Bringing a fragile new baby on an outing can feel daunting, let alone stepping out into the summer heat and humidity of the Lowcountry. From protecting their skin from the sun’s harmful rays, to keeping them hydrated, to avoiding dangerous overheating, there is a lot for parents to consider to keep babies safe.
Dr. Deepak Ozhathil, adult and pediatric burn surgeon at the South Carolina Burn Center (SCBC) at MUSC and father of two young daughters, recommends that parents follow a few simple tips to make summer safety a breeze.
1. Timing is everything: “The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) generally recommends that as long as the weather does not pose a health risk, children of all ages can be outside as long as the heat index is below 90 degrees Fahrenheit,” Dr. Ozhathil explains. “However, when you adjust for the high levels of humidity we have here in the Lowcountry, that threshold drops to the low 80s.” Keep very young children indoors, if at all possible, between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m., which is the hottest part of the day with the most UV radiation.
2. Keep newborns safe inside: “The risk that newborns face is their inability to thermoregulate, meaning they can’t effectively sweat in order to cool themselves off. As a result, they easily become overheated and dehydrated,” warns Dr. Ozhathil. “In addition, newborns and infants have very limited reserves, so if not intervened early, things can become dangerous quickly … Generally, I recommend total sun avoidance until 6 months of age and limited outdoor exposure during that same time frame.”
3. Baby steps: “As a newborn grows into an infant they can be gradually exposed to hot summer days incrementally – ‘baby steps’ as it were – with planned supervised outings lasting 15-20 minutes,” Dr. Ozhathil recommends. “Formula/breast milk should be provided immediately after such ventures and direct sun exposure should still be minimized as much as possible.”
4. Skip sunscreen until 6 months: “Sunscreen is generally not advised by the medical community for infants less than 6 months of age due to the risk of ‘adverse skin reactions’ or rashes. This is because the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has not studied the safety of such products in this age group,” says Dr. Ozhathil. “At such an early age, newborn skin is particularly thin, porous and sensitive.”
5. Cover up: Because sunscreen is not a safe choice for young babies, opt for head-to-toe light clothing to provide a physical barrier from the sun instead. “The AAP recommends lightweight clothing with full extremity coverage combined with brimmed hats that cover the neck and ears,” explains Dr. Ozhathil.
6. Find shade: “Physical barriers are your best protection,” reminds Dr. Ozhathil. “Avoid the sun with shade (tents, umbrellas, trees etc.) as much as possible.”
7. Hydrate, hydrate, hydrate: “Hydration is key,” Dr. Ozhathil affirms. “Plan to provide formula/breast milk every 15-30 minutes during the period of exposure.”
8. Apply sunscreen at home, and reapply often: Use sunscreen that is SPF 50 or higher, be sure to discard expired sunscreens and opt for a tube application over a spray. Apply sunscreen at home over the entire body before putting on a bathing suit, and reapply often. Don’t miss hard-to-reach spots like the tops of the feet, hairline and back of the neck.
After 6 months of age, the use of sunscreens should be considered, especially if your child tolerates zinc-oxide based diaper ointments, since many infant formulas for sunscreen contain the same thing or titanium oxide,” explains Dr. Ozhathil. “Both of these products physically block harmful UV rays and do not penetrate intact skin. Remember, less is more – so avoid medicated or fragranced options. I recommend that you choose a sunscreen option that is at least SPF 50.”
“In addition, avoid sunscreens that use products like Oxybenzone, Octinoxate, Homosalate, Octisalate, Octocrylene, Avobenzone or any of the parabens (Methylparaben, Ethylparaben, Propylparaben and Butylparaben). These products work by absorbing UV rays, but are also absorbed by your skin, increasing the risk of allergic reactions and hormone disruption. Furthermore, none of these products are recommended by the FDA.”
9. Watch for signs of dehydration: “Dehydration is perhaps the most dangerous risk associated with prolonged outdoor exposure. Infants less than 6 months are unable to sweat properly and can become dehydrated rather quickly,” Dr. Ozhathil cautions. “Signs of dehydration at that age include flushing, fussiness, excess crying (with few tears), dry clammy mouth, drowsiness, lethargy and feeling warm to the touch. If you think your child may be suffering from dehydration, or worse heat exhaustion, then get them somewhere cool immediately, undress them and sponge them down with cool water. Continue to hydrate them regularly with formula/breast milk and if their condition does not immediately improve, contact your pediatrician or present to the local emergency department.”
10. What to do about a burn: “If your child does develop a sunburn, then get out of the sun right away and apply cool (not cold) moist compresses to the burned areas in order to slow down the injury process,” Dr. Ozhathil shares. “If blisters form, then the burn is concerning for a partial thickness (second-degree) injury and should be seen by a burn surgeon like myself right away. Although coming to the hospital may seem scary, particularly after a fun day at the beach, delays in treatment often lead to wound conversion and deeper injuries. If you have any concerns about your child, come see us at the SCBC at Shawn Jenkins Hospital.”