Got Kids? Find the best flooring for your family

Make the right choice from among the many types

Published: May 2012

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Thinking of redoing your floors? If you're a super-vigilant new parent, you might think the best thing to offset toppling babies and toddlers is wall-to-wall foam squares.

But if your taste leans more toward an elegant hardwood or tile floor, there are a few things—such as scratches from the plastic wheels on high chairs, push-toys, ride-on vehicles, and endless Hot Wheels races—to consider before committing.

What's a parent to do? One option is to do nothing. You might just want to live with your old floor for now, save your money, and get your floors replaced or refinished when your kids have passed the age of plastic wheels.

If waiting isn't an option, many options at different price points are ready to take the wear-and-tear head on. From bamboo to tile to wood, each type has its pros and cons for young families when it comes to comfort, eco-friendliness, health concerns (read Flooring and children's health), and more. (Our flooring buying guide and flooring Ratings show you which products from each category hold up best.)

Consider how the flooring will be installed. Some flooring can be floated, which means installation without glue or fasteners. No glue means no harmful fumes and no fasteners means you can often save money by installing the flooring yourself. Floating floors are also the easiest to remove should you decide to replace them when the kids are older. Floating is an option with engineered wood, plastic laminate, linoleum, and some ceramic tiles. Gluing is an option with engineered wood, vinyl, linoleum, and tiles. Of course you should keep children away from all work sites till the work is completed and fumes are cleared.

Flooring types for families

Our latest tests of flooring products found some wood and bamboo winners, including an oak flooring that fended off the effects of foot traffic nearly as well as the best vinyls and laminates. But we also found that some bamboo, cork, and other "green" products can be far less robust than others.

However, our tests that simulated exposure to scuffs, scratches, sunlight, dents, and spills also confirm that most woods and even some vinyl and laminate floors can wilt under life's daily grind.

Knowing how rough you'll be can help when choosing. If you're putting down flooring in a dining room that you rarely use, you can consider the top engineered wood or bamboo in our Ratings. Both engineered products offer the beauty of natural veneer along with easy installation. But if you have a busy family and you're re-flooring a high-traffic area—think dragged and dropped toys and food, high chairs, and spilled drinks—you'll want durability as well as looks. The best solid wood, laminate, and vinyl in our Ratings were also best in our simulated foot-traffic tests.

All the flooring types listed here performed adequately in our slip-resistance tests, though vinyl tended to provide slightly more slip resistance and engineered wood slightly less. For more pros and cons about each flooring type, see the Types section of our buying guide.

Flooring and children's health

Here are some health issues to consider before you shop for flooring, especially if you have kids.

Vinyl floors bearing the flooring industry's FloorScore certification emit relatively low levels of volatile organic compounds. (All the flooring models we recommend in our Ratings have this certification.) VOCs are linked to respiratory illnesses and can cause headaches and dizziness.

Despite the versatility and durability of vinyl, some groups, including the nonprofit Center for Health, Environment & Justice, advise against buying any vinyl flooring, particularly for homes with small children, citing vinyl's lead and phthalate risks. (We do not evaluate the lead or phthalate content of the flooring products we test.)

Lead exposure can have adverse health effects on a child's cognitive function, academic performance, and endocrine systems, even at blood levels lower than the government's current allowable threshold (10 mcg/dL). And in January 2012, an advisory committee of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention stated that the elimination of all lead exposure from the environment is the best course of action.

Phthalates are a family of compounds that can be used to make plastics flexible and harder to break. But many are also endocrine disruptors that can interfere with the network of hormone glands that orchestrate growth and development. In 2008 the CPSC banned three types of phthalates (DEHP, DEP, and BBP) in children's bedding, toys, and care articles and, in addition, banned three other phthalates (DINP, DIDP, DnOP) in teethers, toys, and care articles that can be put into a baby's mouth. (The EU banned these same phthlates back in 2005.) Some believe that the group most likely to be affected by hormone disruptors are fetuses, infants, and children. The University of Michigan Formative Children's Environmental Health and Disease Prevention Center warns against installing any vinyl flooring in a home.

Flooring products certified by the independent Forest Stewardship Council (logo shown) or Sustainable Forestry Initiative provide some assurance that a wood floor is sustainably harvested or contains a portion of recycled materials. But neither label takes the use of formaldehyde glues or resins into account for pressed wood or MDF products. That means that even with the FSC or SFI seal, those products could contain formaldehyde, a volatile organic compound, or VOCs. Boards bonded with urea-formaldehyde adhesive, sometimes referred to as a "resin," can give off formaldehyde gas.

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