It’s scary to think that crib mattresses in many popular baby stores are made from synthetic materials and treated with toxic fire retardants and water-proofing chemicals. The good news is that natural materials 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.
The healthiest crib baby mattresses are typically made from plant-based materials, such as natural latex, coconut coir, and organic cotton, grown without the use of pesticides, as well as wool from naturally raised sheep. These natural materials – whether used as the mattress core, padding, or cover – would not have been treated with harmful chemicals at any time during the manufacturing process.
How can we find these safer, healthier crib mattresses? First, we’ll discuss the materials to avoid, 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.
Avoiding chemicals in crib mattresses
For starters, you’ll want to avoid crib mattresses that are “Made in China”. While the US bans certain hazardous flame-retardants, they may still be found in crib mattresses imported from China.
Crib mattresses, toppers, and covers are often made from polyurethane foam, soy foam, synthetic latex foam, memory foam, polyester, or bamboo. But these materials typically contain high levels of petroleum or chemicals that you’ll want to avoid.
You may be surprised to see bamboo on this list. While bamboo is a safe and eco-alternative for wood (e.g., flooring, bath mats, and kitchen utensils), 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 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.)
You’ll also see crib mattresses labeled 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.
Finally, try to avoid crib mattresses and covers made from vinyl (also known as ‘PVC’). While 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. Instead, get the same waterproofing benefit from a tightly knit wool or organic cotton mattress protector.
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Finding a truly healthy crib mattress
Natural crib mattresses are often made from a natural latex core, covered in wool, and wrapped in organic cotton. They may also be padded with coconut coir.
While synthetic latex is made from petrochemicals, natural rubber latex is made from the sap of the Hevea Brasiliensis (rubber) tree. Real latex rubber is naturally antibacterial and naturally resistant to mold, mildew and dust mites.
Wool is a natural flame barrier, so chemical flame retardants are completely unnecessary. Like 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.
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. Greenguard, GOTS, and GOLS are all highly well regarded certifications and are comprehensive with regards to ensuring the materials and manufacturing process are free from harmful chemicals.
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 often create just the core of the mattress from natural materials… but then use petroleum-based fabrics to cover and pad the mattress.
They may also use chemicals, rather than safe and natural solutions, to address flammability, water-proofing and 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.
Also, beware of labels that say their chemicals are “not known” to be dangerous, as this does not mean their chemicals are proven to be safe. It often just means they have not yet been tested to be unsafe. That’s a big difference!
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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.
Good to know
- Boric acid or silica is sometimes added to wool mattresses and may not be listed on the label, so be sure to ask. These natural additives are safer than chemicals but may cause temporary eye or respiratory irritation.
- Soybean foam is not a natural alternative. It is primarily a petroleum-based foam that has been partially replaced with some soy product.
- Unless the mattress specifically says 100% organic, organic mattresses may still be covered in synthetic materials or treated with chemicals. Always check the label or website to be sure.