Entertaining your young grandchildren this summer? Is your daughter or niece babysitting and wondering about sun-proofing her charges? Have you taken your little ones with you to the beach or lakeside, then wondered if you should slather them with SPF 50, too? Good thing you’re asking, because according to Hari C. Sachs, MD, a pediatrician with the FDA, babies aren’t like the rest of us when it comes to sun protection strategies.
For one thing, a baby’s skin is much, much thinner than that of an adult or even a small toddler. Coating that skin with the active chemicals contained in a sunscreen product that it will quickly absorb is not a good plan. Keep in mind, too, that infants, especially those under 6 months old, have a higher surface-area to body-weight ratio when compared to older children. Again, this means that their exposure to the chemicals in sunscreens is that much greater, increasing the risk of inflammation and allergic reactions.
So what’s the best protection against sunburn for babies? According to Dr. Sachs
The best approach is to keep infants under 6 months out of the sun, and to avoid exposure to the sun in the hours between 10 a.m. and 2p.m., when ultraviolet (UV) rays are most intense.
So, essentially, shade is the number one best option. And if nature is not providing a handy, shady spot, you can create your own with an umbrella, parasol or the canopy from the stroller. And covering babies up with lightweight long pants, long-sleeved shirts and brimmed hats that shade the neck as well as the face is also strongly recommended. You want to prevent sunburn, period. And while fashion is important, cute looks should never trump protection at this age: mini baseball caps, for example, while iconic and adorable, do not protect the neck and ears. And if there is absolutely no other way to defend the baby against the sun, you can apply a very small amount of sunscreen (SPF 15 or higher) to small areas such as the back of the hands and the cheeks. It would be best to test for sensitivity first by applying a dab on the infant’s inner wrist.
And it isn’t just sunburn you have to worry about. The heat of summer presents infants with other challenges as well. They dehydrate quickly, so be sure to offer them their regular breast milk or formula. A small amount of water in between feedings is okay, too. They don’t sweat the way we do, either. Their internal heating and cooling systems are still under construction, so watch for signs of overheating.
Here are some other summer safety tips for little, little ones:
- Keep the baby in the shade as much as possible.
- If you do use a bit of sunscreen, don’t imagine that this is going to be enough to protect an infant from all the other stresses of summer heat.
- Cover up that baby! You want to protect that sensitive skin. And if you can see right through the fabric of the clothing you were planning to use, it likely will not do the job. Tight weaves are better than loose, gauzy weaves.
- Be sure the baby wears a hat that actually provides shade where it’s needed (eyes, ears, back of the neck) at all times.
- Keep a careful eye on the baby to make sure he or she is not getting sunburned, dehydrated or overheated. The telltale signs are fussiness, excessive crying and redness.
- Hydrate, hydrate, hydrate! Give the baby formula, breast milk, or a small amount of water between feedings if you are out for more than few minutes. Store any liquids in a cooler between sips.
- Pay attention to how much the baby is urinating. If it’s less than usual, this may be a sign of dehydration and an indication that more fluids are needed. It’s probably time to head inside, too, or at least, to get out of the sun.
- Do not use sunscreens containing DEET (an insect repellant) on children, most particularly not on their hands. Little ones may lick their hands or put them into their mouths. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, DEET should not be used on infants under 2 months old.
- Should you see that the baby is becoming sunburned, get out of the sun immediately and apply cold compresses to the affected areas.
Have a great, post-July 4th recovery weekend! Let’s do whatever we can to take good care of ourselves and our loved ones so we don’t find ourselves in any emergency departments or walk-in clinics unless it’s really, really necessary.