When I first heard about memory foam many years ago I was seriously impressed by the fact that it was invented by NASA.
For me, that was enough – I was instantly sold on the idea. Next step was to convince my parents to furnish my room with a new state of the art hi-tech mattress because it was created for and used by astronauts, which I thought was brilliant. I’ll confess I never considered the cost of a memory foam mattress back then, after all it was Mum & Dad’s money.
I did delve a little further into what was memory foam but only got as far as discovering that it was made from a substance called viscoelastic, which is both highly energy absorbent and soft, molds to the body in response to heat and pressure, evenly distributes body weight, and then … almost by magic it returns to its original shape once you remove the pressure. I never did get the mattress, so I guess it must have been expensive or my parents just thought that I would do alright with what I had. They weren’t wrong!
My long hot nights on a Memory Foam Mattress
Over the course of my early adult years I did finally get the opportunity to sleep on memory foam mattresses on several occasions and noted that each time the morning afterwards that I had not really enjoyed the experience as much as I thought I would. On each occasion the initial reaction crawling into bed onto the mattress was one of extreme comfort and the feeling that this was indeed something special. However, also on each occasion, I awoke some hours later sweating and overheating, particularly on the parts of my body that were in contact with the foam and I no longer felt I that I was enjoying the experience or sleeping well.
On one occasion I became keenly aware of an obvious chemical smell in the room that got stronger when I was lying on top of the mattress. I was not made nauseous by the smell, nor did I get any headaches, as I have read about in some reports on other people’s various negative reactions, but I was very conscious indeed of the odour.
At that particular time of my life, before easy access internet was the norm, I was not aware of the concerns about what possible nasty chemicals where involved in the manufacturing of memory foam and therefore not worried about the possible danger some of these harmful volatile organic compounds (VOCs) presented. Say what you like about the internet, but it does mean we don’t have much of an excuse anymore to stay ignorant on things that may affect our health.
The Cot Mattress is the Most Important New Parent Purchase
Moving on a decade or so later, as part of my career in the baby and parenting products industry, cot mattresses became an important part of the product range I represented. For me, the cot mattress is the most important purchase made by any parent as this is where the baby spends more than half their day and should therefore be considered very carefully. It is definitely one purchase where, if possible, cost should not be a defining factor in the selection process. I would even say that the cot mattress choice is more important that the cot itself.
Even the Plastics Guys say Memory Foam is a ‘No No’ for Baby Mattresses
One day in 2006 a copy of a communication landed on my desk with regard to memory foam. It was a memorandum by the British Plastics Federation to all its members, including mattress and furniture manufacturers, advising them that in their opinion – viscoelastic foam (i.e. memory foam) may be incompatible with precautions laid down in the national safety standards for the construction of nursery cot bed mattresses and that there may be potential dangers from indentation and consequent restriction of breathing. (You can see the full document here)
For me, this seemed perfectly logical based on my own experience of memory foam mattresses for adults. I also thought it to be common sense and believed that no company in their right mind would dare think of using this type of foam to construct a baby mattress or pillow.
How wrong I was. Several years on I can now see that there are quite a few companies worldwide producing memory foam mattresses for babies. But in an attempt to evade the negative attributes of memory foam in relation to babies and young children, they have substituted the name of the foam to a made up name that rids it of the word “memory” as if laying claim to something new and better. But the reality is that it is still a type of viscoelastic foam.
Why Memory Foam Cot Mattresses are a Seriously Bad Idea
Chemical emissions – These can cause respiratory irritation in adults, but the problem is considerably worse for babies as their lungs are so much smaller, not as developed as an older person, and much more sensitive to VOCs (volatile organic compounds). These emissions can affect the development of the baby’s liver, kidney, cardiovascular system and central nervous system.
Dust mites – A 2002 Norwegian study found that foam mattresses are 4 to 8 times more likely to host dust mite faeces than other types of mattresses. This can increase the chance of a child developing asthma and allergies.
Fire retardant chemical additives – Memory foam is combustible and indeed high levels of fire retardant need to be added in order to make the mattress resistant to open flames. Again, bad for adults but for young children much more harmful.
Risk of suffocation – One of the recommendations for a baby’s safe sleep is to place them on their backs. After several months however they develop the muscles and strength to turn themselves over onto their front. Depending on the firmness of the mattress, this could present a risk of suffocation or the possibility of carbon dioxide rebreathing. A baby mattress should be very firm and should not be selected for softness and comfort as you would for yourself, but rather based on the recognised European, American and British safety standards where firmer is better and safer for your baby. All foam mattresses have the possibility of not being firm enough but it is very obvious with memory foam as you can see from the immediate indentation. If a baby manages to turn on their front, the foam could possibly mould around their mouth and airway restricting their breathing. Even if it has not moulded around their mouth, there is still the chance of carbon dioxide pooling which foam can be prone to. This is when the carbon dioxide being exhaled from the mouth is rebreathed in before it has had the chance to dissipate and this could increase the chances of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS).
Overheating – Another risk for babies is their bodies becoming too hot due to too much clothing, too much bedding in the cot, temperature in the room too high with a lack of air circulation, but more alarmingly with memory foam is the risk that it can mold around the baby’s body too much and increase the chance of overheating leading to the possibility of heat stroke or even worse the risk of SIDS. The main problem here with a memory foam baby mattress is that the thermometer in the baby’s room may indicate the recommended temperature of between 16C (61F) and 20C (68F), but it is unable to detect the rising temperature of a baby’s body if the foam has molded around the underneath of their body, trapping the air with nowhere for it to escape and causing their body temperature to rise.
My advice, when choosing a baby mattress or pillow, is to avoid foam if possible. At the very least, avoid all types of viscoelastic foam by whatever made up name it goes under.
In short, (with a hat tip to NASA), as far as cot mattresses go, memory foam is for spacers.