ST. LOUIS — Before children pick out a bedtime story, parents have to choose what their little ones will wear to sleep. And the decision isn't an easy one.
Parents are often confused by a long-running debate about how best to protect children from fire hazards.
For 25 years, the federal government banned cotton sleepwear. But last year, in a bow to parental preference, the US Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) began allowing all-cotton pjs for kids - as long as they are skin tight.
For parents like Susan Thomas, a St. Louis mother of four sons, the revised guidelines are a relief. For years, Mrs. Thomas shunned the rows of officially sanctioned pajamas, buying cotton sweatpants or shorts and T-shirts as pjs. "The polyester things were so rough and didn't breathe," she says.
Thomas is precisely the kind of parent the CPSC is trying to reach. "The amended standard allows parents to buy cotton sleepwear that is safe," says CPSC spokesman Russ Rader. "We're hoping that parents will put their children to bed in snug-fitting cotton and understand how dangerous it is to dress them in loose-fitting garments."
The biggest concern is T-shirts. Before the child goes to bed, oversized cotton shirts are at risk of catching fire from a stove, space heater, or fireplace, says the CPSC.
The commission has stressed that only "skin-tight" cotton pajamas are being approved under the guidelines. Close-fitting pjs are less likely to come into contact with a flame, and, even if that happens, they would burn more slowly since there is less air to feed the fire. In a study of burn accidents since 1993, the CPSC found no injuries associated with tight cotton sleepwear.
The proliferation of polyester pjs dates back 25 years. Federal flammability standards adopted in the mid-1970s required children's sleepwear to be made of self-extinguishing fabric - polyester or chemically treated fabric.
But in the 1980s, parents began rejecting synthetic materials in favor of softer, natural fibers. Retailers, anxious to meet the demand, began carrying more cotton "long johns" that could be worn as pajamas. These close-fitting outfits did not conform to the guidelines and were marked "Not Intended for Sleepwear." Yet sales soared. For many parents, "Not Intended for Sleepwear" became an advertisement for more appealing pajamas. Ultimately, the pressure these parents put on the marketplace led to the revision.
While some parents are feeling vindicated, not everyone is resting peacefully over this issue.
"Why change what works?" asks Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D) of Connecticut. Her bill to reinstate the previous flammability standard, which banned all-cotton sleepwear, has been blocked by Republican House members from cotton-growing states. Advocates of the original standard point to a 10-fold decrease in deaths associated with children's sleepwear since the flammability standard was enacted in 1972.
Despite that record of success, there is a need for change, Mr. Rader insists. "The fact is that the old standard was not working," he says. "We've got a problem when 200 to 300 kids a year are going to hospital emergency rooms with burn injuries caused from wearing loose-fitting cotton garments."
CPSC Commissioner Thomas Moore, who cast the deciding vote in favor of the change, says his vote was contingent on an education campaign by the apparel industry.
Some retailers are hanging tags on garments or placing signs on racks of cotton pjs explaining the guidelines.
But manufacturers aren't rushing to to conform to the CPSC's size specifications. The American Apparel Manufacturers Association has appealed to the CPSC to allow for a slightly more-relaxed fit. Jack Morgan, spokesman for the association, says, "The pajamas are designed to be so tight that many parents aren't going to want to put their children in them. Parents will just buy a larger size and defeat the flame-resistant quality of tight-fitting pajamas."
FLAMMABILITY GUIDELINES FOR PJS
* Garments labeled and sold as sleepwear for children younger than nine months no longer need to be flame-resistant. Babies this young are not considered mobile enough to expose themselves to fire.
* Sizes larger than nine months must be flame resistant or snug-fitting. Close-fitting garments do not need to be flame resistant because they are less likely to come in contact with an open flame, do not catch fire easily, and, even if ignited, there is little oxygen to feed a fire.
* "Snug-fitting" garments should follow exact length and width measurements for each size. The pajamas are required to touch a child's body at the chest, waist, seat, thigh, ankle, wrist, and upper arm.
Source: US Consumer Product Safety Commission