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Designing baby’s nursery

Decorate with style, safety, and saving in mind

Published: March 2012

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Here comes the fun part of being an expectant parent—it’s time to pour all that joyful anticipation into designing a special space for your new arrival. But where do you start and what do you do? Furnishings, lighting carpeting, the windows; it can be a little overwhelming.

Richard Alvord of the Boston-based architecture firm Richard Alvord Associates has designed nurseries for such organizations as Head Start, in addition to designing one for his own child. Noting the unique role that the nursery plays, Alvord marvels at how time spent there is like no other.

“Time in the nursery is a different kind of time,” Alvord says. “This is a gentle time, a quiet time, a one-on-one time; this is the beginning of connecting with your child.”

When discussing a client’s nursery project he begins with a question: “What is it that you want to happen in this room?” Alvord says. “There’s not a catchall, easy answer.”

Alvord points out that in most cases, a nursery serves a variety of roles—as a place for sleeping, changing, feeding, and playing—and that the best rooms balance all these uses. “Keeping in mind that safety threads itself through all of this,” Alvord says, “you really need to decide what the room is for, and go from there.”

Start with the furniture

Starting with the essentials can help keep costs down.

When it comes to furnishings, Alvord suggests you start by selecting the essentials—your crib, changing table, rocking chair, and dresser—and design your nursery around those.

The design elements you choose can also enhance the process of bonding with your baby. When it comes to decorating the nursery, Melisa Fluhr, co-founder of Project Nursery, a blog and community portal devoted to nursery design (and source for the images shown here), has plenty of sage advice.

“You can take your own personal style and have it reflected in the space, rather than walking into a pink and blue overload,” Fluhr says. “The baby’s room should feel like part of your home.”

Todd Strunk, owner of the design firm Sixteen On Center in Little Compton, R.I., and his wife, Sharon Garner, took this approach when they put together a “warm and friendly” nursery for their newborn daughter, Charlotte.

The room—“not impersonal, but also not too feminine”—features a rocking horse that talks and an old wooden combination bookcase/desk that was Garner’s when she was a youngster.

“I like the idea of my daughter using what I used as a child,” she says. “It’s special to me, and I hope it will be special to her.”

If you use family heirlooms that are painted make sure the paint is not flaking or chipping, because old paint may contain lead. And even if the paint is intact, lead can be a hazard if a baby or toddler puts his or her mouth on the furniture. For more about lead poisoning and how to test for it, see lead poisoning prevention tips.

Lighting

Dimmers can help set the tone for sleep.

Maxine Schur of Hi-Light Decorating in Yonkers, N.Y., has an edict when it comes to lighting the nursery: “You have to have dimmers all over the room.”

Dimmers provide flexibility, Schur says. They let you have bright light for changing the baby or cleaning the nursery. You can turn the lights low when you want to settle your little one for sleep or need a nightlight. Dimmers are an easy way to attain the “quiet, soft soothing light” that’s essential to the room’s purpose of providing a haven for your child.

Schur points out that these days dimmers can be all over the room in the form of floor lamps, table-top lamps, ceiling lamps, little dresser lamps, and wall sconces.

Indeed, Schur says that since many homes and apartments don’t have the traditional ceiling-mounted center light, many parents take their first step toward lighting their baby’s room by placing a dimming halogen-equipped floor lamp in the corner and then adding from there, usually “cute little table lamps.”

However, floor lamps can be a tipping hazard, so the easiest way to stay safe is to stick with table lamps or lamps mounted to the ceiling or wall. If you do use a floor lamp in the nursery or any room where a baby or toddler will spend time, be sure to put the lamp cord out of reach, Schur stressed. To prevent the lamp from tipping, she also suggests looping a string around the lamp’s pole and attaching the loop to a wall-mounted hook.

Paul Gregory, whose firm in New York City, Focus Lighting, specializes in upscale residential and commercial work, believes in looking outside the baby’s room for inspiration. “Light in the nursery,” he says, “is about trying to find the beauty in nature.”

Gregory compares the nursery with a forest, and speaks of the light that comes through the trees, the light that backlights the leaves, the light that falls on lakes and waterfalls, and the light that bounces off the forest floor or lake.

These “four layers” of direct and indirect light, he says, serve different purposes. Shining direct “forest” light on, say, a desk, play area, or feature wall makes them focal points in the room. At the same time, deploying indirect “forest floor” light as background—a light above a bookcase, for example—brings subtle attention to the rest of the room. Together, these layers of light help define this nurturing space.

