Friday, June 3, 2011

How to keep others sensitive to a baby with chemical sensitivities?

I'm babymooning it, so any posts I write will be just what's on my sleep-deprived mind. Hope that's good for you.

Mikko, Sam, & I have tough skin. I've never noticed a difference between using our old, mainstream toiletries, detergents, and cleaning products, and the newer, gentler, greener versions I've gradually switched us to. Mikko had a diaper rash maybe once in his life. Our skin is pretty impervious.

Alrik, on the other hand, came into contact with our world and immediately broke out in hives.

This is what poor Alrik's pimply spots look like. They are definitely not your standard baby acne.

Our midwife noted them on her two-day visit and guilt-tripped us about them, despite anything we told her to the contrary, as is her wont. I told her we use eco-friendly detergent and wool dryer balls — and that, though they are scented, they are scented with essential oils, not the murky chemical concoction known as "fragrance."

She pointed out that no odor means something is good, but that somehow we've tricked ourselves into believing smelling strongly of something is a positive. I agreed with her. I used to like smelling like something, but I've gotten out of the habit. I'm fine with simply not smelling now.

As she continued to grill us about whether we really had pre-washed all our linens and baby clothes and diapers (I had), my mind flitted around and settled on the likely culprit: my sister-in-law.

Natalie smells. In a good way, or let's call it the culturally acceptable way, but she does. She favors lotions and sprays from Bath & Body Works, a company not known for its scent subtlety.

I told the midwife this, and Sam mocked me. "Sure, blame it on Natalie," he said. But I persisted. Whenever Mikko goes out with her, he always comes back smelling like her. It's an odd phenomenon that strikes me every time. He comes home; I give him a hug and lean into his hair — and it smells. It's not like she gives him a bath or anything, so clearly she wears enough scent that it always ends up transferring.

Well, I didn't have proof, and Natalie kept coming over, as did other visitors. There was no way to suss out who was the the cause of Alrik's continuing blisters.

But then we had the long weekend and a break from the stream. After several Natalie-free days, she came over to snuggle him tonight for an hour and a half — and he ended up with several welts and smelling like an eighteenth-century French viscount who believes bathing is for the lower classes who can't afford good perfume.


So here's my dilemma: How do I protect Alrik from the chemical assault? Or can I? Or should I?

I've already brought it up with Natalie, in a roundabout fashion. Earlier, I had mentioned Alrik's sensitivity, pointed to the hives, and discussed what detergents we both used. Natalie swore hers was eco-friendly (though I don't know if it's fragrance-free) and mentioned that she wants wool dryer balls, too, which implies she's likely using fabric softener right now. But she didn't volunteer to switch immediately to alternatives, or to stop using her lotions and potions, or even to wash her hands before she touches our baby.

And it strikes me that, with Natalie living in close proximity, I could get Sam to lay down the law with her and mention that her time with Alrik needs to be chemical-light. But when our families and friends visit? I can't imagine forcing them to wear smocks or insisting we wash all their clothes in our own detergent the first day they stay with us, or something similarly off-putting.

I can't get Alrik's take yet on how much the hives bother him. He barely understands he has hands, much less that they could do something useful like scratching himself, so I don't know if they're itchy or painful. They look pretty ugly to me, but they go away within a couple days and don't fester. Is it something where his skin will become accustomed to the exposure, given some time? (Is that even a good thing?)

So I put it to you: What would you do if your baby is allergic to your family and friends? Or what do you do, if you or yours have a similar affliction?


Jamie said...

Congratulations on the new baby! I am so excited for your little famly to be growing! I just had a second baby 4 months ago. She had spots on her skin not unlike the ones Alrick has. The pediatric nurse practicioner who saw us in the hospital told me that I needed to be careful with detergents and said we didn't have to use a baby detergent, but we should be doing a double rinse of all the baby's clothes. The pediatrician who saw us for discharge several hours later told me it was completely normal newborn phenomenon and had nothing to do with clothing or detergent. Take what the midwife says with a grain of salt and then cover all your basis by explaining to Natalie that the baby seems to be very sensitive to perfumes and request that she tone down the B&BW when she knows she'll be coming over. Show her the photos and marks on his skin- it's nothing personal, you're just wanting to do the best for your baby. Good luck!

