A breathable crib mattress sounds like a great idea, right? After all, it’s not nice to think that your baby could be rebreathing carbon dioxide and overheating on a non-permeable mattress. Breathable mattresses might not be as good as manufacturers claim, however, and may not be worth the often high price tag compared to other mattresses that are likely just as safe, if not more so.
The key problem with a ‘breathable’ mattress is that it’s inherently not waterproof. This means that the mattress is exposed to microbial contamination from spit-up, poop, pee, and other bodily fluids. In turn, this exposes an infant to mildew, fungus, and mold.
Also, while a more permeable mattress may support faster dissipation of carbon dioxide and heat, there’s no evidence that this reduces the risk of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) as some claim. Indeed, there’s a chance that a more porous material, such as coconut coir, may actually trap carbon dioxide rather than help disperse it. Indeed, a ‘breathable’ tea tree bark-filled mattress marketed in Australia in the 1980’s and ‘90’s actually increased re-breathing of carbon dioxide and was associated with an increased risk of SIDS.
Clearly, an infant whose breathing is compromised by blankets, pillows, or a too soft sleeping surface is at a higher risk of suffocation, but a firm mattress itself, whether breathable or not, does not pose such a risk. Also, the term ‘breathable’ is not regulated or well defined, meaning that a company can call a mattress breathable without having to meet any particular standard for gas dispersion.
As for overheating (which is thought to contribute to SIDS risk), a permeable mattress was actually found in one study to be associated with higher body temperature in infants, possibly because the infants work harder to keep themselves warm on a more permeable surface.
To make things even worse, there’s often an implication with so-called breathable mattresses as well as ‘natural’ mattresses that these make it safe to put your baby to sleep on their tummy or side. This isn’t true, but you’d be forgiven for thinking the usual rules don’t apply, based on how often these products are marketed using photos of babies sleeping in an unsafe position in an unsafe environment, such as wearing a hat, covered in blankets, on their side or tummy, surrounded by toys and pillows.
Breathable buckwheat mattresses – a no-go for babies
What about natural fiber mattresses that claim to be ‘breathable’, such as buckwheat hull mattresses? Put simply, buckwheat is a terrible material for a crib mattress and a bad idea for an adult mattress if you plan on co-sleeping with your infant. Indeed, responsible manufacturers such as Open Your Eyes Bedding make a point of advising against co-sleeping on their buckwheat hull mattresses because these are not flat like a traditional mattress. For adults, this is a plus, with the buckwheat hulls able to conform to your body to create a supportive and breathable sleep surface.
For an infant, however, the movability of buckwheat hulls could result in their face being pressed up against the mattress, restricting air flow, without them being able to move to a safer position. Indeed, buckwheat pillows are labelled as soft bedding and a SIDS risk by the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC).
In addition, the ‘breathability’ of buckwheat also means that a buckwheat mattress without a waterproof cover is liable to get pretty gunky rather quickly if used by an infant. So, the temptation would be to also use a waterproof cover, which negates the breathability of the mattress. The same is true of natural latex mattresses which have a porous composition. These are almost always wrapped in a layer of wool and cotton with a waterproof cover. If not, they should be covered with a waterproof pad to avoid contamination.
Whichever mattress you choose, it should be firm, with a clean, well-fitted sheet, and your baby should be placed on their back to sleep without any blankets, loose clothing, toys, or other items in the crib. A breathable mattress may well be just fine, as long as it meets the requirements to have a firm surface, to maintain its shape when dressed with a fitted sheet, and to fit snugly enough that there is no gap between the mattress and the side of the crib.