 “With light,” Gregory says, “it’s about creating an emotion.”

Fluhr stresses that light fixtures can be inexpensive, saying that they don’t have to be a $500 chandelier. “You can add a pendant light or something cool and attractive,” she says. “Or just leave in what you currently have.”

To light their daughter’s nursery, Strunk and Garner received from Garner’s mother a “crazy” oversized 1890s Venetian “mushroom” hanging lamp with what looks like hand-blown green glass. It provides what Strunk calls a “fireside feeling” to the room.

“You could say it is quirky, different, or unexpected,” Garner says “but we just didn’t want a ‘Plain Jane’ feel.”

Whatever lighting you choose, Alvord and Schur recommend that it have a dimmer switch, so that you can subtly alter the feel of the room. And like Gregory, Alvord believes that lighting plays an essential role in the nursery, especially soft lighting, since it lets you and your baby see each other but still encourages your baby to move toward sleep. “Getting your child to sleep is almost a cultural ritual,” Alvord says. “It’s like a rite of passage for the new parent.”

Sheets, window treatments, and rugs

Be creative with rugs, walls, and windows, and keep the crib free of bumpers and blankets.

Moving beyond furniture and lighting, Fluhr stresses the importance of the nursery’s sheets, rugs, and window treatments. When choosing them, Fluhr suggests picking a pattern for two of the items and making the third solid or white so the room doesn’t look too busy.

“Think about white sheets or solid colors,” she says. “If you have a busy rug or busy drapes, you don’t want the patterns competing.”

If you want to add a lot of color to your crib, colorful sheets and elaborate crib skirts are easy to find. Skip the crib bumpers though, because they’re a suffocation hazard. Skip the blankets, stuffed animals, and pillows, too; you don’t want anything in a crib except a tight-fitting sheet. (See our crib bedding guide for more information.)

But Fluhr says choosing simple sheets and a simple skirt (or no skirt) can be a good idea too, since you can add pattern and color into the room with window treatments.

Curtains can help filter light coming into the baby's room.

“Window treatments finish any room,” she says, “but they really complete the nursery.” And apart from their design impact, window treatments—especially shades, play a key role in filtering or removing light from the room so that your baby can sleep more easily. “Blackout shades are fantastic,” she says. “They really darken the room for finicky babies.”

Fluhr has seen people successfully convert shower curtains to nursery use, and she has seen others mix-and-match two different curtains—a sort of “half-and-half” approach—when they didn’t have enough fabric to complete a job.

Fluhr points out that because you can change roller shades—preferably cord-free ones—and curtains without too much trouble, your baby’s room can easily evolve as your tastes change.

Window treatments are often an afterthought when parents are designing a nursery, Fluhr notes. “I tell parents, ‘Don’t neglect the windows!’” she says. “Window treatments are an easy way to make the room your own.” Just be sure to avoid cords and keep curtains out of your baby’s reach.

Paint

Stenciled designs and bright colors give baby something interesting to look at.

“Paint is cheap and easy, since you can paint over it if you make a mistake,” Fluhr says. “You can create a focal wall in the room, which is typically the wall you place your crib against, and use wall decals or stencils to make that particular wall a true stand out.”

Fluhr has seen parents paint big stripes on the walls or wallpaper the ceiling. For her own second child, Fluhr says she painted the room black and white, used black and white accents (and a white crib) and then painted the inside of an open closet a bright yellow. A huge black stripe with chalkboard paint runs up the wall where the crib is.

Often we don’t give much thought to the ceiling when designing a paint scheme. That’s understandable since adults don’t look up there much. But in the nursery, the ceiling should be an important part of the scheme, Fluhr says. “Babies are always looking up in the crib, even on a changing table or when you are feeding them,” she notes. Besides painting or wallpapering the ceiling, you can hang colorful mobiles as long as they are safely out of reach.

Consider stenciling the ceiling to give the baby something to look at in the crib or on the changing table. Choose shapes over busy patterns since a baby’s eyes don’t focus that well initially—sun and moon-phase shapes in gold paint on a white background is one great idea. Stenciled patterns give the baby something to look at with no possibility of introducing a hazard.

Check out our paint buying advice and Ratings (available to subscribers) for all kinds of paint, and see the Painting the nursery section, below, for tips on how to do the job safely.