Saundra said...

i'm a blunt kind of person and my baby and his/her health and safety come before adult family members feelings or comfort...

want to see the baby?
shower in plain soap and nothing else...
wash your clothes in baking soda...
that's the law...

my mother has a friend who is chemically sensitive to the whole world virtually... everything man made makes her sick virtually (violently ill at times)... so i've grown up accustomed to being sensitive to her sensitivities and the need to wash in baking soda, brush teeth in baking soda, and basically, only baking soda in order to go visit with her and give her hugs

Kristin @ Intrepid Murmurings said...

Oh gosh, that sounds hard! I have no advice in terms of babies, but I know Lonnie is similarly sensitive. I know his mom tells the story that the pediatrician told her early on that there will ALWAYS be something in Lonnie's environment that will bother him. And indeed, it's true (pollen, cats, dogs, dairy, beef, various detergents, sunscreens, deodorant, etc)! Some chemicals in products don't bother him at all, but others do, so when he finds a product that works (often as natural as possible) he sticks with it.

I would probably have your husband explain to SIL exactly what you've noticed -- that he is VERY sensitive to scented products and then when she (or maybe "people with perfumed products") is away, the spots go away, when she/people visits, the spots show up. And suggest a few steps to help that aren't TOO invasive for her (washing hands being one of them, for sure!!!!). Easier said than done, though -- I know I would not look forward to having that conversation! Good luck!

Molly said...

I have a "Natalie" in my family. Even wood furniture from her house has a can't-not-notice fragrance from her. She smells good but she smells strong.

Hopefully you have a pretty open relationship with her and can just say that you've pinpointed the cause of Alric's (LOVE LOVE LOVE his name BTW!!!) and it's coming from her and you suspect that it might be her body spray stuff. You could even document it for her: when she arrives, no hives. After she leaves, hives.

For us it's smokers. I'm allergic to cigarette smoke and my baby started out intubated, so all smokers in our life know to not smoke on the way over or they're not coming in. If I can smell it they're outta here. Getting to the point where you finally tell the offenders in your life to be less harsh to the senses is difficult, but it's so much better once they know and can take care of the problem.

Mama Whimsy said...

What a tough one, Lauren. Just going off your picture, but is it possible that hd has Erythema Toxicum? It's a common newborn rash.
The spots on your pic look what both of my girls had for the first few weeks after birth. It would no sooner start to look better and then flare up again.

Even if that is the case, it can't be good for a baby to be breathing in all those fragrances and chemicals. I tend to avoid conflict but am a bit more blunt when it comes to my girls. Would it be possible to make a blanket announcement for all visiting family and friends so she doesn't feel singled out? Somewhere where everyone sees (or hears) it- on birth announcement, Facebook, or wherever they might be getting their new Hobo baby news :0). Wishing you and baby the best!

Michelle @ The Parent Vortex said...

I am a bit like Alric myself, minus the hives I suppose. Heavily scented people give me headaches, and I have a hard time having them in my house.

Maybe you could do something like my local pool & library - they have signs up that say they are "scent-free zones" to accommodate people with allergies. It is a tricky issue, but it seems a small request to ask people not to cover themselves with fragrance before coming to visit.

Jake Aryeh Marcus said...

Been there, done this, still there.

I find the word "sensitivity" doesn't relay to people the seriousness of the situation. Even though it is medically and scientifically accurate, people won't take it seriously. So I lie and say my kids and I are allergic to scented products of any sort. Your child is suffering. Your sister-in-law has to understand she can't visit the kids if she uses those products. No exceptions. Say your doctor insists - not so far from the truth since a health care provider is insisting.

Your kids may outgrow it but they may not so don't count on it. See how it goes and deal with the now now.

