If you’re shopping for a kids’ mattress, price and comfort may be your top priorities. But have you thought about the toxicity of a typical mattress? Kids spend a lot of time on a mattress and during that time they are exposed to the chemical off-gassing that most mattresses produce.
Children’s respiratory, neurological, reproductive, and immune systems are in the early stages of development and this makes them more vulnerable to toxic chemicals. When exposed, they cannot easily detoxify and excrete these toxins. Low level chemical exposure during the critical period of brain development can cause more harm than high doses later in life. While sleeping, our children’s bodies need to recover from the stress of the day and regenerate, not breathe and absorb toxic chemicals.
What’s in a Typical Kids Mattress?
Polyurethane foam is the most common mattress filling, made from petroleum with toxic chemical additives. It breaks down into small particles which can become airborne over time. According to manufacturer material safety data sheets, potential health effects can include cardiac arrhythmias, breathlessness, chest discomfort, irritation of mucous membranes, headache, coughing, asthma-like allergic reaction, dizziness, weakness, fatigue, nausea, blurred vision, and reduced pulmonary function. Memory foam mattresses contain even more potentially harmful chemicals.
Since mattress manufacturers are required to meet federal flammability regulations, they add fire retardant chemicals that can be toxic, including PBDEs, brominated or chlorinated fire retardants, antimony, modacrylic, polyacrylonitrile, boric acid and many other chemicals.
Some of these chemicals have recently been banned, but have been replaced with chemicals that can be just as toxic. Since the chemicals never completely dissipate, older mattresses continue to off-gas even though they no longer contain the chemical smell.
Alternatives to Toxic Mattresses
Mattresses made with natural organic materials are now available. Many of these mattresses meet or exceed flammability regulations with safe, non-toxic ingredients. Here are some guidelines in choosing a safe mattress for kids:
1. Choose an Organic Mattress with Non-Toxic Materials
The safest, most non-toxic mattress material is 100% organic cotton. Cotton is firm, breathable and comfortable. Natural latex can also be a safe material, depending on how it’s made. Latex comes from sap of the rubber tree plant. Keep in mind that natural latex/rubber can be allergenic, particularly for children. Many allergists recommend that babies and young children avoid latex. The FDA will not allow a product containing latex (particularly natural latex) to be labeled as “hypoallergenic.” If you are going to use latex, use all natural latex and stay away from chemical/natural latex blends.
Wool is also used in organic mattresses, but it naturally contains lanolin and certain alcohols known to have allergenic properties. So be cautious with wool if your child has allergies.
Mattresses are now being marketed as green, eco-friendly, or plant-based with descriptions such as Eco Foam, Bio Foam, or Soy Foam. Beware of these since the manufacturers replace only a very small percentage of the polyurethane foam with plant-based ingredients. For instance, soy foam is usually polyurethane foam with 10-20% genetically-engineered soybean oil mixed in. These mattresses are mostly polyurethane foam, which is highly flammable, so they also need fire retardant chemicals to comply with the flammability laws. Don’t be fooled by this green-washing. You’re still getting a load of toxic chemicals and off-gassing with many of these so-called eco mattresses.
It’s important to check into all materials used, and it can be difficult to get full disclosure from the retailers or the manufacturer. Look for organic mattress and bedding companies who have been GOTS certified. The Global Organic Textile Standards (GOTS) are the leading organic textile processing standards for mattresses. The standards require that fiber and fabrics used within a mattress, with limited exceptions, must be made from National Organic Program (NOP) certified materials and processed in accordance with the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS). All other components (such as innersprings, fire protection, etc.) must meet strict non-toxic standards.
2. Choose Non-toxic Natural Fire Protection
There are safe, natural alternatives to chemical fire retardants that will pass flammability standards.
Some mattress companies comply by using wool since wool is a fiber with natural fire retardant properties. There are companies that use only pure wool for this purpose. But be aware that some companies use wool with chemical treatments added to boost the wool’s fire resistance.
Always ask the manufacturer for complete details about what they use to pass fire standards. Unless you have a doctor’s prescription for a chemical-free mattress, they cannot legally sell mattresses without some sort of fire protection.
3. Choose Waterproof and Dust Mite Proof Mattresses for Young Children
Many parents will want a waterproof mattress for a toddler or preschool age child since they can wet the bed and ruin the mattress. Moisture in a mattress will allow mold, mildew and bacteria to grow, making it very unhealthy for kids. In addition, dust mite allergies can be problematic for kids and dust mites love to live in mattresses.
Some mattresses for kids have nylon, damask or polyurethane coverings. Nylon or damask are not really waterproof – just water resistant – and usually contain a polyurethane backing or a coating similar to Teflon®. There are a lot of questionable synthetic chemicals involved in these coverings. They also can contain added fire retardants and antibacterial chemical treatments that can be toxic.
Wool is water resistant, not waterproof, so wool does not waterproof a mattress. Some people buy wool puddle pads to block the wetness, but if there is a lot of wetness, it will go through a wool puddle pad and ruin the mattress.
The only way to fully waterproof a mattress is with plastic. Low density, food grade polyethylene is the safest waterproof and dust mite proof material available. Look for a polyethylene covering and avoid coverings made from vinyl or other plastics.
What does Healthy Child Recommend?
We’ve searched for the safest and healthiest kids mattress and recommend the Naturepedic line of organic mattresses. They specialize in organic mattresses for babies and children and are the only mattress company that uses polyethylene for waterproofing. Naturepedic is a GOTS certified organic mattress and bedding manufacturer that also has GreenGuard independent testing and verification. Naturepedic carries the most awards and endorsements of any children’s mattress company, as well as the best warranty in the industry.