Use what you have

Using colorful furniture you already have looks good and saves cash.

Fluhr also recommends to parents who have limited space or a tight budget that they can often find some things they already own that they can “recycle” in their baby’s area or room.

“Many parents convert a home office into a baby’s room,” she says. “And you can go around the house and use what you have. You can take a side table from one room and use it in another. You can take furniture and paint the frame a different color.”

When considering the choices she and her husband made for their nursery, Garner strived for a space that feels comfortable, lived-in, and real. “We didn’t want a perfect room, like something straight out of a Pottery Barn catalogue,” she says, “with nothing out of place, and where it would seem like the baby would mess it up.”

Rugs

Patterned rugs hide the small stains that inevitably occur.

And rest assured, a baby will mess up his or her room. “Sooner or later,” Alvord points out, “something gross is going to land on the carpet that won’t be removed easily.” That’s why Alvord recommends using low-priced carpet remnants when your baby is first born, since the carpet will probably have to be replaced.

Another perfectly good option, if you have nice floors, is to skip the rugs altogether. Hardwood floors are a lot easier to clean than rugs or carpet and are generally more sanitary because they don’t harbor dust and allergens as carpet and rugs do.

Barry Newman, who owns Westchester Carpet Design, agrees that any carpeting in a baby’s room is not going to last too long.

“Even though most carpets are now stain resistant,” Newman says, “we still look at nursery rugs as having a five-year lifespan.”

Due to the messes that baby rooms invite, Newman and his colleague, Kathy Paulson, recommend patterned rugs over solid colors—pink, blue, yellow and green patterns are currently the most popular—just as they favor rugs over wall-to-wall carpeting.

“Parents love the flexibility of throw rugs,” Newman says. “You can just pick them up and move them to where you need them to be, most likely right by the crib.”

Just be sure, they point out, that you have quality nonslip padding!

As for whether soft or hard carpeting should be used, Newman and Paulson leave that up to the customer.

Softness is nice, Paulson notes, but kids find it easier to push toys or cars around on harder loop carpets. She’s a fan of multicolored level loop rugs, describing them as “practical, durable, and cheap.”

Painting tips for the nursery

Try something bold with paint to up the design quotient—not the cost.

A fresh coat of paint often is part of the plan in preparing a nursery for your baby. Here’s some advice on doing the job safely.

Paint releases significant fumes for at least a week after it is applied. So unless the nursery’s new resident has an appointment for arrival, you’ll want the room painted several weeks before your due date.

Look for paint labeled low-VOC or no-VOC. Manufacturers are reducing the amount of volatile organic compounds (VOCs)—the noxious chemicals that make paint smell like paint—in their products in response to stricter federal standards. VOCs can cause headaches and dizziness, and are linked to pollution, smog, and respiratory problems. More manufacturers now make low-VOC paints that comply with the even-tougher standards set by California’s regional South Coast Air Quality Management District. Earlier low-VOC paints lacked the durability and sheen selection of higher-VOC finishes, but some low-VOC paints now top our interior paint Ratings. Some paints even come with the claim that they contain no VOCs at all, but those we’ve tested haven’t topped our Ratings. You’ll find the VOC level listed on the can. See our buying advice for paint.

Be sure to ventilate the room well when applying any paint, even low VOC. To reduce other fumes, air out new furniture and anything made of plastic or wood. If you are pregnant, consider asking someone else to paint for you so you don’t expose your fetus to any potentially harmful fumes.

If your home was built before 1978, you can assume it contains lead-based paint unless a licensed lead inspector has determined otherwise. For information on finding an inspector, go to www.epa.gov/lead/pubs/broch32e.pdf. If paint on walls is not chipping or peeling, it’s less likely to cause toxic exposure to lead, but even intact paint can be a hazard, particularly on windows and doors that generate lead-contaminated dust when disturbed by impact or friction. Don’t sand paint that may contain lead or attempt to remove it yourself. That’s a job for a contractor who is licensed for lead-removal work. If you have lead-paint sanded, do so several months before your baby is due. The whole family should be out of the house for the duration of the sanding. For more information on how to safely combat lead paint hazards, go to www.hud.gov./offices/lead/.

Safety tips for the nursery

Planning your nursery is one of the most exciting times in your life.

