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Prevention of SIDS – Consider Toxicity of Crib Mattresses

Is there a link between toxic crib mattresses and SIDS?

As a parent, you want to do everything you can to prevent SIDS. The standard SIDS prevention advice is to put your baby to sleep on his back on a firm mattress, avoid thick, fluffy stuffing, pillows or stuffed animals and not to overheat your baby. This is good advice. However, there is an additional factor in SIDS prevention that you may not be aware of. An ongoing SIDS prevention campaign in New Zealand is publicizing the link between SIDS and mattresses. This campaign advises parents to wrap their babies’ cot mattresses in an impermeable cover to prevent babies from being exposed to toxic fumes from the mattresses.

The theory linking SIDS and mattresses suggests that deadly toxic gases produced by crib mattresses can poison babies while they sleep. Toxic gases are created by the interaction of fire retardant chemical compounds with a fungus that commonly grows on mattresses and bedding. The gases are breathed in 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 gases released from mattresses float directly above the mattresses and diffuse toward the floor. This explains why sleeping face up protects against SIDS. Babies who sleep on their faces are less likely to inhale a fatal dose of toxic gases. But gases can still be absorbed through the skin.

How has the swaddling campaign affected SIDS prevention in New Zealand? To date it has been 100% successful. It started in 1995 and during that time there have been no reported deaths from SIDS among the more than 196,000 New Zealand babies who slept on a mattress wrapped in a polythene cover. The number of SIDS deaths in New Zealand that occurred between 1995 and 2010 is approximately 920. However, in New Zealand there were zero deaths from a properly swaddled mattress.

Although the findings have not been scientifically proven, they have not been disproved either. More research is definitely needed. But the current evidence as well as the common sense around this issue is too strong to deny. The fact that this information is not widely disseminated is complicated, but may have to do with politics, stakeholder interests, and liability.

I have been following this campaign for over 10 years and am disappointed that more research is not being done to prevent SIDS and mattresses. This is due to an erroneous report published in the UK in 1998, which claims that there is not enough evidence to support this theory. Most SIDS organizations have closed the book on this. More research isn’t likely anytime soon, so parents are left to decide whether or not to take action.

Regardless of the validity of the toxic gas and SIDS link, the following applies to cribs and crib mattresses. Typical crib mattresses contain polyurethane foam, made from petroleum, covered in vinyl and filled with toxic fire retardants, chemical plasticizers and biocides. Chemical plasticizers and fire retardants can leach from vinyl mattress covers and into the air babies breathe while they sleep. Swings can release formaldehyde gas and other volatile organic compounds. Tiny babies should not breathe these toxins known to cause neurological, respiratory, reproductive or immune problems.

If you are concerned about toxic gases in crib mattresses and SIDS prevention, or just that your baby is being exposed to toxins, the best thing to do is to buy a stable, organic crib mattress that does not contain toxic materials. Why not proceed with caution and common sense and make sure your baby’s sleep environment is free of harmful chemicals during the most vulnerable period of brain and immune development? There is too much risk in waiting for all the research to be done. Safe, non-toxic organic mattresses are readily available.

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