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Everything You Need to Know About Crib Mattresses

Many parents-to-be spend a lot of time picking out the crib and choosing the bedding for it, but end up buying the first nice soft mattress they come across. In actuality, you should spend almost as much time selecting the mattress as you do the crib, and it should be firm and durable, yet comfortable as well. Consider the baby mattress as the canvas for your baby's growth and development. Just like with adult beds, the crib and a mattress for the crib must be purchased separately. And just like when you chose the mattress for your bed with a perfect night's sleep in mind, you will want to do the same for your child, especially since newborns sleep up to 18 hours a day when they are first brought home from the hospital.

Safety First

Even though garage sales, hand-me-downs and thrift stores are a great resource for new parents, you will want to skip the second-hand route in favor of purchasing the best quality crib and crib mattress you can afford. Most products for baby, like cribs, car seats, high chairs, play equipment and mattresses, are governed by industry standards and restrictions. Many manufacturers impose voluntary standards that go even further. Because technologies and standards are constantly changing, for safety's sake and other health considerations, plan on purchasing brand new items. A good example of this is current industry standards dictate that crib mattresses must be made of fire-retardant materials, whereas if you purchase a previously used crib mattress, depending on its age and the manufacturer who made it, it may not meet today's fire-retardant requirements.

Baby Mattresses

A standard crib mattress is typically 28" wide by 52" deep and is six inches thick. There are two basic types of crib mattresses available, foam and inner spring. Whether you decide on an innerspring or foam mattress, the two major concerns should be size and firmness. A mattress that is too soft can be detrimental to your baby's health, and in rare cases, if the mattress is so soft that it conforms to the child's body, it can create the risk of suffocation. Both innerspring and foam mattress, if they are well-made, will keep their shape and provide the proper support needed for infants and toddlers. When deciding whether to buy an innerspring or foam mattress, you'll probably wonder which one is better. It really comes down to personal preference; if the parents sleep on an innerspring mattress, chances are, they will purchase an innerspring crib mattress for their child, and the same holds true for parents-to-be that have chosen a foam mattress for themselves. The important thing to remember is to purchase the best quality crib mattress that you can, whether its foam or innerspring.

Regardless of the type of mattress you decide to purchase, an innerspring crib mattress or a foam crib mattress should have the following features:

  • The mattress should be firm.
  • The mattress should fit snugly against the walls of the crib (no wide gaps).
  • To increase the durability and water resistant capabilities of the mattress, select one with a protective cover that has been made of some type of moisture-resistant material and an underlining of nylon.
  • Ideally, the seams of the mattress should have fabric binding. This allows air to escape, relieving pressure on the seams caused by movement.
  • Vents in the mattress allows it to breathe, and in the event the child bounces up and down on it, provides "give" to the mattress, preventing burst seems. There are two kinds of vents, eyelet and standard. Eyelet vents go around all sides of the mattress, in two or three rows, and resemble the ones found in shoes. Standard vents are typically larger in size and appear on just the sides of the mattress. One type of vent is not necessarily better than the other. However, a mattress with eyelet vents tends to be slightly more expensive simply because it is more labor intensive to produce.

Innerspring Coil Baby Mattresses

An innerspring crib mattress is made up of a coil system that is cushioned between layers of cotton or foam padding. Depending on the brand or manufacturer, a mattress can have up to 300 coils. A popular belief is that the more coils the firmer the mattress. While this is somewhat true, other factors come into play. In addition to the number of coils, the quality of the mattress will also depend on the configuration of the coils and the strength and thickness of the steel used to make the coils. If these three components are in balance, then it will be more durable, firm and comfortable. To ensure that you are buying a quality crib mattress, select one with a coil count of at least 150 and includes border rods. Border rods encircle the top and bottom edges of the mattress, lending it additional support and firmness. The border rods also contribute to proper weight distribution and help prevent sagging. A typical innerspring crib mattress weighs anywhere from 15 to 23 pounds.

The number of actual layers that make up a crib mattress varies from manufacturer to manufacturer, but the structure can be roughly divided into three sections; the top, the coil layer and the insulator pad with layers of cushioning separating each section. The top or cover of the mattress is made of vinyl or some other type of plastic and can be quilted or smooth. A vinyl/plastic cover that has been reinforced with nylon or polyester is the best option. More expensive mattresses have a double or triple laminate vinyl cover that has been reinforced by nylon for added protection against wetness. The coil layer is typically made of steel and the smaller the number of gauge wire used means that the wire is thicker or stronger. The insulator pad is made up of some type of fiber such as shredded coconut shells or pieces of compressed cloth and can have the texture of felt. The cushioning layers used in the construction of a crib mattress can be made from a number of materials, including cotton, cotton/polyester blend, foam or a foam/cotton combination.

Foam Baby Mattresses

The foam crib mattress is generally lighter, weighing seven to ten pounds. The ultimate test of a good foam mattress is if it springs back into its original shape after being depressed or slept on. In the past, foam mattresses were known for breaking down or becoming brittle. With today's technology, this no longer holds true, and a foam crib mattress can be just as durable as an innerspring mattress.

Crib foam mattresses are constructed of several layers of foam that are encased in a cover. Like innerspring mattresses, the cover is made of quilted or smooth vinyl/plastic. Better quality foam mattresses will have covers that are double or triple laminated and then lined with a moisture-resistant material like nylon or polyester for extra protection.

The three characteristics of a good foam crib mattress are weight, firmness and resiliency. The weight of the foam is a good indication of how dense the foam is. A general rule of thumb is the heavier the mattress is the better it is. Don't confuse density with thickness; density refers to the number of pounds of foam per square foot used to make the mattress: the higher the number, the denser the foam. Firmness is the feel of the mattress; when slept on, it will evenly distribute the weight of the child without sagging or "soft spots". Resiliency is the mattress' ability to bounce back into shape.

Going Organic

An organic version of the innerspring crib mattress is available for those concerned about the possible effects of synthetic materials, chemicals or potential allergy-causing compounds. An organic crib mattress is typically composed of organic cottons and wools. The protective cover is made of a non-toxic, water-resistant material like white polyethylene, an environmentally friendly plastic. Most organic crib mattresses will be more expensive than their non-organic counterparts.

Some manufacturers offer foam crib mattresses that have an organic cushioning layer and a non-toxic cover, but by their very nature, most foam mattresses cannot be considered to be truly organic. However, they are a good compromise if you want to purchase a foam crib mattress and not have your child in direct contact with synthetic materials.

Other Things to Keep in Mind

Everything you need to "see" in order to judge if the mattress is a quality one or not, is hidden from view. Do the press test - whether the mattress is innerspring or foam, when pressed in the center and the corners, the mattress should not retain the impression of your hand. Read any of the manufacturer material provided and ask questions if you're not sure.

If you can fit more than two fingers between the mattress and the side of the crib, the mattress is too small for the crib you have selected.

The height or thickness of a crib mattress should be no more than six inches.

Some types of crib mattresses can be used for toddler beds.

Foam crib mattresses are typically less expensive than innerspring crib mattresses.

If allergies or asthma is a concern, consider purchasing a hypoallergenic mattress with a separate mattress cover that is machine-washable.

Some parents worry that their child might become overheated when sleeping on a plastic surface. If this a concern, crib mattresses with cloth covers are available.