Health

Making babies happy, healthy - and green

Dr Alice Roberts
Image caption Dr Alice Roberts will have one of the 820,000 babies born in the UK this year

This year 820,000 babies are expected to be born in the UK - part of a baby boom that has been quietly but unexpectedly taking place in the UK for the past 10 years.

Nobody can really say why this is happening - birth rates in most of the developed world are continuing to fall - but it will certainly have an impact.

Just how big an impact depends upon how parents choose to bring up their children.

Breastfeeding, as Anna Burbridge, from the La Leche League, points out, is one of the most eco-friendly choices new mothers can make.

"No food is more environmentally friendly or locally produced," she says.

"It's sustainable, renewable, it comes out at the right temperature and there's no wastage.

"Breastfeeding places no strain on the earth's natural resources at all."

Breastfeeding may not always be an option, but there are also important choices to be made at the other end of the baby business.

Nappies now come in a wide variety of shapes and sizes, and cloth v disposable is a long-running debate.

A Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs study indicated total carbon produced could be reduced by reusable nappies - if they were not washed at high temperatures or tumble dried.

However, Amber Hatch, from Nappy Free Baby, suggests a third option that might really reduce the impact.

She said: "Elimination communication is a method which involves teaching your baby to live without a nappy from day one.

"Babies are really clever and they are waiting to build up associations, so it becomes a systematic method to keeping baby much cleaner."

Population growth

Image caption There has been a surge in UK births

And if that sounds too extreme, Nappies 2 Go offer a nappy-recycling service that could also help stem parents' guilt about adding to the eight million or so nappies being sent to landfill every day.

But Simon Ross, of Population Matters, says recycling the odd nappy or buying everything second hand is not really the answer if you care about the planet's future.

"A lot of people think we're living environmentally conscious lives, but that isn't enough," he says.

"If you have fewer children that has a greater impact than anything else you can do."

At the heart of the argument about our children's consumption is the idea that there are already simply too many of us.

The UN predicts there will be 10 billion people living on the planet by 2100, and the scale of growth from three billion in 1960 to seven billion today is already placing a strain on the Earth's resources.

But writer George Monbiot says those who identify population as the biggest problem facing the environment are pointing the finger at the developing world, where birth rates are higher, when they should be looking at their own lifestyles.

"There's no question that the planet as a whole is going through a demographic slowdown.

"Population growth rates are slowing.

"Consumption on the other hand is way out of control and there is no end in sight.

"That is the problem that we face."

Communing with nature

David Bond, of Project Wild Thing, says we can prevent our children from becoming greater consumers of the Earth's resources than their parents and grandparents - by taking them into the great outdoors.

"The great thing about nature is it's the one place you can't spend money. It is gift-shop free.

"If kids can become part of the environment, then we have a chance of preventing babies being a problem for the environment."

Mr Bond's project is backed by organisations such as the National Trust and the NHS.

There is growing evidence that suggests being outdoors improves children's concentration, increases patient recovery rates and keeps babies calmer.

Sally Bloomfield, of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, says what children really need is exposure to "old friends" - bacteria found outside and particularly in rural settings.

And Dr DJ Brown is so convinced of the benefits, he has helped to distribute Out and About packs to maternity wards to encourage new parents to get their newborns into the fresh air.

The impact of these packs on both the parents' inclination to take their offspring outdoors more and the effect of fresh air on babies' mood and ability to settle will be studied by researchers at Imperial College as part of Project Wild Thing.

If the project is successful, this year's baby boom may add to the burden on the planet but also produce a generation that fully appreciates the natural world for all it has to offer.

Watch Costing the Earth: Green Babies on BBC Radio 4 with Dr Alice Roberts on BBC iPlayer.

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