This an issue near and dear to my heart as my wife and I are expecting a baby this summer. We are both beyond excited to be new Moms and want our baby to be safe and secure!
Although it might not seem like it to most new parents facing another mountain of laundry and diapers, newborns spend almost all their time sleeping. This means that a safe and non-toxic crib, bassinet, or co-sleeper is one of the most important items in an eco-friendly nursery.
The sheer number of baby products out there is overwhelming, however, and these seemingly simple decisions can quickly become very emotionally laden. This means that it’s a good idea to learn a little about how cribs are made, so that you can more easily spot greenwashing and misleading claims. That way, you’ll stand a better chance of choosing a crib and other nursery items that are truly healthy and eco-friendly.
In this Leaf Score series, I’ll look at some possible problems with toxic chemicals in cribs and examine key safety regulations and certifications for cribs in the US. I’ll also ask when you’ll need a crib and what kind of crib is right for you.
And, finally, I’ll offer my recommendations for the best eco-friendly, practical, and non-toxic cribs around and provide more in-depth reviews of the very best non-toxic and eco-friendly cribs.
Key considerations when buying a crib
Sadly, the phrase ‘non-toxic’ doesn’t mean much when it comes to cribs or any other nursery items for a newborn. Companies can easily throw around this term while still selling products that contain toxic chemicals such as formaldehyde and lead. How do they get away with this? Well, because non-toxic isn’t a regulated term, and the only federal safety standards for cribs focus more on structural safety (plus the presence of lead and phthalates). So, how can you tell if a crib is safe, eco-friendly, and truly non-toxic?
Before buying a crib, you’ll want to consider some key things:
- What is the crib made of and what stains and finishes are used, if any?
- What certifications does the crib carry, and does it meet safety regulations?
- Where was the crib made and under what conditions?
- Will the crib fit a standard mattress?
Let’s look at each consideration in turn.
#1. Sustainably sourced hardwood cribs are the best
Without a doubt, the best cribs are those made with sustainably sourced hardwood that is kiln dried and either unfinished or finishes with linseed oil, beeswax, or other natural vegetable oil. Unfortunately, meeting all of these conditions can be expensive, and not everyone lives near to a company manufacturing such cribs. Shipping a heavy hardwood crib can add considerable expense and detracts from the eco-friendliness of the crib.
#2. Consider crib mobility
A heavy crib may also pose difficulties for some parents, especially if you’ll be moving the crib from room to room on a regular basis. Walnut is a good, if more costly, compromise, as this is a robust hardwood that is a little less weighty than maple, cherry, oak, ash, or mahogany. Some crib designs also feature wheels, which can make it a lot easier to move a heavier crib if needed.
#3. Softwood cribs are second best
Second best are cribs made with unfinished softwoods such as pine and poplar. These softwoods are more susceptible to marks and dings, including teeth marks once a baby starts gnawing on their crib (which they do!). Softwood cribs are much lighter, though, and typically much less expensive. Be careful of softwood cribs sold with a hardwood veneer. Such ‘composite’ woods will almost always contain volatile organic compounds (VOCs) such a formaldehyde, thanks to the glues used to stick the wood products together.
#4. Avoid engineered and composite wood
In general, avoid any cribs that contain engineered or composite wood. This includes particleboard, plywood, fiberboard and medium density fiberboard, all which typically contain formaldehyde. Many companies advertise their cribs as being made with 100% pine, but when you look a little closer there are components, such as the mattress supports, that are made with fiberboard. Be sure you know exactly what is in the crib before buying.
#5. Look for lead and phthalate free cribs
Again, ideally, a crib should be free from lead and phthalates; not lead safe and phthalate safe, as these terms simply mean that a crib meets federal safety guidelines for the maximum allowable levels of these problematic chemicals. If a crib is made exclusively of hardwood or softwood that is either unfinished or finished just with linseed oil, the chances are that this crib is free from lead, phthalates, formaldehyde, and other toxic chemicals. If a crib is painted or stained, or features composite wood, plastic teething guards, or other components, look for an explicit statement that the crib is free (not safe) from lead, phthalates, formaldehyde and VOCs.
