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Crib Mattress Shopping 101

Everything you need to know

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After we reported on chemical flame retardants in household products, we set out to find a healthier crib mattress. Our Eco Expert, Christopher Gavigan, led us to Naturepedic, which Gavigan says is one of the few companies making ultra-safe crib mattresses. So we chatted with founder Barry Cik, who started Naturepedic when he couldn't find a mattress healthy enough for his first grandchild. Cik gave us the lowdown on everything parents should consider when shopping for a crib mattress.
 
StrollerTraffic: There are so many factors involved with choosing a crib mattress. Where should we start?
Barry Cik: Physical safety. The mattress should be firm, not mushy, but also not so hard that it could cause “flat-head" syndrome. It should have extra-firm edges, especially for a toddler standing at the edge of the crib and jumping up and down. The mattress should fit snugly in the crib at the edges and corners, and it should be seamless, with no tape edge, piping, binding, or thread to unravel.
 
ST: That all makes sense. What else should we look for?
BC: The mattress should be sanitary—so that means waterproof (not just water-resistant, or water-repellant, or wet-proof), including at the edges (no thread holes). And it should be easy to wipe down, even at the edges—you don't want piping to capture urine or anything else.
 
ST: What about chemical safety?
BC: Make sure the mattress contains no flame barriers or other flame retardant chemicals, no plasticizers (such as phthalates), no pesticides, and no Prop 65 chemicals.
 
ST: So how can we be sure a mattress is fire safe if it doesn't contain chemical flame retardants?
BC: All mattresses on the market need to pass the government's flame requirements. Virtually all contain chemical flame retardants. The only exceptions are mattresses that are designed not to need them; in other words, those that are not made with highly flammable materials to begin with. Some mattresses use wool as a flame barrier, which is usually better than the chemical barriers (depending on which chemicals were used to clean the wool). However, wool comes with an allergenic concern. In general, make sure you avoid mattresses made with highly flammable materials or components.
 
ST: Any other allergenic concerns with crib mattresses?
BC: If you want to avoid potential allergens, stay away from latex and wool.
 
ST: Okay. Are there other factors we should keep in mind?
BC: It's helpful if a mattress is lightweight, so it's easy to bend down and pick up the mattress to change the sheet.
 
ST: Yes, definitely! We know how difficult those middle-of-the-night sheet changes can be. Speaking of which, can you say more about having a waterproof mattress?
BC: You can get a mattress without waterproofing (and many people do). However, you take the risk of bacteria and mold growth, whether on the surface or immediately below the surface, under the surface fabric. Unfortunately, there is no “natural” waterproofing. But there are safer materials than the common plastics or chemicals; for example, food-grade polyethylene.

ST: Got it. Where should we be looking for a mattress that meets all our criteria?
BC: There are many boutique stores that specialize in natural and safer products (and some are more knowledgeable than others). Some of the larger stores are now carrying better products as well. Regardless, there is tons of “green-washing” going on. So read labels very carefully and do your research.
 
ST: Will do!