Sherri said...

Personally, I would say something. It cannot be good for him to be breathing in all those toxic (let's face it) chemicals and if his body is becoming inflamed enough to have hives. It means something is not right.

Lauren @ Hobo Mama said...

@Jamie: Thanks for that perspective -- I do take it with a grain of salt, because my midwife's always giving me her opinion on things (like not eating spicy food while breastfeeding), where sometimes I agree and sometimes not so much (just ate Mexican tonight…). I was trying to remember if Mikko had any similar marks when he was just born and can't recall.

@Saundra: I'm glad to hear that she's important enough to you for you to do that. I hope and trust Natalie would feel the same way about her nephew.

@Kristin @ Intrepid Murmurings: I think that's a good idea — handwashing at the very least. I might have Sam be the point person, since she respects him so much.

@Molly: The wood furniture comment floors me, but I totally know what you're talking about! And I would totally do the same thing if we had smokers in our lives, even though I'm not allergic.

@Mama Whimsy: It is quite possible it is that. The description sounds similar to what I'm seeing. When I Googled the symptoms, I tried looking for images and found, eg, this, which all looks much worse than what Alrik has. I think they tend to show worst-case scenarios in image searches, which isn't always helpful when your baby is less affected. When the midwife first said it was due to detergents, in my head I was thinking, Maybe or maybe not — it's probably just random newborn skin issues. But then when it cleared up when Natalie was absent for a few days and came back as soon as she held him, I wasn't so sure, you know? I like your idea of a blanket announcement on FB or similar — much less confrontational on a personal basis, and it would forewarn our out-of-town visitors, too.

@Michelle @ The Parent Vortex: This is just randomly reminding me, but I once wanted to attend a Jane Austen-themed ball, but it was scent-free. I was surprised when it listed everything that has fragrances in it that they wanted attendees to cut out: toothpaste, shampoo, fabric softener, makeup, etc. It seemed overwhelming to change every single toiletry for just one night. But I would think asking people to wash hands and not put on body spray or scented lotion the day of a visit would be a place to start and might end up being good enough.

@Jake Aryeh Marcus: I hear you on the word "sensitivity." Saying "allergic" would definitely be taken more seriously. And playing the doctor card is brilliant — will do. That usually gets some respect.

Rachel said...

Your dilemma reminds me of when my previous church went fragrance-free a few years back and asked everyone to avoid wearing any colognes, perfumes, or other scented products to worship in order to make the church hospitable to people who had adverse reactions to such things. I liked the fact that they acknowledged that what they were asking wasn't going to be easy for everyone, and that for some people the use of scent is an important part of their routine and their sense of self, so it may be uncomfortable or inconvenient to give it up, but that it was necessary to show love to people who genuinely couldn't tolerate the stuff and would be excluded if the sanctuary might be a cloud of fragrance any given week. (Since I moved away from the church only a couple of months after they instituted the policy, I've wondered from time to time whether they've had trouble with maintaining the policy -- what do they say to a first-time visitor who doesn't know not to wear perfume?)

As for your situation, given how much Natalie is going to be around your kids, and how much she WANTS to be around your kids, I agree with those who counsel spelling out the hygiene adjustments you think Alrik's sensitivities require of her. I don't think she's going to take the hint unless you come right out and say what you need. I know that I, as a non-parent, can sometimes be clueless about things I imagine would be instinctual for a mother, like reflexively washing my hands before playing with the baby. I expect that Natalie, as a childcare professional, might have a better sense of some of these things than I do, but I still wouldn't expect her to volunteer a wholesale revision of her personal grooming and laundry regimen based on a roundabout conversation. I know the idea of confrontation is uncomfortable, but I think it would be worse to keep mum but let the resentment build each time she leaves your baby with inflamed skin.

