The real reason kids’ pajamas are ridiculously tight

Every parent learns that you have to buy kids’ cotton pajamas two sizes too big. We’re not supposed to, according to the yellow hang tags from an unidentified authority, but that is how it’s done in reality.

Otherwise, kids look and feel like they’re wearing too-tight body stockings, and no one wants to sleep that way. (What if you get an itch? You’d then need to completely undress, sliding off that clingy cotton peel just to scratch your thigh.)

If the pajamas you buy in your kid’s size fit more reasonably, it’s because they are made of synthetic fibers (which may or may not have been chemically treated long before the fabric became pajamas) or have been made thoroughly coated in flame retardants that must make it through at least 50 washes in all their chemical goodness.

How did these pajama rules come about? And how many kids in loose cotton jammies were truly in danger before these regulations first came into effect in the 1970s? (And couldn’t that risk have a lot to do with the vastly greater numbers of parents who had cigarettes dangling from their lips in 1975?)

The tight fit is considered protective because no loose fabric means less of a chance that a sleeve or pant leg will be set ablaze.

And the rule change in the 1970s did result in a significant reduction in fire injuries to children. That was back when the manufacturers were using a few flame retardants that were so obviously hazardous to health that they were swiftly banned in 1977.

Today, I can safely say I seldom hold my children over an open flame. Particularly not when they are wearing pajamas. But then again, mine hardly ever wear pajamas anymore since they’re are so darned uncomfortable. The synthetic fibers are too heavy, and the cotton versions are too clingy. I like fire safety, but I also like having kids who will fall asleep at night.

But these fire-safe jammie laws mean nothing if everyone buys a bigger size or ditches the clothes for loose T-shirts and shorts. It’s common sense to avoid clothes that smell like chemicals. It’s common sense to buy clothes that fit. And it’s common sense to keep the kids away from things that make fire.

Until recently I was under the impression that these laws existed to protect kids who woke up in burning homes, but I was wrong. In 2000, a memo from the Consumer Product Safety Commission stated that children should only wear cotton pajamas when they are snug because loose garments catch fire fast. The press release notes, “Children are most at risk from burn injuries that result from playing with fire (matches, lighters, candles, burners on stoves) just before bedtime and just after rising in the morning.”

It sounds to me that rather than changing the clothes, fire prevention experts need to work on looking into households where kids routinely play with fire before bedtime. Limiting access to matches and lighters and teaching kids not to turn on the stove might be, say, a whole lot more effective. Guards that prevent young children from being able to turn on the stove would be a good move, too.

And maybe the parents could just make sure they occasionally look in on the kids. (Sadly, I know, that’s sometimes too much to ask.) I’d have to say that tight cotton pajamas and chemical-coated polyester blends certainly do seem to be a Band-Aid here.

They aren’t really doing the job, either, if most people avoid buying the products. It’s a little like banning brown wooly coats so children don’t get shot by hunters. It’s the free-ranging gun that’s the problem! Just like it’s the free-ranging fire sources that prompted these rules.

Let’s start a movement instead to get the lighters and matches away from kids, and outfit every home with a stove guard.

Do you break the fire safety regulations, too, or do you follow every last rule to the letter? Let’s discuss that in the comments.


  1. Our Busy Life

    My daughter is so skinny tight pajamas aren’t a problem. Finding some that will stay around her waist is. I used to be a newspaper reporter and I wrote a story about a girl whose nightgown caught on fire. The home didn’t have any heat (I think it was a temporary issue) and she was standing on a stool warming her hands over the gas burner. She spun around the jump down, the nightgown billowed out and caught fire. You aren’t supposed to use a stove to heat the house but people do sometimes stick their hands over the burner to warm up. She could have been helping to cook while wearing a dress and the same thing could have happened.

    1. Jillian O'Connor (Post author)

      Thanks for sharing your story! That sounds awful. I hope she was all right. It is interesting that it could occur with a dress as well.

  2. LSmith

    I actually was a child in the 70s who was in a house fire. I was wearing a flame retardant footed pj and it saved my life. I did not play with matches or fire. But there were lots of fire safety ads at the time and countless adults would ask me “did you play with matches?” because my arm was burned. So easy I guess to find a way to blame a child or parent for an accident. Seems to be the way. :-/

  3. Judy Wisenburn

    The winter of 75/76 a friends home caught on fire. A small electric heater malfunctioned. It was in the childrens bedroom. Thankfully-Mom had let the one child slip into her bed that night otherwise she would have died. The two older kids 6 /4 ?? Spent months in a burn unit.
    They had only used this heater to warm the room up when the kids first went to bed. They didn’t leave it on all night.
    Regulate space heaters no add chemicals to kids pjs.


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