Crib mattress

Navigating the maze of crib mattresses involves more than just heading to the nearest baby store. (MCT/Tom Uhlenbrock)

And you thought choosing a name was hard.

Navigating the maze of crib mattresses involves more than noting your crib's measurements and heading to the nearest baby store -- especially if you're concerned about the chemical makeup of your child's bed.

We turned to Sonya Lunder, senior analyst at the Environmental Working Group (ewg.org), for pointers on choosing a mattress that lets you all sleep soundly (albeit in two-hour increments). Lunder has a master's of public health from the University of California, Berkeley, and specializes in the risks posed to children's health by toxins and pesticides. Her three tips:

Avoid vinyl: This is not easy, as the vast majority of crib mattresses are covered in vinyl for water resistance. But it's Lunder's No. 1 priority.

Vinyl is a hard plastic (PVC) with chemical plasticizers (often phthalates) added for flexibility. Many environmental and health professionals question the safety of PVC and phthalates, which may damage the liver, increase the risk of asthma and act as endocrine disrupters.

A couple of options: Naturepedic mattresses are covered in polyethylene, a waterproof plastic used in food packaging and lauded for its non-toxic properties. Available at naturepedic.com and target.com, they range in price from $259 to $399. IKEA mattresses are covered in a cotton/polyester blend and range from $39.99 to $79.99. For mattress covers, Lunder recommends cotton, wool or water-resistant polypropylene, which emits fewer toxic chemicals than vinyl.

Know your chemicals: Because polyurethane foam, which many mattresses are stuffed with, is so flammable, chemical fire retardants are added to meet safety standards.

True, your child won't be smoking in bed (nor are you likely to leave a burning cigarette in a crib), but the laws are in place to protect children who play with matches or lighters.

Some manufacturers use brominated flame retardants, which are banned in several states. Others use less toxic chemicals, and still others stuff their mattresses with materials that aren't as flammable (such as cotton) and require fewer retardants. But finding out what a specific manufacturer does is no small feat.

"It's hard to deal with as a consumer issue because manufactures are all doing pretty similar things," says Lunder. "A lot of things advertised as natural may be on some level, but they may not be free of fire retardants."

Lunder suggests airing the mattress before your child sleeps on it.

"When you buy a new couch or a new mattress, it smells very intensely from the curing of the foam," Lunder says. "Leave it in a different room until you can't smell that chemical smell anymore."

Look beyond "organic": Don't focus too much on "organic cotton filling."

"The idea that pesticides from the cotton are getting to your kid is not that likely," Lunder says.

However, she notes, a mattress filled with cotton will likely contain fewer chemicals than one filled with foam and is obviously better for the environment. But if "organic" means a big jump in price, take a pass.

hstevens@tribune.com