Do I need to worry about my kid's pee-stained mattress?

A photo illustration shows two miniature workers in hazmat suits steam cleaning a mattress as a teddy bear sits on it nearby.
Do you need to worry about your child’s pee-stained mattress? (Photo illustration: Jay Sprogell for Yahoo; photos: Getty Images) (Photo illustration: Jay Sprogell for Yahoo; photos: Getty Images)

At some point, almost every parent will be faced with a decision: what to do with a mattress that has a distinctive yellow urine stain. Maybe a baby’s full diaper sprung a leak during their nap, a toddler had a bed-wetting accident in the middle of the night or an older kid didn’t get up to use the bathroom because they were too tired. The child gets cleaned up, the sheets go in the wash and the Lysol comes out. But is their mattress — which, let’s be honest, you’re unlikely to discard until they’ve outgrown it — still safe to sleep on, or is it, like your beloved yellowing pillow, a potential health hazard?

According to Dr. Kristen Cook, a pediatrician with Ascension Medical Group, 10 to 15% percent of 7-year-olds routinely wet the bed and 1 to 3% of teens still have the occasional accident. But even though bed-wetting is relatively common, parents rarely raise the issue of pee-stained mattresses with their doctors. That said, she adds, “mattress safety is an important topic” because the state of a child’s mattress can impact their well-being.

“Regularly replacing and maintaining a clean mattress is part of the total picture of maintenance of a child’s health, ensuring better sleep quality and reducing health concerns associated with allergens and pathogens,” agrees Dr. Christina Johns, a pediatrician and senior medical adviser at PM Pediatric Care.

Here’s what parents need to know.

What’s happening with your child’s mattress

Even under the best conditions, mattresses “can become home to a number of microscopic organisms, including dust mites, bacteria and fungus,” Cook says. Dead skin cells and nighttime sweating “contribute to the development of these unwanted critters,” she explains.

Children are harder on mattresses than adults, who, on average, sleep less and are much less likely to have any issue with bed-wetting. “Your child’s mattress is subjected to more than regular use,” Cook says, so there are more opportunities for mattresses to become soiled. As a mother of two, Cook has cleaned “pee, poop, vomit” off her children’s mattresses. Urine, she adds, is the most common mattress stain that parents complain about.

When secretions like urine wind up on a mattress, bacteria, dust mites and fungus replicate more quickly. “Warm, wet and humid are the ideal conditions for these organisms to grow and thrive,” Cook says.

Dust mites in particular pose a threat to children’s health. Although they won’t cause new conditions to develop, Cook explains that “millions of people are allergic to dust mites, and exposure to these creatures can lead to symptoms of nasal congestion, frequent sneezing, runny nose, itching, watery eyes and skin rashes.” In addition, dust mites can also trigger asthma attacks in affected children, “leading to coughing, wheezing and shortness of breath,” she says.

But while cleanup may be disgusting, Cook says that “in the great majority of cases, urine or poop stains on a mattress are more of an annoyance than a health risk, as long as the mattress and bedding are cleaned appropriately.” Even if children experience short-term effects, there is no data showing long-term health risks from sleeping on a mattress that has been soiled, even with urine, Johns adds.

What can parents do after a bed-wetting accident?

Accidents happen, and parents can be proactive to make cleanup easier. Cook recommends a good offense against urine. “Make sure to use a high-quality mattress pad,” she recommends. If your child frequently wets the bed, Cook also suggests adding “waterproof, washable bed mats.”

If you walk into your child’s room and are hit with the stench of urine, don’t panic. Marla Mock, president of the Neighborly cleaning service Molly Maid, tells Yahoo Life it’s possible to save a pee-stained mattress with five steps. First, she recommends working fast to absorb as much of the mess as possible with a dry towel. “Remember to blot the area, not scrub,” she says. Next, she suggests letting a mixture of 3 tablespoons of baking soda, 8 ounces of hydrogen peroxide and 1 or 2 drops of dish soap sit on the stain for 15 minutes. Then rinse the area with a towel dipped in cool water until all cleaning residue is gone, and blot “with a dry towel until you can’t remove any more liquid.” Mock says to then “let the mattress air-dry completely, which may take several hours.” If you don’t have hours to wait, she recommends speeding up the process by “moving the mattress into the sun or by setting up a fan to blow on it.” To remove any lingering smells, Mock recommends deodorizing “by sprinkling a bit of baking soda on the treated area once it has dried completely” and vacuuming the mattress to remove the residue.

Although the thought of sleeping on a stained mattress is stomach-churning for most, there is no need to examine your child’s mattress regularly if they are “not a known bed-wetter,” says Cook. “You can certainly take a peek at the mattress on laundry day,” she suggests. “Most stains will lead to a color change, an odor change or both.” Cook recommends washing bedding at least once a week both to maintain good hygiene and so that you can spot any new stains before they sit too long.

The takeaway

Having to deal with a soaked mattress can be a pain — and those telltale yellowing stains can be unsightly. Ultimately, however, there’s little risk to anyone’s health, so long as the bed is kept clean (or cleaned up) and allergies aren’t a concern.

Bottom line: As long as urine is dealt with promptly, it’s OK to keep the mattress until it reaches the standard life span. According to Cook, even mattresses that have never come into contact with urine should be replaced every eight to 12 years.