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Buying Guide: Crib Bedding & Swaddles

February 2015

Your child's crib bedding will serve as a focal point within the nursery — as well as a critical foundation for a safe sleeping environment. The wide range of products available, in conjunction with serious safety concerns such as SIDS, can make the decision as to what baby will sleep on daunting. However, with a little guidance, you can make smart bedding decisions that will keep your little bundle of joy safe, comfortable, and looking cute!

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Types

Crib bedding includes more than just linens. Here’s the lowdown on the most common types of crib bedding.

Mattress protectors

This first layer on top of your mattress is designed to protect it — to keep it clean from spit up, accidents, dust, and general wear and tear. There are several different types of protectors: they can be flat (i.e. sit on top of the mattress) or fitted (i.e. also hug the sides of the mattress), or encase the entire mattress (including the bottom). Some also include some padding for additional comfort.

Fitted sheet

As with adult versions, the fitted sheet fits snugly over the crib mattress. Flat sheets are not typically used in cribs; if you choose to use one, you should wait to introduce it until after the first year.

Crib quilt or comforter

These are loose quilts, blankets, or comforters that are sized specifically to fit cribs. However, based on American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommendations, they should not be used until baby is at least one year old, for safety reasons. Washable versions can be used on their own; others may require a duvet cover.

Bumpers

Crib bumpers (also known as bumper pads or crib liners) provide a protective lining around the inside of the crib. Typically tied to the crib slats, they were initially conceived to provide a layer of cushioning and to prevent baby's limbs from getting stuck between the slats, but later also became a key decorative element. However, due to a history of infant deaths due to bumper-related suffocation and strangulation, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) currently recommends not using any bumpers in the crib. Parents who absolutely can't stand the thought of naked crib slats may use bumpers or "safer" alternatives (such as breathable mesh liners or Wonder Bumpers) at their own risk.

Crib bumpers of any type are not recommended by the AAP. Traditional crib bumpers (left) pose suffocation and entrapment risks. Alternatives such as breathable mesh bumpers (center) and Wonder Bumpers (right) are "safer" alternatives, but are still not encouraged. Credit: Bedtime Originals (left), BreathableBaby (center), Go Mama Go (right)

Crib skirts

Similar to a regular-size bed skirt, crib skirts span the space between the mattress and the floor. They provide a decorative element, and can also help to conceal any items you choose to store beneath the crib.

Crib bedding sets

Crib bedding sets typically consist of at least a fitted sheet, a comforter, and a crib skirt; some also include a bumper, a diaper stacker, a window valance, and more. Bedding sets are a popular and easy way to achieve a consistent theme in a nursery, however choose wisely to avoid buying items that you don't actually need.

Crib bedding sets are cute and convenient, but often contain unnecessary or even unsafe components. Shop carefully! Credit: Geenny

Swaddles

There are two types of swaddles: blankets and aids. Swaddle blankets are basically large square pieces of fabric (e.g., receiving blankets). Pre-formed swaddle aids are sewn into shape and/or incorporate fasteners such as velcro, snaps, or wrap-around flaps, and generally take the work out of swaddling from scratch.

Traditional swaddle blankets (left) are square and versatile. Swaddle aids (right) are designed to be even easier to take on/off. Credit: aden + anais, Summer Infant

Wearable blankets

Wearable blankets (a.k.a. "sleep sacks") are essentially sleeping bags that encompass your baby to keep her warm at night without the danger of covering her face or getting tangled around her neck (as a traditional blanket might). They come in both sleeved and sleeveless varieties, and typically zip or snap up the front or bottom.

Halo (left) and Merino Kids (right) sell two of our top recommended sleep sacks. Credit: Halo, Merino Kids

Buying advice

Buying a crib bedding set vs. buying piecemeal

Before going on a bedding buying spree, familiarize yourself with the latest AAP guidelines and think critically about what you actually need. Many parents can’t resist buying a full crib bedding set, only to realize later that they actually only needed one or two pieces.

If you find a crib bedding set that you love and want to be the centerpiece of your nursery design, that’s fine, as long as you understand that you probably won’t use several of the core pieces, at least not immediately: namely, the bumper (not recommended by the AAP at any age) and the loose quilt/comforter (not recommended until at least 12 months).

If on the other hand you’re a minimalist, all you really need for the first 12 to 24 months is a mattress protector, a couple of fitted sheets, and a few swaddles and wearable blankets.

What you really need at each stage

Here’s more detail on exactly what you’ll need for each stage of your baby’s development.