#6. Crib safety recalls and regulations
If you’re getting a crib second hand, be sure to find out when the crib was made and check all of the components thoroughly before use. Crib safety standards changed significantly on June 28th, 2011, in the United States, so if you’re thinking of using a crib that is more than eight or so years old, you may want to reconsider and buy a newer crib. Crib safety standards were also updated again on December 9th, 2013 and revisions were made effective on March 24, 2014.
These safety changes included requirements to strengthen crib slats, to prevent breaking, and to make hardware and mattress supports more durable. The major change, however, was to ban drop-side cribs. These cribs were once popular but have now almost entirely been replaced by fixed side cribs for safety reasons. Poor quality hardware and mechanical malfunction led to some instances of a gap opening up between the mattress and the drop side, which allowed infants to fall into this gap and suffocate.
At a basic level, standard crib mattresses in North America are made to fit 28″x 52″ dimensions. Not all cribs, however, are built to fit these mattresses, which can pose a safety risk. To keep your newborn safe, you’ll want a mattress and crib set-up where the mattress fits snugly inside the crib, without any gaps. Gaps create a risk for an infant falling between the mattress and the crib.
Pro Tip: Check the Consumer Product Safety Commission recall list
Whether you’re buying a crib new or getting one second hand, you’ll want to do a quick check of the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) crib recall list, paying particular attention to whether any second hand crib was part of the safety recall prior to 2011.
Once you have your new crib, make sure to set it up well ahead of time, so you can check that all the hardware is present and correct and that the crib feels sturdy and functional. If any parts are missing or you notice any other problems, call the manufacturer; don’t try to fix the crib yourself by using other hardware as this could prove unsuitable. If you choose a crib that isn’t guaranteed to be free of toxic chemicals, this will also give it a chance to off-gas before accommodating your newborn.
To remove any manufacturing residues, clean the crib with mild soap and a soft cloth. Don’t use ammonia-based cleaning products, bleach, or other chemicals to clean the crib. If you’ve bought an unfinished crib or don’t like the color of the crib and want to refinish or paint it, ignore the temptation or use a simple vegetable oil finish, namely linseed oil. The finishes and paints used on cribs have to adhere to certain safety standards, especially if a product is Greenguard Gold Certified, so using other products to refinish the crib could reduce the safety of the crib.
Crib Certifications FAQ
I cover crib safety regulations and certifications in more depth here. For now, though, here’s a quick overview.
How important is Greenguard Gold certification for cribs?
Greenguard Gold Certification is increasingly prevalent for cribs, which is nice. This certification is more robust than standard Greenguard Certification and applies to products intended for use by infants and children. It ensures that a product meets strict criteria for low emissions of VOCs, to help safeguard indoor air quality in the nursery. Notice how this is not a certification for no VOCs, but for low VOCs.
Some products made with fiberboard and formaldehyde, lead-containing paints, and other troublesome chemicals can still meet Greenguard Gold standards. So, while this certification is certainly better than nothing, your best option by far is to keep things simple and go for hardwood or softwood cribs that pose no risk of chemical exposure. Also, note that some companies, including Green Cradle, don’t have Greenguard Gold Certification for products. This doesn’t mean that their products aren’t as good as those that do, however. In fact, quite the opposite may be true, given that it makes little sense for a company manufacturing cribs from sustainably sourced hardwood, and using only linseed oil to finish the cribs, to shell out cash to get a certification like Greenguard Gold.
Look for CARB II Certification and 16 CFR 1303 compliant cribs
If you do buy a crib made with composite wood, look for one that is CARB II certified. This certification was created by the California Air Resource Board (CARB), part of the California Environmental Protection Agency, which regulates formaldehyde emissions in composite wood. CARB concluded in 1992 that formaldehyde is a carcinogen and set about limiting formaldehyde emissions. CARB II is a stricter standard than, you guessed it, CARB I, and is a must for any composite or engineered wood crib. It’s less strict, however, than Greenguard Gold Certification. Read more about CARB II and other certifications here.
