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Babies spend most of their days sleeping… and pooping, eating and crying. 🥴 But mostly sleeping, especially the first 5 or 6 months, while their bodies are growing so quickly. This is such a critical time in their development — and the right crib mattress can make a difference.

Oddly, it seems most crib mattresses are not manufactured with the baby’s health in mind. Shocking as it is, most commercially sold crib mattresses are made from harmful materials and treated with toxic chemicals. Thankfully, it’s a lot easier these days to find healthier crib mattresses made from natural materials. The problem is that they can be prohibitively expensive for many parents.

It isn’t exactly fair, but there are a couple of logical reasons for this.

Why are natural crib mattresses more expensive?

For starters, it takes time, people, and land resources to nurture and harvest the plant and animal materials that ultimately go into natural products — including natural crib mattresses. By contrast, chemicals can be mass-produced fairly easily and inexpensively in a lab. Unlike natural resources, synthetic (man-made) materials are more readily available because they are not affected by climate, rainfall, and other environmental factors.

The result is that natural crib mattresses (and other natural products) tend to cost more than their synthetic counterparts. And given that the crib mattress isn’t the only thing you have to buy as new parents, the natural alternative may not be in the budget.

With that in mind, I’m happy to report there are some pretty simple ways to safeguard a synthetic crib mattress. And by the way, second-hand crib mattresses (whether natural or synthetic) come with their own set of issues, so we’ll share tips on how to safeguard those, too.

In this article

ALSO READ: The Healthiest Baby Crib Mattresses are Made from Natural Materials. Here’s What to Look For.

First, what is a natural crib mattress?

For context, a natural crib mattress is typically made from:

  • Natural latex rubber: In contrast to synthetic latex foam, which is made from petrochemicals (including those marketed as soy- or bio-based foam), natural latex rubber is tapped from the rubber tree. It is naturally antibacterial — no chemicals needed.
  • Wool: Because it acts as a natural flame barrier, wool eliminates the need for toxic flame-retardant chemicals. Wool is naturally resistant to mold, mildew, and dust mites, which makes for a healthier sleep. It’s also breathable and helps to keep babies cool during the summer and warm in winter.
  • Cotton: A natural crib mattress is typically wrapped in cotton — ideally cotton that is certified organic or grown without the use of pesticides.
Natural latex tapped from the rubber tree
Natural latex rubber is tapped from the ‘hevea brasiliensis’ tree. Photo by Faisal Akram, Bangladesh [Creative Commons BY-SA 2.0]

Why is a synthetic (non-natural) crib mattress dangerous?

In contrast to their natural counterparts, most commercially sold crib mattresses are made from:

  • Synthetic latex or bio-foams: Derived from petrochemicals, synthetic foams (including soy and bio-foams) not only off-gas their own chemicals, but they can also release fumes from the toxic flame retardants that coat them… long after the “new mattress smell” has faded.
  • Vinyl: Readily leaches hormone-disrupting phthalates.
  • Flame retardants:  Commonly made from toxic PBDEs (polybrominated diphenyl ethers), which can accumulate in our blood, fat, and tissues.

Also read: Buying Guide: What to Look for in a Natural, Non-Toxic Mattress

Safeguard a synthetic mattress

The first thing you want to do when you bring home your new purchase is to get rid of that “new mattress smell”. Remove the crib mattress from its plastic wrapping to release the trapped chemicals and let it air out for several days, preferably outdoors.

If outdoors isn’t an option:

  • Set the crib mattress in a well-ventilated room that you don’t need to visit for a while.
  • Close the door and cover any vents to avoid spreading chemicals throughout the house.
  • Turn on a fan and face it toward the window to force the air outside.

Once the ‘new mattress smell’ is gone, wrap it with a waterproof mattress protector, ideally made from organic cotton, tightly woven wool, or food-grade polyethylene plastic. This will keep any harmful chemicals from touching your baby directly and will help to keep the mattress dry.

Plastic is not breathable, so if you go that route, be sure to place a cotton mattress pad over the polyethylene cover. This will let the air flow more easily between the baby and the mattress.

The issue with second-hand crib mattresses

Many parents take over a friend or family member’s crib mattress or buy it second-hand in order to get high quality at an affordable price. But while second-hand baby clothes are perfectly safe, a used baby crib mattress may not be.

Studies have linked used crib mattresses to an increased likelihood of SIDS. The prevailing theory is that the second baby is exposed to the bacteria from the first baby’s sweat, saliva, and diaper leakage. A second issue is that used mattresses are often stored improperly and can expose the baby to mildew and fungus.

Safeguard a used crib mattress

Before accepting a used crib mattress, be sure to inspect it thoroughly for mold or mildew stains. If the mattress is badly stained, you may want to pass.

Stained or not, you’ll want to disinfect the mattress — without chemicals. Simply spray it down with distilled white vinegar (readily available at the supermarket) and leave it to dry for several days.

To shield your baby from any remaining bacteria, mildew, or fungus, wrap the crib mattress with a waterproof mattress protector made from cotton, tightly woven wool, or food-grade polyethylene plastic. You can also top it with a washable cotton mattress pad for added protection.

All-natural naps

Even as adults, we spend a good third of our time sleeping… except for new parents, of course! And since babies spend even more time in shuteye, we should make sure the mattresses they sleep on are as clean and healthy as possible. So look for natural materials, do your prep work, and keep the chemicals out of that crib. Hopefully, your little ones will feel so good they’ll sleep right through the night. But no promises.

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