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Buying the safest and healthiest baby crib mattress is a top concern for most parents — and for good reason. Babies, especially newborns, sleep most of the day away as their bodies adjust to their new environment outside the womb and grow, grow, grow like an overfertilized weed.
Of course, you want to nurture your baby and this important sleep time. And it’s easy to think all crib mattresses are designed to do exactly this. But oddly enough, most crib mattresses are made from synthetic materials that can leach unhealthy particulates onto your baby’s skin and into the air (s)he breathes. The mattresses are also treated with toxic fire retardants and water-proofing chemicals that are marketed as benefits and yet they can off-gas unhealthy fumes.
The good news is that natural materials are as comfortable (if not more so) than the synthetics. They also do as good a job (if not better) in complying with fire safety regulations, resisting bacteria, and protecting the crib mattress from sweat, urine, and saliva.
How can we find these healthier, natural crib mattresses? First, we’ll discuss the unhealthy materials you need to be aware of (so you can avoid them) and we’ll then dive into the natural alternatives to look for in their place. We’ll also cover a few other things to look out, such as deceptive eco-labeling that can throw you off-track.
In this article
- Crib mattress features to avoid
- Natural crib mattress materials (and certifications)
- Be aware of deceptive “eco” labeling
NOTE: Babies aren’t the only ones who need a healthy sleep! Parents, you may also be interested in this Buying Guide: What to Look for in a Natural, Non-Toxic Mattress
Crib mattress features to avoid
I find it absolutely shocking that so many harmful features are marketed as benefits. Agh!! Here’s what to look out for.
Synthetic foam crib mattresses are typically made from polyurethane and other petroleum-based materials, even if they are marketed as soy-foam or bio-foam. You may see these on the label as ‘bio-based, ‘plant-derived’ or ‘made from soybeans’. As healthy and eco as these descriptors seem, these are synthetic materials made with petroleum and chemicals.
Spoiler alert: Natural latex rubber is the healthy alternative — we’ll talk about why in the next section.)
While vinyl (also known as PVC) does a great job waterproofing the mattress and is resistant to bacteria, it releases harmful phthalates that can be inhaled by the baby over time.
Spoiler alert: Get the same waterproofing benefit from a tightly knit wool or organic cotton mattress protector.
You may be surprised to see bamboo on this list since it’s so widely marketed as a super soft eco-fabric. While bamboo is a safe and eco-alternative for wood (flooring and kitchen utensils, for example), it is often* not the eco-alternative it’s marketed to be for soft fabrics such as baby clothing, towels, crib sheets, and blankets.
This is because the exceptionally strong bamboo stalks need to be heavily processed in order to make them soft enough to be used as a fabric. This is often* accomplished with harsh chemicals. And by the time it is transformed into a piece of fabric, very little of the original bamboo remains.
* I say “often” because there are a few brands that claim their processing is not chemical-laden. (I have not prioritized researching these brands as of yet.)
Spoiler alert: Eucalyptus is a healthy alternative and thankfully, it’s becoming easier and easier to find as more eco-manufacturers are jumping on the bandwagon.
Chemical flame retardants
Obviously, no one wants a flammable mattress. But harmful fumes from the chemical fire retardants can make their way into the baby’s precious lungs. Many crib mattresses will say that the chemicals in their formulas meet or exceed federal safety standards.
The problem is that new chemicals are continually introduced to the market… often to replace the chemicals that have been tested, found to be unsafe, and subsequently banned. It takes time for their replacement chemicals to go through the same testing process.
In the meantime, manufacturers get away with using them because they have not been found to be unsafe. Look closely at that wording. NOT testing something — and therefore NOT (yet) finding it to be unsafe — is VERY different from testing something and verifying it is safe.
I’m sorry, but wording like that really pisses me off. Please don’t be fooled by it.
Spoiler alert: Wool provides a natural flame barrier and is the material of choice for most natural mattress makers.
Made in China
Unlike above, made in China isn’t something that’s marketed as a benefit. But I’m adding it here because it’s something to look for and (possibly**) avoid. As I mention above, even US manufacturers coat their mattresses with harmful flame retardants. The thing is that some of the toxins that are ultimately tested and banned in the US (and other countries) are still sometimes found in crib mattresses imported from China.
That said, while China’s regulations do tend to be much looser, consumer pressure has a way of forcing change. At the time of this writing, I don’t know of any Chinese-made crib mattresses that are free from toxic materials. But to be fair, this could certainly change as factories get onboard. (** This is why I put “probably” in parenthesis above.)
Natural Baby Cribs & Mattresses
Natural crib mattress materials
The healthiest crib baby mattresses are made from plants and (ethical) sheep’s wool. The most commonly used materials are:
- Natural latex as the core
- Wool padding as a natural fire barrier
- Cotton ticking (ideally organic)
- And sometimes coconut coir as added padding
Natural crib mattress materials
- Natural rubber latex is made from the sap of the hevea brasiliensis (rubber) tree. Real latex rubber (as opposed to synthetic latex) is naturally antibacterial and naturally resistant to mold, mildew, and dust mites.
- Since wool is a natural flame barrier, chemical flame retardants are completely unnecessary. Like natural latex, wool is naturally resistant to mold, mildew, and dust mites.
- The cotton ticking that typically wraps the mattress is soft, comfortable, and breathable. It is also highly absorbent and naturally wicks away sweat and other moisture from the baby’s body as they sleep.
- Like wool and natural latex, coconut coir is naturally antibacterial. It is naturally springy and breathable, supporting a more comfortable sleep.
If it’s in the budget, opt for mattresses that are certified organic to ensure the natural materials that went into the mattress were not grown with pesticides or chemical fertilizers. In particular, look for these comprehensive and highly regarded mattress certifications:
- GOTS (Global Organic Textile Standards)
- GOLS (Global Organic Latex Standards)
Be aware of deceptive “eco” labeling
It’s easy to be misled into thinking some crib mattresses are safer for your baby and the environment than they really are. In a misguided attempt to make ‘natural crib mattresses’ more affordable, manufacturers will sometimes create just the core of the mattress from natural materials… but then use petroleum-based fabrics to cover and pad the mattress.
And despite marketing natural materials on the label, they may still use chemicals to address flammability, water-proofing, or bacteria resistance.
These manufacturers may label their seemingly safer product with deceiving buzzwords such as “eco”, “green”, “healthy” or “non-toxic”. And they can do this legally because there are are no standards or regulations to define what these terms mean.
Recognizing the difference
Of course, the truly natural mattresses use these same terms, so this can be tricky. Just be sure to read past the surface-level marketing claims to see what a crib mattress is really made of. Thoughtful mattress makers are more than happy to pull back the curtain to show you exactly what goes into their products.
Transparency is key, so if you can’t easily find what you’re looking for, consider finding another crib mattress maker. Thankfully, there are plenty of brands these days that go the extra mile and truly put your baby’s health first.
My Green Mattress
Also, if price is an issue…
Safe crib mattresses can be prohibitively expensive for many parents. If a healthier crib mattress isn’t in the budget, consider asking close friends and co-workers to chip in toward a collective baby shower gift.
Another option is to buy a natural crib mattress second-hand or accept one from a friend, who no longer needs it. However, if you do, please be aware there are some important issues with second-hand crib mattresses to consider and measures you can take to reduce or eliminate the risks.