You want to welcome your new arrival into just the right setting, one that reflects your love, personality, and style. At the same time you want to select only the safest furnishings and furniture. So have a blast creating just the room you want, while following the safety tips here. Next time around, Junior’s going to have his own opinions about the décor.

Keep cords out of reach. Never place a crib or bassinet within reach of the cords for window blinds or curtains. This is of lifesaving importance. If your baby can reach these cords, he or she may become entangled when you are not looking. Best bet: Use cordless blinds. (See our nursery safety tips video for related information.)

Cut cord loops. The pull cords on some older window blinds and curtains have loops. If you have these, cut the loops to eliminate the strangulation hazard. Place a cord tassel over each cut end and tie a knot to hold the tassel in place. If you are purchasing new window treatments for rooms where children will be, use cordless treatments.

Hang nothing over the crib. Don’t hang pictures, shelves, or anything else over the crib or changing table. It’s not worth the risk that something will fall on your baby. And in the crib, there is the possibility that your child could pull something down as soon as she can pull herself to a standing position, usually at about age 6 to 8 months.

Don’t put a baby monitor of any kind in the crib or within reach of the child in the crib. Children have been strangled to death by monitor cords placed in and within reach of their cribs.

Cut strings off hangings. Some wall hangings have cords or strings that might entangle your child. Make sure any wall hangings like this are well out of your child’s reach, or better yet, cut off the strings.

Install window guards. Even though you won’t put the crib next to a window, it’s a good idea to install window guards when you prepare the nursery. That way, you won’t have to run to the store to get them the day your baby starts crawling, walking, and before you know it, climbing. Get window guards that you have to screw into the window frame. Don’t get pressure-fit guards, because children can dislodge them by pushing or leaning on them.

An insect screen will not prevent a child from falling through an open window. Whether you live in an apartment building or a house, and even if the nursery in on the first floor, you should install window guards. They are sold in different sizes and can be adjusted for width. Be sure they are screwed into the side of the window frame, are tightly installed, and have bars that are no more than 4 inches apart and leave no more than a 4-inch gap at the bottom. Some guards allow for escape in case of emergency. If this is the type you choose, make sure they’re difficult for very young children to open.

Window stops work, too. As an alternative to window guards, you can purchase window stops to attach to the window frame. They can be added to a window frame to prevent the window from opening more than 4 inches. Some new windows come with window stops already installed.

Keep furniture away from windows. An open window can become an even greater hazard when your toddler begins to climb onto furniture. When you first arrange the nursery, keep furniture that a toddler might climb on away from windows. That way you won’t be taken by surprise by his or her climbing abilities. Also be aware that if the room contains a stool or other small, light furniture, your toddler may be able to move it to an open window. Stash it on a high shelf inside a closet.

Skip the crib gym. The safest crib is one that is free of crib gyms and toys that stretch across the crib using strings, cords, or ribbons. They can be dangerous for older or more active babies, and you have no way of knowing what your baby is doing in the middle of the night.

If you feel you must use crib gyms and/or crib toys, you can reduce the risk. The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission recommends that these items be free of points your child’s clothing could get caught on, securely installed at both ends, kept out of reach of a child (for looking at only), and removed when children are 5 months old or beginning to push up on their hands and knees. Remove strings and cords from all toys and be sure there aren’t any strings hanging into the crib or within reach of your baby. 

Crib mobiles are for looking at, not for touching because they often have string or small pieces. Make sure your little one can’t reach the mobile so he can’t become entangled or pull anything off it. When your baby is able to push himself up on his hands and knees, the mobile should be removed from the crib.

Keep mobiles out of reach. If you have a mobile or anything else hanging from the ceiling over the changing table, be sure it isn’t low enough for your child to reach. And don’t place your changing table next to curtain cords. A lot can happen even when your attention and both hands are focused on changing your baby.

Use anti-tip restraints. Fasten your changing table as well as any bookcases, armoires, and dressers to the wall with anti-tip restraints. Even seemingly stable furniture can become a tipping hazard—for example when a curious toddler opens all the drawers of a dresser. You could accidentally tip a furniture piece yourself. Some furniture comes with a strap or other way to fasten it to the wall. Or you can purchase a separate anti-tip fastener. In most cases you attach the anti-tip device to the furniture itself and then screw the unattached end into a stud in the wall to prevent it from tipping. Follow the specific directions that came with the device. (See our video on child safety and tipping furniture.)

   

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