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“Green” Crib Mattresses: Healthy or Hype?

Feb26

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Photo by superbez
Hi Amy,
I am pregnant with my first child, due in April. I have been glued to your Zero-to-Forty pregnancy weekly column since I got the positive on the pee stick – thank you for providing such an honest, hysterical commentary on exactly what I have been going through! I have also been playing close attention to all of the baby-related advice that you are providing through this forum, since I am in the midst of those all important decisions about cribs, wraps, blankets, bouncy-things, and the list that you as you know, can go on and on.
Right now, however, I am fixated on the problem of the crib mattress. I am trying to be informed, yet reasonable, when it comes to all things baby. I have been educating myself about the whole debate about vinyl and organic and “green” mattresses, and am left totally dumbfounded. It seems that there is a side that says that traditional mattresses are TOXIC, and will cause all sorts of respiratory, endocrine, cancer and probably behavioral problems for any child that sleeps on them – so buy green/organic/no-PVC! But they don’t seem to have any real scientific proof of this.
And then the other side says (reputable scientists, according to this recent NYTimes article) that since there is no real evidence that the toxic materials will leak out, we should not worry about mattresses and put our resources and energy into combating other household toxicities.
I know that you are conscious about chemicals in your home, and in your food. Where do you come down on this issue? What kind of crib mattress have you used for Noah and Ezra?
Thanks in advance for your wisdom!
– G

When we were shopping for a crib mattress for Noah back in 2005, our choices were pretty limited: standard mattress or anti-SIDS mattresses, which were really high-tech expensive mattresses designed to circulate air and I think some of them plugged in and while I had one of those OMG PANIC moments at the store because WHAT IF I DIDN’T BUY THAT MATTRESS AND MY BABY DIED, the price difference between the mattresses was just too much to justify.
Our mattress does have a laminated outer layer, and thus survived Noah’s babyhood and a million and one diaper leaks and spit-up episodes. And so we are using it again for Ezra. (Unlike the IKEA mattress we bought for Noah’s not-quite-crib-sized toddler bed, which quite recently ended up out on the curb with the trash pick-up, because EW. When Ezra graduates to the little bed, he’ll be getting his own new mattress and I will try to be better about remembering the waterproof pads under the sheet.) (Noah just got OUR old bed and mattress, as WE just upgraded to a king-sized mattress, one that is complete with a couple inches of petroleum-based memory foam on top of a standard, non-organic mattress.)
I honestly couldn’t even remember the specific type of mattress we have in the crib — I just went up and yanked back the sheet and mattress cover and it’s a Serta Perfect Sleeper. “Free of phthalates,” according to the manufacturer, although as the NYT article you provided points out: No one is governing or verifying those claims, and there’s absolutely no disclosure about what’s in that top waterproof layer.
Which is exactly the problem with the “green” mattresses as well: there’s no certification process you need to go through in order to slap the word “organic” on a mattress. You’ve got passionate die-hards on one side talking about their vague, possibly psychosomatic, possibly very real health problems that just magically went away the minute they tossed out their “toxic” mattress. On the other side, you’ve got scientists pointing out that there’s really no evidence of any of this, but maybe more studies are needed, and as usual — parents who just want to do the very best for their children are stuck in the middle. “Well, maybe we should? Just to be extra safe?”
And you are the only one who can make those decisions. Sometimes you’ll be completely justified in the end — the rumblings about BPA in baby bottles were off on the sidelines when Noah was a baby, and I admit that I did not take them very seriously. Sometimes you’ll get ripped off. (Amazon doesn’t even appear to sell those fancy anti-SIDS mattresses anymore.)
Ezra has never gotten any bottle that wasn’t glass or another BPA-free material, that’s for sure. I’ve tossed out questionable toys from China and bottles of baby shampoo and won’t use lavender oil on my boys (it’s in Vick’s Baby Rub and ironically, in a lot of “natural” or “handmade” baby soaps). (Lavender “fragrance” is different.) Noah eats an organic diet, no processed foods or high-fructose corn syrup or hydrogenated anything and gets a dose of mercury-free fish oil every day. I make my own baby food and just ordered my supply of cloth diapers and wipes.
Noah also gets M&Ms for using the potty and my house is still littered with a ton of primary-colored plastic crap. I am neither excessively paranoid — the human race would have died out a long time ago if we truly were such sensitive little snowflakes about everything — nor stubbornly close-minded. (Like a mother I knew who got so annoyed by all the lead recalls that she just refused to read them anymore after her favorite bib was recalled.)
It’s all complicated for me, obviously, because I can’t be one of those people who say, “My first baby was/had/used *insert questionable parenting practice or product* and he’s just FINE, so WHATEVER.” My friend could, so to this day she uses the same plastic bottles and bibs and baby lotion that she used on her first child. Who is JUST FINE.
My first baby has Sensory Integration Disorder and a speech delay and occasionally exhibits symptoms of a Pervasive Developmental Disorder. And of course, BECAUSE I AM A MOTHER, I wonder if something I did or didn’t do or use or know about could have caused it, or if it really is something that was just hard-wired into his brain by the time he hit the embryo stage. But…you can’t live like that. You will drive yourself crazy and your kids don’t need crazy. Instead, you do exactly what YOU ARE DOING. You read, research, weigh both sides of every issue and then after educating yourself….you go with what your gut says. Not the extremists on either side or a slick marketing brochure. Your gut, your intuition, your mother’s instinct. You have it already, and most of the time it won’t lead you wrong.
And it’s soooo important to realize — before you embark on this crazy motherhood thing — that none of us are perfect and we all just do the best we can with the information we have at the time, and as long as you love your kids and keep them fed and warm and relatively safe (i.e. make sure they HAVE a crib mattress and don’t let them sleep on like, the kitchen counter, next to the knife block)…you’re doing pretty okay. Really.
(And for the record, no, I am not buying a new crib mattress.)

