It might seem silly to ask, “when do you need a crib.” Isn’t the answer obvious?
When you have a baby, right? Not quite. Although you can use a crib right away with a newborn, many parents choose to use a bassinet or co-sleeper for the first little while and then transition their infant to a crib after three or months.
Even if you’re not planning on using a crib right away, it’s a good thing to put on any baby registry and to have researched in advance. That’s because this is one of the bigger ticket items, something family and friends might want to chip in for, and, frankly, not something you want to be wrestling with (either the decision or the assembly) while sleep deprived and balancing a newborn.
I’m fairly handy with an Allen key, but I’m pretty sure those Ikea assembly instructions don’t include a line drawing of a squirmy, screaming infant.
Set up your crib in advance to lower toxin exposure
There’s another reason you might want to set up your crib before your baby arrives, even if you don’t plan on using the crib right away. Off-gassing. Yup. As I’ve discussed elsewhere in this series on eco-friendly, non-toxic cribs, most cribs are made with at least one toxic chemical, such as formaldehyde in wood glue, or another volatile organic compound (VOC) in the paint or wood stain. Buying that crib and setting it up in advance, then airing out the nursery for several days or weeks even is a smart move.
Ideally, if you’re the one gestating your baby, you’ll have someone else setting up the nursery, so as to reduce your risk of prenatal exposure to toxic chemicals. You’ll also want to set up the crib in the room in which it will be used. Some cribs are wider than some door frames, so you may struggle to move a fully assembled crib from room to room. If you plan on getting a crib on wheels and moving it around the house, it’s obviously good to know if it’s too wide to fit through doors in your home before you need to use it.
Setting up your crib in advance also means you have some time to order and install any replacement or missing parts. If parts are missing or you lose some, it’s best not to improvise. Instead, call the company who make the crib and order replacement parts.
Normally, I’d be the first to MacGyver a piece of furniture using surplus washers, screws, or bolts from a cannibalized item. I wouldn’t do this for a crib, though, given what is, quite literally, resting on it. Cribs are built to strict safety standards, and I’m guessing that you, like me, are not an expert in furniture design and engineering who reads safety regulations for fun (OK, so I do read such regulations, but my carpentry skills are… shall we say, developing).
One other, perhaps odd, thing to mention is that you may simply adore the design of a crib, but hate it once it’s in your new space. Setting it up well in advance of baby’s arrival means you have some time to change your mind. You may also discover a practical concern with a crib, such as legs that stick out at an angle beyond the edges of the crib, causing you to stub your toe and/or trip. Why on earth anyone would think this a good idea for an item of furniture you often walk around in very low light conditions is beyond me.
So, you’ve decided to get a crib and set it up, stat, but what kind of crib will work for you? Let’s look at your options and some key considerations for buying a crib.
Different types of cribs
You’d think that a crib is just a crib, but you’d be wrong. There are cribs with adjustable mattress settings, cribs with a solid base that can’t be moved, cribs made with in-built storage, cribs that have an in-built change table, travel cribs, foldable cribs, and even mini cribs, cribs on wheels, and cribs with teething guards. How you pick a crib depends partly on the following factors:
- Space / size
- Storage needs
- Safety / Level of comfort with toxic chemicals
- Assembly skills
- Versatility and adjustability.
Some cribs are, as the last item in this list suggests, able to be adjusted or converted as your baby grows. These are often referred to as 3-in-1 or even 4-in-1 cribs, which means that the crib may function as a bassinet, crib, toddler bed, and big kid bed, given a little adjustment and some extra parts.
If you plan on buying a crib that can be converted as your baby grows, my top tip is to buy all the extra parts along with the crib. They’re often cheaper as a bundle, with such things as toddler rails costing anywhere from around $15 to a whopping $150 after the fact. Also, you may find that two years after buying the crib, that model is no longer available, which likely means that the toddler guardrail or other accessories are also unavailable.
I’d also advise choosing a crib that allows your to adjust the height of the mattress. I’m fairly short and find it difficult to reach into a low crib and comfortably and safely lift out an infant. It’s so much easier, especially when you’re doing it several times a day (and night), to scoop up a baby from a higher mattress. The adjustable settings mean you can easily lower the mattress height as your baby reaches milestones such as being able to sit up by themselves. And, as soon as they can pull themselves up to a standing position, you’ll want to lower that mattress height quick-sharp to avoid climbing accidents and tumbles.
I’d recommend going for a crib with at least three levels for the crib mattress height (one for a newborn, one for an older infant who can move around but can’t yet stand, and one for a toddler who can stand up and potentially climb out.
The issue of crib storage is entirely personal. If you have a small room and want to keep everything fairly compact, or you’re concerned about achieving a consistent nursery aesthetic, a crib with an in-built drawer, change table, and/or shelving unit might be for you. However, these cribs are obviously a little bulkier, harder to move, usually more expensive, and often harder to put together. I’m also wary of having anything beneath a crib, given the potential for this to block air circulation and/or off-gas right underneath where an infant is sleeping.
Aesthetics / Design
There’s a bit of a trend at the moment for Scandinavian style cribs in varying shades of grey. Open up any copy of Dwell magazine and you’re sure to spot at least one crib that fits this theme. Cribs come in a variety of colors and designs, though, ranging from subdued earthtones to bright reds, greens, and blues, and even multicolored, customizable cribs.
My top tip is to go for a white or grey crib and get your color and design kicks from crib sheets, a cool mobile, and other accessories. This way, it’s much easier, cheaper, and environmentally-friendly to change up the nursery aesthetic, compared to getting a new crib. You’ll also want to avoid painting a crib yourself, unless you’re very confident in the safety of the paint and the quality of your craftsmanship. Babies do, after all, tend to use cribs as giant chew-toys.
