When my kids were babies, I loved nothing more than spreading a big blanket out on the grass beneath a tree on a sparkling summer day, enjoying the warmth and watching their eyes widen as birds and butterflies flitted over their heads. Before heading outside for your own warm weather idyll, here are some precautions to take to protect your little one from the sun’s potential hazards.
“The most important thing a parent can do for children in this age group is keep them out of the direct sun as much as is practical. Keep them well covered and don’t forget the head. The surface area of an infant’s head represents 16 percent of the total body surface,” says Richard Haber, MD, director of the Pediatric Consultation Centre at Montreal Children’s Hospital. “The best UV blocker is the chlorophyll in leaves, so when in the park during sunlight hours, find those shady trees, but also remember that sunburn can still occur from reflection of UV rays from surroundings.”
Michelle Leslie, a journalist and meteorologist with the CBC who is based in Toronto, has always been conscious of protecting her eight-month-old son, Kempton, from the sun. “Prior to six months of age, my solutions were very simple,” says the Alberta native, “shade, sunglasses and sleeves.” Leslie’s approach—using the stroller canopy or an umbrella to provide shade on the go and dressing her son in loose, comfortable pants and long-sleeved tops made out of cotton or linen, a wide-brimmed hat and infant sunglasses with UV protection—adheres perfectly to Dr. Haber’s recommendations, as well as those of the Canadian Paediatric Society.
Both Leslie and Dr. Haber suggest keeping kids in the shade or indoors between the hours of 11 a.m. and 4 p.m., when the sun’s intensity is at its peak. And don’t be fooled by partly cloudy skies or a break in the heat; those damaging rays are still making their way through. “A lot of us stay out longer in the sun if we feel more comfortable, say if it’s 25ºC with a light breeze versus no wind and a humidex of 45ºC,” explains Leslie. Also pay attention to news reports of a UV index value over three, for which Environment Canada recommends taking precautions such as sunscreen, hats and sunglasses.
Read more: Summer Safety
Infants are more susceptible to sun damage because the top layer of their skin is thinner and has less protective melanin than that of older children and adults, making sun avoidance key. However, it can be hard to keep your babe properly covered all of the time.
Parents are advised, if possible, to avoid using sunscreen on babies younger than six months old. More research is needed to determine adverse effects, but Dr. Haber says chemicals in many sunscreens penetrate a baby’s thin protective barrier. “The preference is to keep babies out of the sun, but sunscreen can be used at under six months if the baby has to be exposed.” He suggests the use of a broad-spectrum (UVA and UVB) physical blocker such as zinc oxide or titanium dioxide, which only penetrates the skin’s barrier to a slight extent. “Although more research needs to be done in this area, applying zinc oxide/titanium dioxide to the babe’s hands, feet and cheeks is most likely not harmful,” he says. Now that Kempton is more than six months old, Leslie says she uses sunscreen on him, opting for infant-specific, chemical-free formulas.
And, surprisingly, a higher sun protection factor (SPF) of more than 30 is not significantly better. “An SPF of 30 offers about as much protection as a sunscreen with an SPF of 50 or more,” says Dr. Haber. Suncreen should be applied to areas not covered by clothing and reapplied every two hours, especially if the child has been sweating or in the water—and be sure to cover the spots that can be easily missed, such as ears, the back of hands and tops of feet. A swipe of lip balm with an SPF of 15–30 is a good idea as well.
How to Deal with a Sunburn
Sunburn can appear hours after exposure. A child under 12 months who suffers a sunburn, even a mild one, may require medical treatment—your doctor can help you decide if your baby requires a pain reliever. Also be sure to check surfaces such as strollers, car seats, car doors, park swings, slides and even pavement, which can get hot enough to burn an infant’s skin.