You may also enjoy: How to Build a Green Nursery on a Non-Celeb Budget

Don’t forget to visit Amalah’s must-read weekly Pregnancy Calendar.

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About the author

Amalah

http://www.amalah.com
Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy's daily mothering adventures at Amalah. Also, it's pronounced AIM-ah-lah.

If there is a question you would like answered on the Advice Smackdown, please submit it to amyadvice@gmail.com.

Amy also documented her second pregnancy (with Ezra) in our wildly popular Weekly Pregnancy Calendar, Zero to Forty.

Amy is mother to rising first-grader Noah, preschooler Ezra, and toddler Ike.


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18 Responses to ““Green” Crib Mattresses: Healthy or Hype?”

  1. Nikki Feb 26 at 1:00 pm Reply Reply

    I am currently pregnant and also just went through the dilemma of what kind of mattress to get. I ended up buying, through Amazon, an organic mattress from Naturepedic. It is thoroughly organic, yet still waterproof–perfect! And, while it was pricey ($250), I will sleep better knowing my baby is on it, even if the whole thing is total BS.
    As an aside, one of the deciding factors for me was this article on crib wrapping, which is an alternative to buying a whole new mattress if you already have a standard one.
    http://www.prevent-sids.org/babesafe-mattress-wrapping-success.htm

    • Jeff Jul 06 at 11:28 am Reply Reply

      Naturepedic is a great option but do not kid yourself poluethalene which is one of the main parts of the product is a petro based non organic product. It is non toxic as are a lot of things but not organic. Naturpedic contains a small layer of organic cotton and uses silica (the same thing that is packed to absorb moisture which say in bold print DO NOT EAT) as the flame retardant. Naturpedic does a wonderful job marketing and throwing certifications at you that if one actually reads are not that strong. Not by any means saying anything about naturepedic not being a healthier alternative. Just when people say it is 100% certified organic that is not the case and there are a lot more “natural” products available which just do not do as good of a job at marketing. 

  2. Ellen Feb 26 at 1:12 pm Reply Reply

    I stressed about the mattress thing too, but then my little guy never even slept in his crib! He ended up with me in bed, and his crib mattress was never used until we used it for his toddler bed.
    Is there a list of which baby shampoos contain the bad stuff? I never even heard about that!

  3. Procrastamom Feb 26 at 1:28 pm Reply Reply

    Ha! I let my firstborn, who is going to college this year, sleep on the kitchen counter next to the knifeblock and she is FINE! JUST FINE I TELL YOU!!! (*shakesfist triumphantly*)

  4. Danielle Feb 26 at 2:44 pm Reply Reply

    Wow, I was so busy stockpiling green household cleaners and unbleached, organic cotton cloth diapers that I missed this entirely! But I do have to put in a plug for cloth diapering. It costs about 1/10 as much as disposables and contrary to the BS that books like the What to Expect series will try to feed you, my son has had fewer diaper rashes and leaks with cloth than with the disposables they sent him home from the hospital with (or that I stuffed in my bag when I left the hospital?). And then, just in case I thought it was my newbie diapering skills, and not the disposables, that were causing the rashes, when I switched to disposables during a recent trip to visit family, the rash came back with a vengeance!

