The first snowfall. Sledding in the backyard with Mom and Dad. There's so much for a baby to enjoy during the winter. Unfortunately, though, it can also be the worst season for your child's tender skin. Cold, dry air can sap precious moisture, and those rosy cheeks you once found so adorable can quickly become leathery and windburned.
"I was absolutely shocked by how much my son Nicholas's skin changed during his very first winter -- not just on his face but elsewhere too," says Karla Duke, a mother of three in Monroe, North Carolina. "His skin was so scaly and dry in places that it felt exactly like a lizard's," she remembers.
Luckily, there's plenty you can do to protect your child from seasonal skin hazards. Here, the experts weigh in with simple, sensible advice.
Running Hot and Cold
Winter poses a triple threat to your child's skin: "The combination of low humidity, cold temperatures, and wind can be particularly rough," says Paul Honig, M.D., a pediatric dermatologist at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. Add in the temperature shifts your baby endures as you shuttle her between the chilly outdoors and the heated indoors, and it becomes especially important to give her skin some extra TLC. These basic steps can prevent many problems or keep them from becoming severe.
- Spread it on thick. If any areas of your child's skin look or feel dry, immediately apply a generous amount of baby moisturizing cream or a thick ointment like petroleum jelly.
- Follow your nose. Purchase only perfume-free baby soaps and lotions, which are less likely to be irritating.
- Get misty. "Using a humidifier, especially in your child's room, can minimize the drying effects of the season," says Anthony J. Mancini, M.D., an associate professor of pediatrics and dermatology at Northwestern University, in Chicago. For safety reasons, don't place the humidifier near or directly over your child.
- Be clothes-conscious. Overbundling your child can make him sweat, leading to blocked glands and skin irritation, while underdressing can dry out exposed skin or aggravate a preexisting condition.
Moves That Soothe
Your baby's skin is so soft and delicate that it's bound to suffer from some irritation this winter, no matter how cautious you are. Here's how to treat the most common problems.
- Chapping. The area around the mouth and chin can become chapped from the combination of cold and your baby's drool. The solution? "Create a barrier between the skin and saliva," Dr. Mancini says. Applying a thick, greasy moisturizer or cream should do the trick. The skin around your child's nostrils can become irritated too, especially if her nose is runny. Dab on a bit of a petroleum-based product, such as Aquaphor.
- Windburn. Exposed skin, especially on your child's cheeks, bears the brunt of any stiff, dry wind that comes along. The result can be windburn -- sensitive, dry, red patches that resemble sunburn. Cover your child up as best you can, and use a thick lotion with an SPF of at least 15. (Sunburn is a risk even in the winter, partly because of how intensely snow reflects the sun.)
- Eczema. Low humidity can aggravate this fairly common skin disease; its main symptoms are itchy, red patches on the cheeks, scalp, hands, and feet. Avoid wool and perfumed lotions or soaps, and ask your pediatrician about treating the irritated areas with an anti-inflammatory cream.
- Prickly heat. Prickly heat isn't just a summertime problem. Dressing your child in too many layers can also lead to these tiny red bumps. A cool compress or a tepid bath can relieve itching, as can keeping your child cool and letting his skin breathe. This is one time when applying some lotion won't help: "It will only make the rash worse, because sweat glands are already blocked," Dr. Mancini cautions.
- Frostnip. This precursor to frostbite can strike when skin is exposed to wind and cold temperatures for too long. The affected areas -- usually the cheeks, nose, fingers, and toes -- turn so pale they look whitish or ashen, but return to their usual color soon after being warmed. If you suspect that your baby has frostnip, immediately take her in out of the cold and try to warm her skin using your hands, warm towels, or warm (but not hot) water. If none of these techniques work, take her to the hospital right away. For any of these conditions, contact your child's pediatrician if symptoms persist or if there's bleeding, excessive itching, oozing, or scabbing.
When the wind is howling and the temperature is plummeting, it seems only natural to treat your baby to a long, warm bath. But watch out: Too much tubtime can dry out his skin.
According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, infants don't need to be bathed every day. But if your baby finds a daily bath soothing, you don't necessarily have to change your routine. "Just make sure the bath lasts no longer than ten minutes and that the water is lukewarm, not hot," says pediatric dermatologist Anthony J. Mancini, M.D. Afterward, pat your infant dry, then apply a thick cream or lotion. "Moisturize within three minutes of the bath, while there are still water droplets on the skin, or as soon as is practical," Dr. Mancini says. "This will help seal in the moisture."
Originally published in the February 2003 issue of Parents magazine.