blended with cotton to make a super soft and durable material. Spandex releases fewer microplastics than polyester (more on that below) but it isn’t exactly known for its sustainability attributes. In fact, it uses lots of toxic chemicals to produce. Spandex is largely made up of polyurethane plastic which, according to the NIH’s National Toxicology Program, is “reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen”. As a general rule of thumb, and especially for babies, we recommend avoiding products that use spandex to reduce the associated health risks from production and use of polyurethane.
Let’s get into it. The pillow, that is. What’s inside these things? Usually it’s polyester fiberfill, more commonly sold under the trademark of Poly-fil. It’s a synthetic plastic material made from petroleum, and it’s super common in pillow filling because it’s hypoallergenic and resistant to mildew. Extracting petroleum emits large amounts of carbon dioxide (CO2), and as we know, CO2 is a greenhouse gas (GHG) that warms the earth’s atmosphere and contributes to climate change. Buzzkill.
Polylactic acid, or PLA, is a man-made fiber derived from renewable plant materials like corn starch or sugar cane. PLA can be made using the same equipment as petrochemical materials (i.e. those derived from petroleum) making it pretty cost efficient to scale, and it’s biodegradable. In a study looking at the lifecycle energy and GHG emissions of bio-based PET plastic (which is bio-based but not biodegradable), recycled PET plastic, and PLA (bio-based and biodegradable), it was found that the PLA had the lowest impact. Compared to the production of traditional polymers, PLA requires 65% less energy and 68% fewer GHGs.
Drawbacks? It can’t be infinitely recycled, losing strength over time with each throughput, eventually requiring a blend of recycled and virgin polyester to maintain quality. Still, an overall reduced demand for virgin PLA is something we can get behind.
A less common filling is small round plastic beads that contour to the baby’s body similar to the “fluff” of the Poly-fil. Usually, beads in products like this are made from polyethylene (PE) plastic (think: Beanie Baby guts) or expanded polystyrene (EPS). Both PE and EPS are made of - you guessed it - petroleum. Lucky for us, and our small friends, there are more sustainable alternatives on the market now.
BioFoam beads are a type of PLA foam that is non-hazardous, light-weight, and durable. It’s a plant-based material derived from biopolymers, meaning it’s produced using renewable biological material instead of petrochemicals. During production, CO2 is used to expand the foam into small beads filled with 98% air. (Side note: a lighter product means less fuel consumed during shipping!) At its end-of-life, BioFoam can be biodegradable, compostable (depending on local market infrastructure), or recycled into more PLA.
To dye fabric into attractive colors, the fibers are submerged in water, dye, and mordant, which is a chemical that bonds the dye to the fabric. Most mordants are heavy metal salts that are known to cause adverse health and environmental impacts. Indigo and walnut tend to be the more popular natural dyes you may come across in product descriptions, but keep in mind that even some dyes labeled as “natural” require an additive mordant alongside the natural coloring to make sure it sticks, and stays, on the fabric. Certifications can come in handy to avoid these nasty chemicals.
When we’re in a bind or overwhelmed by greenwashy-messaging, certifications can help us make choices that keep the environment and social good in mind. Here are some certifications and standards to look out for on nursing pillows.
GOTS (Global Organic Textile Standard)
When looking for organic cotton, check out the GOTS certification. GOTS is a certification for textiles made of organic materials. To get this certification, a product must contain at least 70% organic materials and meet all of the ecological and social well-being criteria outlined by the certifying agency. This includes, but is not limited to, workplace safety, wage gap assessments, wastewater treatment, and limitations on conventional fiber products.
When buying any product made with textiles, look for the OEKO-TEX certification. While it’s not as stringent as GOTS since it doesn’t require the materials to be organic, it does require the avoidance of harmful substances in textiles.
A FEW TAKEAWAYS
For the pillow case that will come into direct contact with your baby, our advice is to opt for organic cotton. If organic cotton is too pricey or hard to come by, look for conventional cotton with the OEKO-TEX certification. The pros and cons of the filling will vary based on what you’re looking for. We recommend anything made of PLA (with recycled PLA being the best option).
COMMON QUESTIONS WE GET
What is the most sustainable nursing pillow?
Well, there really is no such thing as a sustainable nursing pillow since all options require substantial use of water and energy to produce. Check out our Top Products page to browse what we consider to be the best options.
Are bio-based materials really better for the environment?
This is a tricky one. Just because something is labeled as bio-based or naturally derived, doesn’t mean there aren’t drawbacks. For example, in some ways biofoam is praised for its ability to reduce our reliance on petroleum-based plastics, while others note its drawbacks on rapid biodegradability and consumption of raw materials that were initially produced as a food source. From a carbon standpoint, which is one of Finch’s key environmental footprints that go into our scores, biobased products are better than petroleum-based ones.
Are nursing pillows necessary?
Not necessarily. Nursing pillows only came on the market in 1989, so for thousands of years mothers have been nursing their babies without the use of designated nursing pillows. For others though, the special design of nursing pillows are found to be incredibly helpful and can make nursing more accessible for some mothers. We say, you do you. A clean, comfortable pillow would do the trick, but if you’re inclined on reaping the benefits of this product for the comfort of you and your family, refer to the Finch scoring system to help you select the best option!