  5. Alexa Feb 26 at 3:18 pm Reply Reply

    My step-mom bought us our mattress. She was looking into organic ones but after researching decided against it. She has a phD in organic chemistry and is very into clean green lifestyles, so I trust her judgment. She did buy us some organic crib sheets to go with it, and wow are they soft and wonderful.
    My point in writing is that my baby is two months old today and still hasn’t actually slept in the crib. For now she’s sleeping in a bassinet that is right next to my bed, or in nights like last night when she wouldn’t go back to sleep, she slept on me on the couch.
    So who knows, your munchkin may not even be on the mattress that long.
    Other reason for writing…cloth diapers rock. My daycare is willing to use them, and even my husband is getting better about it. I just do an extra load of wash a night. Even if you don’t cloth diaper full time, you’ll be cutting down on land fill waste and the amount exposure to the chemicals that are in disposables. Give them a chance. The new designs out there are just as easy as disposables. And if you are crafty and have a sewing machine you can make your own at a fraction of the cost.

  6. miriam Feb 26 at 3:21 pm Reply Reply

    The “keep my child safe” switch gets turned to “11”, and everyone seems to take advantage of it. My good friend looked at me in horror when I said I was thinking of using my husband’s old crib for our baby. Unless it’s made of broken glass and barbed wire with lead sprinkles (and fits the standard crib and doesn’t have the slats too close together, lord knows…)– I think our baby will be JUST FINE.
    My preference for glass bottles stems from ease of cleaning (milk off of plastic? EW! STINKY!)
    I’d be interested to know what cloth diapers you’ve been using– I’m using the cottonbabies site and so I’m getting the kissaluvs and bumgenius one-size diapers, since they seem to have a lot of reviews (and good reviews too). I’m tossing a few prefolds into the mix since they seem so simple and cheap– if they work, great, if not, they seem to have 101 other uses.

  7. Diane Feb 26 at 3:48 pm Reply Reply

    I’d be interested to see a more thorough research study on the phthalates issue. If they didn’t control for the brand of diaper or the dietary intakes of the babies/mothers, the results don’t really mean much.
    I’m excited you’re switching to cloth! I’m so glad I did, and wish I’d done it sooner. It’s one of those thing I want to tell EVERY MOM EVER OMG because I can’t believe how easy and wonderful it is. But to go on as such would obviously be annoying to everyone, so I don’t really ever say anything about it at all. (I will say, though, that I highly recommend Charlie’s Soap for washing. Awesome stuff.)

  8. Elizabeth_K Feb 26 at 4:05 pm Reply Reply

    Cloth diapers! Welcome! I am totally not lecturing and all of my friends use disposables, but I LOVE my cloth diapers and cloth wipes and my baby seems happy and … oh I love them. You do use a TON of water, and the rinser (you must buy one — only $10 and since you just started the stinky poops … http://tinyurl.com/minishower … ). Anyway, we use regular cloth diapers, the miraculous Snappi fasteners (NO MORE PINS!) and the Thirsties diaper covers. I KNOW YOU DIDN’T ASK, and I really hope this isn’t assvice, but … I love it! Good luck … (oh, damn it, one more thing: The only thing that has kept our 11-month-old huge baby dry at night is one cotton diaper and one hemp diaper. Once we discovered hemp for night he hasn’t had one leak!) I SWEAR THAT IS ALL. Sorry for rambling.

  9. jo Feb 26 at 9:15 pm Reply Reply

    A little off topic but I totally had not heard of this lavender oil thing. Does this include lavender baby shampoo b/c I still use that stuff b/c I am convinced it calms Michael down at bathtime? Running upstairs to read the bottle. Why is this all so complicated. Michael’s bottles, the fancy schamncy, Dr Browns bottles, tested highest for BPA. I had never heard of BPA 4 years ago.
    And cloth diapers? I am seriously impressed.

  10. Sonja Feb 26 at 10:54 pm Reply Reply

    I bought a crib mattress from IKEA and am covering it with all manner of waterproof pads and extra sheets and receiving blankets layered under the sheet to protect from the various spills.
    A really interesting resource about the insanity of spending money on turns-out-it’s-useless-crap baby stuff is “Parenting, Inc.” by Pamela Paul. I love her!
    Also, cloth diapering… how I love it!

  11. professormama Feb 27 at 1:27 am Reply Reply

    Check out Diaper Services!
    You don’t have to wash them yourselves, the service picks up the cloth diapers each week, and drops off clean ones, they out them through several rinse cycles, and many of them don’t use any harsh chemicals. Still cheaper than disposables!
    Also, it makes a good shower gift, if you let people know what service you want to use….

  12. Brandi Feb 27 at 10:12 am Reply Reply

    If you do go with a regular mattress (as I would) and you’re still concerned try and let the mattress air out for a while. Most of these problems are caused by the materials “off gassing” and that goes away in time. I would put the mattress in the baby’s room, take the plastic off and let it lean against the wall for a few weeks or days. Open the window on nice days to help some fresh air get to it and speed up the process.
    I learned about this stuff in my Interior Merchandising class on finishes and materials. We talked a lot about VOCs etc. The problem gets better over time. So air out the mattress and you’ll be fine. Same with painting the baby’s room with regular paint or putting in new carpet.