As for the broader question of whether and how hard to try to shield your sensitive child from the irritants of the world, I am utterly unequipped to say anything useful. But if you had any time to read, I might suggest The Highly Sensitive Child by Elaine Aron. She draws connections between environmental and emotional sensitivities, which I'm not sure I completely buy, but it sort of makes sense in theory. Some of the things you've shared about Mikko in the past make me suspect that he might also be a highly sensitive type of person, even if his skin is super-tough.

Just Like June said...

I'm so sorry to hear of bubs allergies. I would be honest with Natalie about the issue and hope that she doesn't take it personally.

As for detergents and such, I use soapnuts. You can buy them online and since you're in the states, you could probably actually buy soapnut liquid. I use it on my sons diapers and have since switched to using it on everything as I found I had a horrible coconut oil allergy (which is in a TON of natural cleaning products, buggar it).

As for the actual hives, have you tried express breast milk on them? I expressed for my Mum who has a horrid nickel allergy when she was broken out and blistering/bleeding.

Enjoy the babymoon!

Toucan Scraps said...

let me know when you get that sorted - I struggle with it all the time, but fortunately our kids are not that sensitive

lea said...

There is no law that states that a newborn is supposed to be surrounded by friends and family right away. Give Alrik a good month or so to get used to yourselves before introducing him to others. That should help him get a stronger immune system for many chemical smells etc.around your own house, before he is being introduced to more.
Being in a safe, liquid and clean environment for 9+ months and then sniffing a fragrance filled relative would give anyone a bad reaction.

Zoie @ TouchstoneZ said...

Well, one thing you can do is blog about it. That might help get the word out ;)

I didn't realize that we have multiple chemical sensitivities in our family until we began changing to natural alternatives. Scents turn out to be the worst offenders.

My children have each had skin reactions to scented family members. The word "sensitivity" seems to be brushed aside by most people, especially those who decide to be offended that we are saying they stink (not at all what is being said, even when it's sometimes true)

It really is an allergic reaction, so I do call it that and hope that it will be taken seriously. Also, explaining that it is unknown exactly the level of reaction my child might be having over repeated exposures as well as other inflammations that could compromise breathing, etc, and hopefully people will respect our feelings on this.

I have found that I have to keep regular gentle reminders because people just forget every so often. Good luck!

Heather said...

My daughter is 4 years old and has chemical sensitivities. The same thing happens to her if she comes into contact with someone who wears artificial fragrances.

We simply had to lay down the law. We had to put the health and welfare of our daughter above the feelings of others, quite simply.

We nicely told everyone that it's not them, and we aren't trying to be instrusive, but you cannot wear any perfume or wash your clothes in scented detergents if you want to come to our house.

It's become a way of life for us. But if we DON'T do it, then my daughter ends up with itchy rashes and her nose becomes congested.

It's just that simple. We can't let her be miserable.

Honestly, I've gotten over worrying myself too much about what other people think. But it is stll hard sometimes, because we don't want to offend anyone.

Julie said...

I have not read all the other comments, but my initial reaction and thought is to simply put a sign on your door that says something like 'baby is very sensitive to lotions, perfums and other scents, we ask that you wash your hands before holding him'. Hopefully they will understand, and I can't understand who wouldn't once they saw the hives on him.

Chrystal @ Happy Mothering said...

That is a very tough situation. Both of our girls got similar hives as babies. We were told it was very common. However, when I changed Zoe out of the hospital clothes and blankets into some that I had cleaned with fragrance free detergent, they went away. I think at the very least, you do need to ask her to wash her hands. Your new little one's health is more important than an adult's feelings. We had to lay down the law with some things like that, cigarette smoke being one of them. I agree with using the word allergy instead of sensitivity. Zoe was sensitive to dairy, but we had to tell everyone she was allergic to it or they'd give her ice cream or cheese and she'd be sick for days. Soapnuts are great. We've been using Crunchy Clean ( lately and I have found it works great. It's available fragrance free or in various scents (from essential oils). If she loves B&BW so much, there are natural brands (no chemicals) that you can try and steer her towards that have similar scents, but they're not synthetic. Maybe give her a gift as a hint? This is my favorite: Good luck and keep us updated!

