In our book, spokesperson Laura Dern writes of how excited parents can become obsessed with designing the most beautiful and complete nursery for their expected child. But the nursery item that garners the least amount of attention is, by far, the most imperfect: the crib mattress.
Most parents don’t know that their child’s crib or bed mattress poses a serious risk to healthy development. A newborn spends between 10 and 14 hours a day lying on a crib mattress, whether sleeping, playing, or observing the world around them. Their faces press into it, causing them to breathe inches from its surface. For the first year of your child’s life, the mattress is the central object in their environment.
Due to improper manufacturer disclosure and minimal governmental regulation, many of the items we purchase for our baby’s first room are not the healthiest. Manufacturers are under no obligation to let the public know how they construct their products. So, we buy bleached, chemically-treated sheets, toys covered in unsafe paint, and straight-from-the factory mattresses. And, as Laura said, “Most of us do it because nobody told us not to.”
What exactly, then, makes up your baby’s mattress? Let’s start on the outside and move inward.
The vinyl surface of most traditional mattresses is a hard plastic called polyvinyl chloride (PVC), a combination of chlorine and petroleum. To soften the plastic, hormone-disrupting phthalates are added to make the mattress flexible. Phthalates are recognized by the Environmental Protection Agency as probable carcinogens and, when ingested, may interfere with, mimic, or block hormones. Extensive studies identify hormone disruption to be most severe on the development of normal body functions. Some of the health effects for newborn boys include hormone alteration, reproductive system defects, and low fertility. For girls, phthalates are attributed to early on-set puberty. Many manufacturers are removing phthalates from other children’s products, such as baby bottles and toys. In 2009, three specific phthalates were banned in crib mattresses by the Consumer Product Safety Commission, but others are still legal for now.
Inside that vinyl covering, nearly all crib mattresses today use polyurethane foam as internal filling. Over time, the foam breaks into small, dust-like particles that can easily become airborne and release various problematic ingredients in the form of volatile organic compounds (VOC). Once leached out into indoor air, VOCs can cause respiratory disruption, such as eye, nose and throat irritation, as well as headaches, nausea, fatigue, dizziness, and allergic reactions.