  13. Kate Feb 27 at 10:50 am Reply Reply

    After a ton of research into different crib mattresses I choose the same Naturepedic mattress as the first poster and for some of the same reasons (organic and waterproof). It has also won a ton of awards and is significantly less expensive than some of the other organic mattresses. Yes, it is still a little pricey but given how much time babies spend sleeping it’s worth it to me (I also chose an all organic Moses basket set to use until we get to the crib). It was delivered today and I knew I had made a good choice because it doesn’t smell at all, even with my super pregnancy nose.
    It is easy to get caught up in the “everything must be organic and all natural and if it’s not I’m a horrible mother” thing so it’s important to relax and make the choices that are right for us. For me that meant splurging on the crib mattress because it will be used so much more and buying a used pack and play so that the mattress in that had already outgassed most of the VOCs. We’re going to cloth diaper but we’re using the regular bumGenius (not the organic ones) because people seem to be having trouble with the organic ones not being as absorbent and causing diaper rash. We registered for organic cotton crib bedding but I’m not going to insist that every piece of clothing is organic. The list goes on and on but the point is that life is series of compromises and as long as you are comfortable with your choice it’s the right one for you.

  14. Anonymous Mar 01 at 1:10 am Reply Reply

    “I… won’t use lavender oil on my boys (it’s in Vick’s Baby Rub and ironically, in a lot of “natural” or “handmade” baby soaps).”
    It isn’t ironic. These oils are completely natural. It can be organic. It can certainly be in handmade items of any kind. However, just like nearly every substance, that doesn’t mean that it is right for everyone. (To make my point: marijuana can be organic, but you wouldn’t give it to your child.)
    Is there evidence that inhaling these oils can cause the same reaction? Not just topical application?

  15. Shylo Mar 02 at 2:50 pm Reply Reply

    While it’s not a government organization, Greenguard is a third-party certification organization that I really trust. Whenever I’m shopping for “green” stuff, I always consult with Greenguard because they really rigorously screen their products. Naturepedic’s mattresses are Greenguard-certified, I know.
    http://www.greenguard.org/

  16. Gene Apr 21 at 6:43 pm Reply Reply

    It’s wonderful to see how many of you love your kids and like my wife will do anything for them. I have been in the mattress industry for 30 years and was wondering about how many of you realize how many fire retardant chemicals are in mattresses today. It has been my experience that most any mattress will work fine for cribs, just not to soft, but the chemicals used to slow down fires are very toxic and in all the mattresses sold today. I read online that 8 oz. of chemicals are put into a crib mattress and a pound and a half are put into queen size ones. This includes all the organic ones too. The only ones that I know of that can pass the CPSC fire tests without chemicals are of a packed wool type cover, these are expensive and just now making there way into retail markets. Plus putting my little guy on wool doesn’t sound like a good idea to me. (Makes me itch.) The only way you can buy a mattress today without all the chemicals is with a prescription. Mattress companies don’t have to list what’s in the mattress in regard to chemicals either.
    PVC has been proven dangerous also and half the mattress pads out their for cribs use it in the backing.
    We have found the best thing to do is get a total encasement for the crib mattress and then use a couple of fitted polyurethane backed mattress pads on top of the enclosed cover for the mattress. When the baby has an accident, we just peel one of the covers off and put the little guy back in bed. We don’t even need a sheet because the pads we use are made of a light cotton terry surface that is bonded to the polyurethane backing. So we get two chances each night, without having to stumble around looking for another sheet or mattress pad. This keeps all the chemicals in the mattress and all the stuff that Jr. brings to the party, out of the mattress. We have found that the crib mattress doesn’t seem to wear out because it is totally encased too. It looks brand new always.
    I don’t want to scare any of you, but Boric acid which is roach killer and Antimony which is similar to Arsenic is what is most commonly used in fire retardants. This is why we encased our crib mattress to keep everything in it.
    Thanks and all the best,
    Gene

  17. Gloria Jun 09 at 9:42 am Reply Reply

    No doubt about it, it’s confusing. But one thing you should know (if you don’t already) is that the U.S. government (the Consumer Product Safety Commission) has actually banned the use of some of the toxic chemicals you’re referring to in crib mattresses, toys, and other children’s goods. You can read a report on it at http://www.naturepedic.com/info/cpsia.php, along with a lot of questions and answers that might help clear things up. It takes a lot for a government to actually ban a chemical. And the U.S. wasn’t the first country to do it – some of these chemicals have been banned in European countries for years. Bottom line – why take the chance? Go for an organic crib mattress (check http://www.Naturepedic.com), and you won’t have to spend your time worrying about it. Also, if you’re concerned about the safety of any product, check with GREENGUARD. They focus on ensuring materials do not emit toxic fumes. Naturepedic crib mattresses are certified by GREENGUARD as safe.

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