MrsH said...

I agree with others about having a direct conversation with Natalie, as well as perhaps putting a sign up or something.

My mom has always been adamant that I give people a burpcloth or blankie before handing them the baby. I say it's to protect their clothes, but really it's to keep their scents/doghair/etc off of my little one. That gets harder to do the wigglier they get, but maybe it would help for the newborn stage?

Anonymous said...

I will say that, growing up with chemical sensitivities and allergies, I was often quite uncomfortable without hives too. Hives almost always itched horribly. Follow your own instincts, but be wary.

And it does sound like the issue is not with anything used in your household - but bear in mind that natural fragrances can be a problem. I am allergic to a lot of them, because they're made from plants I'm allergic to. "But it's natural!" when I'm moving away because I can't breathe usually requires me to count well above ten before I can remind the person that yes, flowers, grass, and trees are natural, and I'm at least mildly allergic to every one of those I've been tested for....

(And yet, *I* wear essential-oil based perfumes occasionally. Not if I know I'll be around someone with allergies or sensitivities, though, or if I'll be in a closed-in area with a lot of people who can't get away from me.)

Megan said...

This was a great article with lots of good advice in the comments. We'll be bringing our daughter home from the NICU eventually and will have to be very very careful with her. I know I'm gonna have to turn into mama bear and just be flat out rude with people at times. But my baby's life is more important than their feelings. I will probably end up putting a sign on the door telling people they need to stay away as well as a sign on my wrap and stroller saying "Do Not Touch Me" or "Back the Hell Up" depending on my mood. :)
I think it's almost easier when the issue is more serious though. When it seems "minor" to other people, it's harder to convince them to change their ways.

Olivia said...

I had a professor in college who was very sensitive to chemicals and fragrances. She was very clear at the beginning of each semester that students needed to not wear perfumes or use other scented products on the days they had her class or she would dismiss them from the room.

I say be blunt (or have Sam do it). Send an email around before family members visit and you can also post something on your door as a reminder guests need to at least wash their hands and possibly limit how much they hold Alrik.

Amy said...

Thanks for this post. My precious one, now 10 months, has always been rashy, a bit eczema-y. (Shea butter is the only thing that has kept it under control).

My mother wears perfume and he smells like it and starts itching after church or whenever we see her. I told her, flat out, that this bothers him and I have to give him a bath immediately when we get home. She claims that she will stop, and I continue to remind her, but she is simply not listening (it's been 10 mths!). It is too bad that people just don't understand the problem with scents. I go to a doctor, and literally, on her door, it says 'fragrance-free' zone. I love that!

I, personally, start sneezing every time I smell perfume, so I know my little boy got it from me (and my Irish hubs), but people ought to RESPECT your wishes if they want to touch your baby. I say, ask to wash hands at the very least, and keep him swaddled when they're around, perhaps? In regards to Natalie, if she's around that often, then you should be completely straight with her. "You are doing this to his little legs!" Being blunt, sometimes, is worth it. Blessings.

Mrs.Smitty said...

I had this problem with my inlaws. MIL packs on the fragrance and they think gifts are a necessity. They would send scented soaps, washes, bubbles, lotions, lip balms and processed candies, cakes, cake mixes etc.
I hinted, I openly talked about our oldest's sensitivity to scents, fragrances, dyes and most commonly used "soap" products. Nothing worked.

So I finally started openly chucking the junk. And made it clear. While I appreciate their desire to spoil their grandkids, I refuse to ignore a health hazard. 'I will not use it, so stop wasting your money.'

And we made a simple and unavoidable rule for our kids. If you want to cuddle and hold the kiddos, show up sans body sprays or lotions, and wash your hands. We simply and calmly explained that it's not about them, it's about our kids' skin sensitivity and doing what was safest and healthiest for them.

There's never a 'nice' way to tell someone they smell lol. And there's never a subtle and nice way to make a 'rule' pertaining to family and your kids. But sometimes you just need to defend your children and stop worrying about how everyone else feels.

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