  • From birth to rolling over (approximately two to four months): A mattress protector and fitted sheet(s) for wherever your baby is going to sleep (e.g. co-sleeper, bassinet, crib), plus a few swaddles to promote better sleep.
  • From rolling over through 12 to 24 months: As soon as baby starts showing signs of trying to roll over, it’s time to transition him from a swaddle to a wearable blanket. Also, if you transition baby from a bassinet or co-sleeper to a crib, you’ll obviously need to make sure you have fitted sheets and a mattress protector in the new size.
  • 12 to 24+ months: After the age of one, whenever your child is ready, you can introduce a real quilt/blanket/comforter and/or toddler-sized pillow. (If your toddler continues to kick off blankets, there are also sleep sacks that fit through four years old.) Also, whenever you transition to a twin bed, you’ll obviously need bigger sheets and a mattress protector (probably a bulletproof one, depending how potty training is going).

Features to look for

  • Materials: Are you willing to pay more for all natural materials (e.g. cotton/wool), or is synthetic (e.g. cotton/poly blend, polyester fleece) OK? Cotton is our favorite material for bedding — soft, natural, breathable, and easy to care for. If you are going to spring for organic cotton, be aware that many organic bedding products still have poly fill inside; look for 100% cotton filling if that's important to you. Polyester fleece is very efficient at generating warmth, but is not recommended (especially for younger babies who cannot communicate) due to risk of overheating. Wool is a premium bedding material that is breathable and auto-regulates temperature.
  • Quality: Consider softness/hand feel, thread count, and the propensity to pill or shrink.
  • Warmth: The climate and season will help you decide between light/summerweight and heavy/winterweight bedding.
  • Non-toxic: If important to you, look for organic materials. Also, for mattress protectors, look for a “safer” waterproofing layer such as polyethylene or breathable TPU-coated polyester (avoid products that contain polyurethane or are made of vinyl).
  • Waterproofness and breathability: It’s critical for mattress protectors to be genuinely waterproof (not just water-resistant). Natural fibers (e.g. cotton, wool) are more breathable, but will simply not cut it unless coated with a synthetic layer.
  • Care instructions: Easy care is simply a must have for any baby bedding item. Run like the wind from any item that can't be machine washed or tumble dried!
  • Longevity: Consider the life span of the product — for example, some sleep sacks are sized (only fit for six months), whereas others will grow with your child (can fit for up to two years).
  • Fit: Fitted sheets should fit snugly; elastic edges and reinforced corners help ensure a snug fit. Don’t forget to take into account the mattress protector, which could affect the sheet fit.
  • Convenience/ease of use: Features that may seem minor can end up making a big difference in your daily routine. For example, do you want the mattress protector to be secured with elastic or zippers? Do you prefer swaddling with a blanket or a swaddle aid?

Usage tips & safety

Creating a safe sleeping environment

To reduce the risk of SIDS and other sleep-related infant deaths, the AAP and the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) urge parents and caregivers to:

  • Put infants to sleep on a firm sleep surface and on their backs in the first year of life;
  • Keep any loose bedding (blankets, pillows, bumpers) and stuffed toys out of the crib;
  • Ensure sheets and mattress protectors fit snugly; and
  • Forgo sleep positioners
Bare cribs are best for infants under one year old.

The CPSC does not recommend co-sleeping, i.e. sleeping in the same bed as baby. Adult bedding, soft mattresses and the possibility of parents rolling on to baby make co-sleeping risky, according to the CPSC. But experts say that sleeping in the same room, but separately (for example using a bassinet, co-sleeper, or "sidecar"), for the first few months may lower the chances of SIDS.

Sleeping in the same room as baby reduces the risk of SIDS. Our favorite option is a co-sleeping "sidecar" that attaches to and sits flush with the bed, like the one shown here from Babybay. Credit: BabyBay

Swaddling safely

Newborns are used to the security of the womb, so it’s no wonder that they love being wrapped like a burrito. Swaddling makes them feel cozy and secure and inhibits the startle reflex — the sudden movement of arms and legs that can otherwise wake them up.

Here are four tips to make sure you’re swaddling safely:

  • Make sure the swaddle is snug, so it doesn’t come undone. Loose material bunching up around baby’s face is hazardous. If you have a little Houdini who is able to wriggle free of traditional swaddles too easily, consider using a swaddle aid that is easier to secure.
  • Make sure baby’s legs are in a hip-healthy position. The legs should be able to bend up and out at the hips; they should not be tightly wrapped pressed together and straight down, lest you increase the risk of hip dysplasia.
  • Check to make sure your baby isn’t too hot (overheating can increase the risk of SIDS) by checking for signs such as red cheeks or heat rash.
  • Transition baby out of the swaddle at the appropriate time. Guidelines have changed over time; today the AAP only officially advises swaddling for the first two months, because some babies develop the ability to roll over soon after that (and it’s dangerous to roll over when swaddled). However, many parents of babies who are not yet rolling over are able to continue swaddling safely until three to four months; some, for even longer.

For a step-by-step guide to swaddling your baby safely, check out the International Hip Dysplasia Institute’s Hip Healthy Swaddling page or BabyCenter’s video tutorial.