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Is Staining, Painting, or Varnishing Wood Safe While Pregnant? (Effects of Paint Fumes On Babies)

You’re pregnant, your pregnancy is moving along nicely and your nesting instinct is just about ready to kick in. You are ready to decorate your nursery and create the perfect vision for your little ones’ first bedroom.

But do you have some doubts about your safety while carrying out the nursery renovation and the safety of your unborn child? And no you are not being a dramatic new mom or making excuses in order for someone else to do all the hard work.

The truth is that breathing in paint fumes is not good for anyone but especially not for a pregnant woman and her unborn child.

There are different opinions with regard to this matter depending on who you speak to. But it is generally considered unsafe to paint while you are pregnant and is certainly not worth the potential unknown harm that could be caused to your baby. 

Let’s take a look at why painting is considered dangerous while you are pregnant and if there are any ways you can try to minimize the risks and still get the job done.

Potential Risks To Baby

It is very difficult to conduct research on pregnant women as it raises many obvious ethical issues and could potentially damage the woman or her unborn baby. 

The data that we do have to draw on is based on the results of research conducted using pregnant rats. In this 2017 study researchers looked at rats that were exposed to too much toluene-based paint inhalation.

It revealed that prenatal exposure led to some concerning results with regard to spatial memory function in the rats’ offspring.

Although humans are not the same as rats, the study does suggest that paint inhalation may potentially pose a risk to the brain development of the unborn baby, which could then go on to impact their childhood development too.

In 2019 a study concluded that home renovations were “significantly associated with male genital abnormality.” This caused concern for those women carrying baby boys.

But researchers did add that the time frame and level of exposure in which babies are exposed to home renovations does matter.

This same study also discredited certain birth abnormalities that were originally thought to be caused by paint fume inhalation, such as cleft palate.

Certain Paints May Be Safer

Paint manufacturers are continually working to ensure that their paints are less toxic, contain less harmful chemicals, and are generally safer for use.

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They have come a long way since the days of lead-based paints which have been prohibited for decades.

But you must remember that there could possibly be traces of lead-based paint around your home depending on the age of the property of course.

One thing to remember is that there is a big difference between giving a nurse a lovely fresh coat of paint and stripping years’ worth of paint from a house renovation.

Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) is one of the things that you will be advised to avoid and are still found in some paints. If you are willing to pay a little extra you can purchase an organic or VOC-free option.

But even some of those paints that are marketed as VOC free may well emit some VOCs, so good ventilation is key to any decorating job.

There are a few different types of paint available today such as oil-based paints, acrylic paints, and water-based paints. Some of these are safer than others:

  • Oil-based paints often contain harmful chemicals.
  • Acrylic paints are seen as slightly safer than oil-based paints but can still contain harmful chemicals.
  • Water-based paints are typically seen as a safer option than any solvent-based paints.

Does It Matter How Far Along I Am?

There is also a mix of advice and opinions in this area as well. We all know that the first trimester is a key time as it is the time when key organs and body functions are developing.

Happy pregnant asian woman sitting in bed at home

A 2012 study suggested that congenital abnormalities of the renal and nervous systems of babies exposed to solvent-based paints in the first trimester.

But it has also been said that activities in the months leading up to conception may have an impact too. 

A study in 2017 found exposure to paint odor in the 6 months prior to conception can impact a baby’s birth weight and can also increase the risk of macrosomia.

Macrosomia is the term used to describe a baby that is born much larger than average for their gestational age. 

Is It Safe To Varnish Wood While Pregnant?

As with paint, it is not known as to the exact effects that the chemicals in varnish will have on a pregnant woman or her unborn baby.

Varnish can contain some nasty chemicals and solvents and the safest advice being offered to pregnant women at the moment is to avoid varnishing or stripping the wood of any kind.

If you are pregnant and there is a job that needs to be done, the best thing to do is get someone else to it or wait until after birth to complete the project.

There is of course increased risks of birth defects when exposed to chemical solvents.

One study has found that women who were regularly exposed to solvents due to repairing cars, painting, and furniture stripping had a very slight increase in the risk of having a baby with gastroschisis.

This is when the baby’s abdominal wall does not form correctly meaning that the intestines develop outside the body. this risk is very small unless you are being exposed to chemical solvents on a regular basis.

How Can Solvents Affect Your Pregnancy?

There are different risks associated with breathing in solvents such as liver, kidney, and even brain damage. 

While pregnant the risks associated with inhaling solvents can potentially not only affect you but also your unborn child. Risks include:

  • Miscarriage
  • Slow growth in the womb
  • Premature birth
  • Birth defects

How Can You Protect Yourself From Solvents/Paints While Pregnant?

Early pregnant woman deciding to paint nursery pink or blue

The studies above have all got one thing in common, they all state that one of the main risk factors is continued exposure to paint over time. This increased exposure naturally increases your baby’s risks.

 If you are in a job where you are required to deal with paint then you may want to seek further guidance and get some further information about the types of paint that you may be required to handle.

If you are still not comfortable, you may want to be asked to be reassigned elsewhere to ensure the safety of you and your unborn baby.

Now when it comes to painting a nursery or even relaxing by doing some art projects, there is still limited evidence to support that they are completely unsafe.

So my advice would be if you are thinking of taking on a little project during your pregnancy, just consider the following suggestions:

  • Always paint in a well-ventilated space to ensure minimal fume inhalation.
  • Open plenty of windows and doors.
  • Take plenty of breaks away from the paints.
  • Use a fan to help air out the room.
  • Avoid eating or drinking in the same room as you are painting.

The more obvious risk when painting, especially when decorating a nursery is the use of a ladder.

When there is a ladder, there is also the potential for falls which can put you seriously at risk when pregnant. So try to remain on the ground at all times and leave the higher painting to someone else.

The Final Thought

While there are safer paints available on the market, your safest option is to leave the decorating to someone else and do not return to the house until the fumes are gone. Or wait until after you have had your baby is another option.

The same advice is what is offered to pregnant women that want to do some varnishing or stripping of wood.

Because there is not a great deal of information with regard to the effects of chemical solvents on an unborn baby, it is best to leave the job till after the birth or just get someone else to do it for you.

I completely understand your need to make sure that the nursery is perfect for when your little one comes home but the honest truth is that they will not know, care, or understand if their nursery is not completely ready.

But they will have to deal with any possible side effects from your exposure to any harmful chemicals. So relax, sit back and enjoy the peace before your world becomes a whole lot busier.

Medical Disclaimer. All content and media on the MomInformed Website is created and published online for informational purposes only. It is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice and should not be relied on as health or personal advice.