When bedtime rolls around or it's time for a nap, you expect that your infant will be as safe in his crib as in your arms. A typical newborn sleeps up to 16 hours per day, and your child's crib should be comfortable and stress-free to make sure he gets the sleep he needs. But how safe—and healthy—are the blankets, bedding materials and stuffed toys that surround your little one?

When asked if new parents should be concerned about the safety of commercial baby bedding products, Dr. Jerome Paulson, a pediatrician and the medical director of Children's Health Advocacy Institute says, "Unfortunately, the answer to this question isn't clear—there's been no comprehensive testing of chemicals in bedding or clothing."

Dr. Paulson adds, "[but] there's reason to be concerned about chemicals such as the brominated flame retardants, formaldehyde (which may be in some types of wood used to make cribs), and the perfluorinated compounds which may be used to make fabrics 'permanent press.' Concerned parents can avoid purchasing products made with these chemicals."

Breathing problems are the biggest concern with infants and chemical-filled bedding. A study done in 2000 by the journal "Archives of Environmental Health" found that mice exposed to chemicals in typical crib mattresses experienced breathing difficulty and airway irritation. The American Academy of Pediatrics advises caution, but notes that it's hard to draw conclusions from animal studies. In the absence of comprehensive laws or guidelines, it's important for you to educate yourself and read the labels of baby bedding to make sure your little one is safe and sound as he sleeps. Here are some simple guidelines:

  • Don't Overdo it. Curb any temptation to fill your baby's crib with luxurious blankets, pillows and toys. Plush may be your preference, but the AAP warns that overly soft baby bedding and blankets may be contributing factors in SIDS deaths. Too many blankets can also cause overheating, which has been linked to an increased risk of "crib death." In addition to lowering the risk of SIDS, keeping your baby's bed simple will decrease toxic or allergic reactions from exposure to too much bedding materials.
  • Do Your Research: Many sheets, blankets and pillows designed for children are treated with chemicals—such as formaldehyde—that are linked to respiratory problems in lab animals, but the link to human respiratory problems is currently inconclusive. Carefully read the labels on everything that you buy for your child. Most textiles sold in the US, including baby bedding, are required by law to disclose added chemicals. Substances to be aware of are: Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC) (a component in many baby mattresses); Phthalates; Polyurethane Foam; Polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs) (fire retardant); anything with the word "brominated" in it. Many commercial crib mattresses are treated with flame retardant chemicals. Inexpensive crib mattresses can also contain polyurethane foam with a vinyl covering for waterproofing. These chemicals can give off gases called VOC's (volatile organic compounds) that are potentially harmful to tiny, vulnerable lungs.
  • Go Green When You Can: To be on the safe side, stick to natural fibers for your baby's bedding and clothing says Debra Lynn Dadd, consumer activist and author of Toxic Free. Purchasing bedding made from natural material bypasses most of the toxic problems of fire retardants and formaldehyde fabric finishes. Harmful waterproofing chemicals and fire retardants are most commonly added to synthetic fibers. According to Dadd, all-cotton or all-wool blankets and bed clothes are best.
  • Know The Lingo: Understand what the term organic means, and how it differs from marketing terms like eco or green. The terms green and natural don't guarantee a safer product, so be sure to read the label to confirm your new blankie uses mostly natural materials. The word organic, when used with bedding, also means that the material itself—usually cotton or wool—was grown without pesticides. Natural means that it is a natural material (such as cotton) and not a synthetic.

Above all be safe—and sensible. Commercial crib mattress and bedding safety has improved greatly in recent years, so don't panic if your natural new baby sheets aren't organic. The 2008 Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act banned the sale of some children's products containing chemicals, like phthalates, that used to be common. It didn't however, pull existing products off the market—most are still available for purchase.

For safer sleep, check out these brands:

  • Naturepedic: Naturepedic makes a whole line of organic crib mattresses, blankets, bedding, changing pads and more. Their stuff isn't cheap, but their chemical-free products are perfect for your tiny tot. They also advertise themselves as GOT (Global Organic Textile Standard) certified. Materials that are GOT certified must meet the requirements of the USDA's National Organic Program (NOP).
  • IKEA: For a cheaper alternative, check out IKEA's line of Sultan baby mattresses. The material may not be organic, but IKEA does not use brominated flame retardants, phthalate plasticisers and other toxic chemicals. IKEA has stated that it's phased out the use of these chemicals worldwide.
  • Eco Sleep Shop: This website offers organic bedding and mattresses from many small vendors like Suite Sleep, Holy Lamb Organics and Coyuchi at a variety of price points. Check out their customer product ratings and great info on organic materials. You can find natural and organic bed toys, baby clothes and more on this comprehensive and informative site.

So, arm yourself with good information and a practical approach and you and you baby can enjoy peaceful—and healthy—sleep.