In The Crib: Choosing the Right Mattress For Your Baby

in Healthy Home, Indoor Allergies, Parenting & School
Portrait of a little baby peacefully sleeping in its crib with a favourite toy
Photo: Getty

What to think about with crib mattresses to give little ones a healthy sleep. This is a sidebar to Allergic Living’s Guide to Mattress Shopping with Allergies and Asthma.

Parents of infants and toddlers will do just about anything to get their child to sleep comfortably, soundly and safely. So it’s no wonder they feel the pull to buy crib mattresses that promise everything from exceptional breathability to water resistance to anti-microbial protection. 

Problem is, many of those mattresses are made from materials that emit potentially harmful volatile organic compounds (VOCs). Growing babies are right up against those off-gassing materials for 12 to 13 hours per day – and babies take in 10 times the air that adults do relative to body mass. So they get a supersized dose of these gases.

A study out of the University of Texas found most crib mattresses are made of a thick layer of polyurethane or polyester foam. Then they’re encased in a waterproof plastic cover. Adhesives, solvents and other chemical additives are regularly used in the process.

Crib Mattress and VOCs

The Texas researchers tested 20 different crib mattresses, some new and some used. They did so in special chambers that emulated the temperature, humidity and airflow of a typical baby’s bedroom. They also conducted larger-scale emissions tests that involved a thermal baby mannequin in a crib.

The study found the mattresses release significant levels of VOCs, which can trigger lung inflammation and other symptoms. The emissions were twice as high in the baby’s breathing zone (as opposed to elsewhere in the room). Plus, the warmer the mattress, the more it off-gassed.

As well, they found the new cribs released roughly four times as many VOCs as the used ones. The researchers pinpointed more than 30 VOCs, including phenol, neodecanoic acid and linalool.

But before you start hitting up friends for crib mattress hand-me-downs, be aware that used mattresses can come with their own problems. These range from mold and dust mites to banned fire retardants. 

Crib Mattress: Consider Natural

Instead, Tasha Stoiber says parents should consider picking up a firm, natural mattress made of organic cotton, which is breathable and low-VOC.

Baby being held by mom above crib.
Photo: Thinkstock

A senior scientist with the Environmental Working Group, Stoiber advises parents to avoid polyurethane foam, as well as mattresses made with vinyl covers. She says both can off-gas. And she warns to steer clear of chemical flame retardants. 

While allergist Dr. Gordon Sussman sees latex sensitization risk as very low, Stoiber’s group still cautions against the material for crib mattresses, viewing the allergy risk as “uncertain”. 

Parents also need to read labels carefully and beware of greenwashing. For example, some products may boast being made with organic cotton, when perhaps only the cover is of the natural material. 

“There definitely are mattress companies that are providing better products, and those choices are very accessible, especially online,” says Stoiber. “But you need to do your homework and know what you’re looking for so you can make a good choice.”

Check out a few of the companies that make natural mattresses here: Allergic Living’s Guide to Mattress Shopping with Allergies and Asthma

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