Flame Retardants in Baby Sleepwear: the Invisible Poison

Emily in her Fleece PJs (Before I Knew about Flame Retardants in Sleepwear)

Emily in her Fleece PJs (Before I Knew about Flame Retardants in Sleepwear)

I learned last week that pretty much all of the baby microfleece sleepwear out there is coated with flame retardants. So, today, I spent the afternoon going through Emily’s sleepwear and chucking all of the microfleece. I suppose that somewhere in the back of my mind, I suspected that it was all toxic, but the prints were cute, and I had other topics to think about. I recently joined DiaperSwappers, and one of the discussion threads mentioned the flame retardants used in fleece pajamas. Say, what? A lightbulb went off in my head.

I immediately Googled “flame retardants in baby sleepwear.” Here’s what I found:

Ok, the first thought that went through my head was, “My baby doesn’t smoke in bed, so who cares?” But babies don’t generally catch on fire from lying around in their cribs — they crawl and toddle too close to fireplaces, stoves, candles, space heaters, and other sources of heat. Since we have a wood stove that heats the house, I just bought a metal fence that surrounds it and keeps little hands, feet, and other body parts and clothing far away. Before I installed the fence, Emily would always make a beeline for the wood stove in the morning. It was impossible to steer her in another direction, because she would always head back to the stove just like it was a beacon in the darkness. I feel better now.

In 1971, Congress passed a law declaring that all baby sleepwear from 9 months to size 14 needed to be flame resistant enough to self-extinguish if exposed to an open flame for 3 seconds or more. At first, companies used an extremely toxic flame retardant called TRIS on baby pajamas, but it was phased out in 1977 because it caused cancer and sterility in test animals. Nice. In 1996, Congress decided that tight-fitting cotton sleepwear didn’t need to be doused in flame retardants because the snugness of the sleepwear prevented the flow of oxygen between the garment and the baby’s skin and automatically prevented the sleepwear from catching on fire. But worried parents still demanded flame-resistant sleepwear. Cotton sleepwear is now being treated with a chemical called PROBAN, which has been linked with genetic damage, cancer, and damage to the liver and nervous system. The fleece fabric in baby pajamas is almost always treated with flame retardants. Even if a company brags that its fleece sleepwear has not been treated with flame retardants, the fabric itself might have been chemically bonded with the flame retardants before the garment manufacturing process even began, and the clothing company doesn’t have to disclose that information to you. It’s a bit deceptive. Emily’s fleece sleepbags and blanket pajamas had no labelling of any kind indicating they were doused with toxic chemicals. Maybe they were and maybe they weren’t, but I chucked them all just to be sure.

So, I’m going to just assume that all fleece sleepwear contains flame retardants. But how do you figure out which cotton sleepwear contains PROBAN? Look at the label. If it is flame retardant-free, the tag should say, “For child’s safety, garment should fit snugly. This garment is not flame resistant. Loose-fitting garment is more likely to catch fire.” The permanent label should say, “Wear snug fitting. Not flame resistant.” I chucked a lot of cotton sleepwear that was neither snug-fitting nor labelled as not flame resistant. I also discovered tags that offered laundering instructions to preserve the flame retardant properties of the sleepwear. I chucked those garments too.

So, how do you keep those harmful chemicals away from babies while keeping babies safe from fire? Here are some options for you:

  1. Be a label reader. Stay away from microfleece sleepwear and look for garments that say, “Not intended for sleepwear” or “This garment is not flame resistant.”
  2. Choose organic cotton sleepwear or other natural fibers like bamboo.
  3. Make sure your baby’s natural fiber sleepwear is snug-fitting.
  4. Fall in love with wool. Wool is naturally fire-resistant and keeps babies warm in winter and cool in the summer. This winter, Emily has been sleeping in a merino wool sleepsack over a long-sleeved merino wool onesie and footed pajama pants that are all made by a company called Woolino. With the nights warming up a bit in the last week, I’ve been dressing her in a short-sleeved cotton onesie over a Disana wool diaper cover and covered by the Woolino sleepsack.
  5. Remove sources of flame from your baby’s proximity or put barriers around them.

We have enough toxic chemicals in our environment. Please do your very best to keep your baby safe from fire, but use natural alternatives to flame retardants whenever you can.

Don’t get me started on the baby products like car seats, crib mattresses, and changing pads containing polyurethane foam that are completely doused in toxic flame retardants. I’ll save that rant for another day.