The Pajama Game


Stores that sell marijuana paraphernalia often display signs that say something like, "Water pipes are for smoking tobacco only." Such notices are an attempt to stay within the letter of the law, even though both the merchant and the customer know what's really going on.

I recently experienced a similar situation when I tried to buy summer pajamas for my daughter. I went to half a dozen stores, but none of them carried cotton sleepwear.

Instead, they had "brushed cotton sets," "short johns," and various unidentified items that looked and felt like pajamas but were not officially intended for that use. "You can call them anything you want," said one sales clerk.

As many parents know, this little charade is brought to you by the Consumer Products Safety Commission (CPSC), which has insisted since the 1970s that children's pajamas (size 14 and under) be flame-resistant. In practice, this has meant pajamas made from polyester rather than cotton.

Because cotton is more comfortable that polyester, many parents dress their kids in politically incorrect sleepwear. These subversives have learned to read between the lines of children's clothing labels.

At Macy's, for example, I found yellow cotton shorts by Joe Boxer hanging next to matching T-shirts. Both carried tags announcing, "Not intended for sleep." The print motif, appropriately enough, was a winking smiley face.

Nearby were sets of cotton shorts and shirts by Charter Club, decorated with pictures of bedtime implements and the words "Wash/Scrub/Brush." A tag identified the clothing as "short johns."

At the Disney Store, a cotton Winnie-the-Pooh shorts set was hanging side by side with nightgowns and bathrobes. The tag did not describe the item, but it did warn, "Keep away from fire."

Federal regulators aren't stupid. After two decades of such subterfuge, the CPSC realized that its regulations were not stopping parents who were determined to buy comfortable pajamas for their children. So in April 1996, the commission voted to allow cotton sleepwear.

There was a catch, however. To reduce the risk of burns, cotton pajamas had to be "tight-fitting," as defined by specific measurements. That requirement, of course, tends to undermine comfort, which is the main concern of parents who prefer cotton sleepwear for their kids.

Consequently, manufacturers did not rush to take advantage of the new standard, which went into effect in January 1997. According to the industry magazine Children's Business, "Most feel the new maximum dimensions for non-flame-retardant sleepwear, the tightest in history, make the legal products unattractive and unsaleable as sleepwear." Said one manufacturer, "They seem to be mandating products people won't want to buy."

Although the selection on store racks is not discernibly different under the new rules,some activists and politicians say the decision to allow tight-fitting cotton pajamas was reckless. "By relaxing the standards governing children's sleepwear, the Consumer Products Safety Commission is truly playing with fire and risking our children's safety," Representative Rosa L. DeLaura (D-Conn.) recently told The Washington Post.

In defense of its decision, the CPSC says burn injuries almost never involve tight-fitting pajamas. But the critics worry that sneaky parents will find a way around the new standard, buying larger sizes to compensate for the tighter fit.

The critics note that annual deaths due to clothing ignition among children under the age of 15 fell from 60 in 1970 to four in 1995. It's hard to know how much of this drop should be attributed to the pajama regulations; factors such as the decline in smoking, safer portable heaters, and greater awareness of fire hazards probably also played a role.

In any case, since Americans under the age of 15 number in the tens of millions, these figures indicate that deaths from pajamas that catch fire have always been very rare–much less common than drowning in backyard swimming pools, for example. The risk for any given child can be further reduced through caution and common sense. As The Boston Globe notes, "The best prevention is making sure your child is never exposed to open flames in the household, such as candles, gas stoves, or cigarette lighters."

Since the risk is tiny and controllable through other means, parents should not feel guilty about "compromising kids' safety for comfort," as one business writer described the choice to buy cotton (non)pajamas. But to avoid making salespeople nervous, they should probably keep the decision to themselves.