In The Crib: Choosing the Right Mattress For Your Baby

in Healthy Home, Indoor Allergies, Parenting & School
Published: October 7, 2020
Portrait of a little baby peacefully sleeping in its crib with a favourite toy
Photo: Getty

What to think about 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, whether it’s naptime or nighttime. 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). And because 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 – they get a supersized dose.

According a 2014 study out of the University of Texas, most crib mattresses are made from a thick layer of polyurethane or polyester foam, and encased in a waterproof plastic cover. Adhesives, solvents and other chemical additives are also regularly used in the process.

The Texas researchers tested 20 different crib mattresses, some new and some used, 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), and the warmer the mattress, the more it off-gassed.

They also 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, from mold and dust mites to banned fire retardants. 

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 warns parents to avoid polyurethane foam, as well as mattresses made with vinyl covers, both of which can off-gas, and 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 boast they’re made from organic cotton, when perhaps only the cover is made from 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

15 Easy Jobs for Better Breathing with Asthma and Allergies
Allergy Control: How to Defeat Dust Mites, a Big Trigger
Creating the Better Baby Nursery: Out With Allergens and VOCs