Choosing a neutral crib color and design also makes it much simpler to match any other nursery furniture, such as a dresser, side table or changing table.
One design feature that is worth taking note of, however, is the increasing prevalence of low-profile cribs. These cribs have a lower front rail than most models, meaning that it’s much easier for shorter folks, like me, to reach in and safely pick up an infant without getting terrible back strain.
Space/Size – Is a Mini-Crib Right for You?
If you live in a small apartment or tiny home and are tight on space, you might want to consider a mini-crib. These cribs are small enough to use as a bassinet, but they offer ample room for the first couple of years of life. This means that the crib can fit beside your bed for the first little while, be moved to the nursery if you have one, and then, once they’re big enough, your little escapee can transition to a big kid bed.
Most kids sleep in a crib until they’re two or three years old, but some continue to use a crib until they’re four or five, depending on their height, weight, and tendency to climb, escape, or roll off a bed.
Some mini-cribs are also folding cribs, which makes them pretty dandy for taking with you when you’re on the go.
Not all cribs are suited to being disassembled and packed into the car when you’re visiting friends and family overnight. A travel crib is typically a better option if you’re flying, taking the train, or otherwise traveling without a car and space for a full crib. Travel cribs can also be useful if you’re taking your baby into the office, on a business trip, to visit a friend, or just hanging out in the yard and need to keep baby contained and safe.
This type of crib warrants a whole article to itself, given that travel cribs are usually not made of wood and are instead made with metal, plastic, and fabric. These materials all pose different health and safety concerns, which I’ll look at elsewhere.
Suffice it to say, though, that a travel crib is a great idea if you’re frequently on the go, have a more mobile baby, and will be taking them with you overnight and/or to events and meetings where you can’t keep watch on them every second. If you’re just visiting a friend, it’s a lot easier to roll up a play mat.
The quality of materials and construction not only affects the portability, potential toxicity, and safety of a crib, it also affects its durability. As I mentioned earlier, your baby is likely to use a crib for two or three years before transitioning to a big kid bed. If your crib can be converted to a bed, they might use it for several more years on top of that. And, once your baby is a big kid in a bigger bed, ideally, you would be able to either use the crib for another child or pass on the crib to a family member, friend, colleague, charity or shelter.
Durability is a key part of what makes a crib eco-friendly. A strong, sturdy crib could be used for several infants in succession without any concerns about structural integrity, safety, or aesthetics. Unfortunately, many cribs are made with soft wood or composite wood that acquires dings, dents, and more serious damage quite easily. These may only present an aesthetic concern, but they could also result in safety issues, such as when a plywood mattress base starts splitting and sagging, which could leave your baby in a very precarious situation.
Hardwood cribs tend to be much more durable and robust than cribs made with soft wood or fiberboard. They can be assembled and disassembled many times and are easier to sell on, which can make them more cost effective than less robust cribs that can’t be reused and are harder to sell. Hardwood cribs do tend to be more expensive than soft wood or fiberboard cribs, though, and they weigh more, which makes shipping costs higher and creates issues with portability.
Safety and Toxicity of Cribs sold in America
All cribs sold in the US have to adhere to Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) requirements. These requirements lay out safety standards for construction and have been refined over the years based on reports of accidents and injuries.
The elimination of cribs with drop-down sides is one example of how safety standards have changed in response to accidents and fatalities associated with cribs malfunctioning. All cribs sold in the US now have to have a rigid, stationary side, so there’s a much lower risk of a gap opening up between the mattress and the rails, where an infant could become trapped and suffocate.
Other safety changes to crib design have included narrowing the space between bars, so that babies don’t get their head or body trapped in the rails. Hands and legs and arms will still, invariably, get ‘stuck’ at 3 am, resulting in screams and wails that make it sound like the apocalypse is nigh. Just don’t put bumpers or barriers in the crib as these are more of a safety hazard than they are helpful.
Aside from structural safety, the CPSC also regulates levels of lead and some phthalates in cribs. This is a good start but doesn’t go far enough for me. Most cribs are made with treated soft wood or fiberboard that off-gasses at least one volatile organic compound (VOC). The paint or stain used on a crib can contain toxic chemicals, for example, and almost all cribs made with medium density fiberboard or plywood contain fprmaldehyde (a common ingredient in wood glue). So, even if a crib is predominantly made with wood, check to see if the mattress base is made with a wood composite. You’ll also want to check the materials used in any additional crib storage or built-in change table.
Some crib manufacturers have taken note of consumer concerns about toxic chemicals and have begun making cribs that are Greenguard Gold certified to be low VOC. Again, this doesn’t go far enough for me as I don’t think there’s any place for VOCs or other toxic chemicals in cribs given that an infant breathes 40-60 times a minute and spends most of their time sleeping. If, however, a company makes products that are Greenguard Gold Certified and clearly state that they don’t use chemicals to treat the wood, this is a good sign, especially if their entire product range is made simply with wood that is heat-treated and chemical-free.
My recommendation is to choose a hardwood crib put together without glue (or with glues that are guaranteed to be free of toxic chemicals), and that is only treated with a natural, food grade finish such as linseed oil. So, without further ado, let’s look at which hardwood cribs meet these strict criteria, and a few runners up that are also excellent options for eco-friendly, non-toxic cribs. I’ll also look at softwood cribs that are fantastic mid-range and budget options, including the crib I’ll likely purchase when the time comes.