Also, because lead is not fully banned in cribs, look for a crib that is 16 CFR 1303 compliant. Technically, all cribs made or sold in the US must comply with this federal safety regulation, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t recalls for cribs and other children’s products that have been found to contain high levels of lead. It’s always reassuring when a company explicitly states compliance with these regulations.
All cribs sold in the US should be CPSC compliant and ASTM compliant, as well as compliant with standards laid out by the Juvenile Product Manufacturers Association. ASTM is the American Society for Testing and Materials and, like CPSC, focuses mainly on the structural safety of a crib, rather than the potentially harmful chemicals sometimes present in wood finish, wood composites, and glue.
Ideally, the wood for a crib should be from trees grown in the US or Canada and be Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certified to ensure it comes from responsibly managed forests that provide environmental, social, and economic benefits.
Choose Cribs Made in the USA or Canada
Checking for clear statements of manufacturing process and ethics is especially important if you’re buying a crib not made in the USA, Canada, or Europe. Most cribs are made in Asia, particularly in China and Vietnam, where government regulatory oversight may be lacking, and where working conditions may be less than satisfactory. In terms of labor standards, you may want to check if a crib or company is certified Fair Trade. Pottery Barn Kids, for instance, manufacture the Kendall Crib in a Fair Trade Certified™ facility. This can help protect workers from exposure to hazardous chemicals, in addition to supporting the production of quality products that are more likely to perform well and keep your family safe.
Manufacturers, importers, and retailers are only required to test cribs once a year to ensure they meet safety standards. Factory conditions can change quickly in this time frame, so I would highly recommend choosing a company whose cribs have a long history of manufacture without incident in the US, Canada, or Europe.
For the most eco-friendly, non-toxic cribs, you’d buy from a company making cribs locally from locally sourced hardwood. Alternatively, consider picking up a hardwood crib from a retailer that stocks those cribs as standard. This can help reduce energy use and carbon emissions associated with ordering online numerous products to be shipped directly to you in multiple packages. Or, choose to have products sent in one shipment to a post office nearby. Shipping the most eco-friendly crib thousands of miles results in huge amounts of carbon dioxide being pumped into the air, along with mercury, sulfur oxide, and other air pollutants.
Acrylic cribs and other ‘gimmicks’
Before I wrap up, a note on acrylic cribs and other ‘gimmicky’ options. Acrylic cribs have started to spring up in baby stores, probably thanks in large part to rumors that Blue Ivy slept in an acrylic crib. The problem here is that manufacturers of acrylic (a plastic) add lead and phthalates to acrylic to increase flexibility, transparency, and durability and, because acrylic can be soft and vulnerable to scratching, some manufacturers apply a non-scratch coating (which may contain VOCs) to acrylic products.
Acrylic cribs seems like a non-starter, then, given that the general idea is to keep VOCs, lead, and phthalates out of the nursery! So, while acrylic is sometimes considered food-safe, it worries me that the companies making acrylic cribs don’t offer any safety data or certifications. Until they do, I can’t in good conscience endorse an acrylic crib as a safe, non-toxic, eco-friendly option.
Personally, I would also avoid any cribs that have an unusual shape, such as the Ubabub or Stokke oval-shaped mini cribs. This is because a non-standard shape limits your mattress options, which may mean you’re stuck buying a more expensive mattress from the crib company themselves and that you can’t get a suitable non-toxic crib mattress.
A crib is often the centerpiece of the nursery, and is where your newborn will spend much of their time for many months to come. As such, it makes sense to put a lot of thought into buying a crib that will work well for you and your growing family, that is safe and non-toxic, and that doesn’t, in its manufacture, harm the environment or other people. You’ll also want to consider such things as whether the crib converts to a toddler bed, whether the crib is low profile and has multiple mattress height options.