Is there a link between toxic baby crib mattresses and SIDS?
As a parent, you want to do everything you can for prevention of SIDS. The typical SIDS prevention advice is to put your baby to sleep on his or her back on a firm mattress, avoid thick, fluffy padding, pillows or stuffed animals, and keep your baby from overheating. This is good advice; however, there is an additional factor in prevention of SIDS of which you may not be aware. An ongoing SIDS prevention campaign in New Zealand is publicizing a link between SIDS and mattresses. This campaign is advising parents to wrap their babies' crib mattresses in a gas impermeable cover to prevent babies' exposure to toxic gases from mattresses.
The theory linking SIDS and mattresses suggests that lethal toxic gases generated from crib mattresses can poison babies while sleeping. Toxic gases are created from the interaction of chemical fire retardant compounds with a fungus that commonly grows in mattresses and bedding. The gases are breathed and absorbed by a baby, shutting down the central nervous system and stopping breathing and heart function. Toxic gases are denser (heavier) than air, so the gases released from mattresses hover directly over the mattresses and diffuse away toward the floor. This explains why face-up sleeping protects against SIDS. Babies sleeping face-up are less likely to breathe in a lethal dose of toxic gases. But the gases can still be absorbed through the skin.
How has the mattress wrapping campaign affected the prevention of SIDS in New Zealand? To date it has been 100% successful. It began in 1995 and during this time there have been no SIDS deaths reported among the over 196,000 New Zealand babies who have slept on a mattress wrapped in a polyethylene cover. The number of SIDS deaths in New Zealand that have occurred between 1995 and 2010 is about 920. However, there have been zero deaths in New Zealand on a properly wrapped mattress.
Although the findings have not been scientifically proven, they have not been disproven either. There definitely needs to be more research. But the current evidence as well as common sense around this issue is too strong to deny. The fact that this information is not being widely disseminated is perplexing, but may have to do with politics, stakeholder interests, and liability.
I've been following this campaign for over 10 years and am dismayed that there is no further research being done on prevention of SIDS and mattresses. This is due to a faulty report published in the UK in 1998 claiming that there is not enough evidence to support this theory. Most SIDS organizations have closed the book on it. It's not likely there will be more research anytime soon so parents are left on their own to decide if they should take action or not.
Regardless of the validity of the toxic gas and SIDS link, the following is true about baby cribs and crib mattresses. Typical crib mattresses contain polyurethane foam, made from petroleum, covered in vinyl and loaded with toxic fire retardants, chemical plasticizers and biocides. Chemical plasticizers and fire retardants can leach out of vinyl mattress covers and into the air that babies breathe while sleeping. Cribs can off-gas formaldehyde and other VOCs. Tiny babies should not be breathing in these toxins that are known to cause neurological, respiratory, reproductive or immune problems.
If you are concerned about toxic gases in crib mattresses and prevention of SIDS, or simply that your baby is being exposed to toxins, the best thing to do is to buy a firm, organic crib mattress that does not contain any toxic materials. Why not proceed with caution and common sense and make sure your baby's sleep environment is free from harmful chemicals during the most vulnerable period of brain and immune development? There is too much at risk to wait for all the research to be done. Safe, non-toxic organic mattresses are readily available.