Baby, It's Cold Outside
When you're a kid, are there any two sweeter words in the English language than "snow day" ("pizza time" and "sleepover party" notwithstanding)? Children are right to be psyched: The hit of sunlight reflecting off the snow can boost their vitamin D levels, and research suggests that playing outdoors in nature may ease symptoms of ADHD. Plus, that snowman isn't going to build himself. Let them have their day in the snow safely with these mom-tested tips
1. Layer Up
When it comes to winter play, layering is tricky: Too many layers and they'll overheat; too few and they'll freeze their tushes off. According to Catherine O'Brien, a research physiologist with the U.S. Army Research Institute of Environmental Medicine, the key to keeping kids dry is conserving heat while still letting steam escape.
How to do that? The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends dressing young children in one more layer of clothing than an adult would wear in the same conditions. Start with a thin inner layer to wick moisture away from the skin. Avoid cotton, which soaks up sweat and holds it against the skin, accelerating heat loss; try a lightweight polyester or polypropylene fabric instead. Add two insulating middle layers (maybe a long-sleeved top and leggings) of similar materials, keeping them a little loose to trap insulating air between fibers. Top it all off with a wind- and waterproof outer shell (Gore-Tex is one good option).
Kathryn Gamble Lozier
2. Protect Little Hands
It's easy for fingers and toes to grow downright icy as your little one's body strains to conserve energy for his core, giving extremities the shivery shaft. Mittens will keep hands toastier than gloves, and they can still effectively scoop snowballs and build forts. Look for a quality mitten or glove that offers insulation as well as waterproof protection from wet, melting snow, experts say. For even more protection, choose handwear that extends up the child's forearm to keep snow out, or try a shirt/glove combo—no wet hands, no lost mittens!
Down below, the goal is to keep feet warm and dry. If you dress them in thick, heavy socks (again, stay away from cotton), O'Brien advises going up a shoe size to avoid a too-tight fit: Excess compression reduces socks' insulating effects and reduces blood flow to feet. Not a good combo. Boot quality is important too: Kids' tootsies need insulating, waterproof footwear. Post-play, dry boots with a boot dryer so they're in good shape (and not damp and smelly) for the next round of play.
3. Dress to Be Noticed
Be sure your kids are clad in bright colors and/or reflective materials before they head out in the snow: Research out of Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh found pedestrians are three times more likely to be struck and killed by cars in the weeks after the fall time change, as drivers and walkers struggle to adapt to the changing light. Similarly, slippery roads and glaring snow or midwinter gloom can cause driving problems too. Choose bright outer gear (white is not a good option) with reflective graphics on the front and back, shoes with reflective features, and/or place reflective tape on their clothing to ensure they're seen in all weather conditions.
4. Protect Their Skin
Just because you've packed their swim trunks away doesn't mean kids are safe from sun damage. According to the American Academy of Dermatology, snow reflects 80 percent of UV rays. When those rays hit exposed, unprotected skin, they can cause a bad burn. Worsening matters, UV radiation exposure increases along with altitudes, making sunblock even more of a must for pint-sized skiers and snowboarders.
The best way to protect young skin? Slather on water-resistant sunscreen with an SPF of at least 30, covering all exposed areas, including face, neck, hands, and scalp. To ensure broad-spectrum UV coverage, check the labels for ingredients such as avobenzone, oxybenzone, titanium dioxide, or zinc oxide. Skiers and snowboarders should opt for goggles with UV protection and everyone needs to slick on SPF lip balm. Backyard igloo-builders and snowman-makers may opt for sunglasses instead of goggles, but eye protection of some kind is important.
5. Dash Through the Snow (Safely)
Sure, you hurtled yourself down snowy hills on lunchroom cafeteria trays, but your kids? Over your dead body! Smart move: According to a 2010 study in Pediatrics, more than 20,000 youngsters under the age of 19 wind up in the ER every year with sledding-related injuries, most often to the head. (Children ages 10 to 14 years sustained the most damage; 60 percent of ER cases were boys.) But today's sledding wannabes don't have to be left out in the cold. Take them to a well-used sledding hill and make sure the area is open and free of cars, trees, posts, and rocks. Pick an off-peak time when child missiles aren't zooming everywhere, and go only when it's light outside. To avoid injury, allow only one child per sled, and avoid snow tubes, which can make it harder for others to see your speed demon (and are harder to stop or hop off without injury).
6. Check Sports Equipment
If you've had to take your kids shoe shopping in the past year, chances are they'll need bigger hockey skates or ski boots, too, says Holly Benjamin, M.D., a pediatric sports medicine specialist at the University of Chicago. "A proper fit decreases injury risk," she says. Too-small footgear can be overly constricting, while oversized equipment can leave them wobbly and prone to falls, as well as let snow sneak in, speeding heat loss. Have your child's winter sports gear checked by a professional at the beginning of the season. And make sure goggles fit and hoods aren't oversized, both of which can obscure vision.
7. Give Frostbite the Cold Shoulder
Despite the cutesy name, frostbite is serious business: "The water in our bodies literally freezes," Dr. Benjamin says. The most common physical symptom is a blister, but by that time it's too late to prevent damage. Tell your child that if she notices any pain, decreased sensation, tingling, or numbness, she should head inside immediately, where you should run warm—but not hot—water over the affected body part. As for frostbite prevention, Dr. Benjamin uses the acronym C.O.L.D.:
C—Cover hotspots with a hat and gloves or mittens to preserve heat.
O—Avoid overexertion. Bring kids in for periodic breaks.
L —Layers. Think loose-fitting, lightweight, and water-repellent.
D —Stay dry. If kids are sweating profusely or get snow in their shoes or boots, change them into dry clothes, socks, and foot gear immediately.
8. Wet Their Appetites
It's extra hard for kids—and adults—to gauge their hydration needs in the winter months. In fact, a study published in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise shows that cold temperatures actually alter thirst sensation. We lose an appreciable amount of water while breathing outdoors in the chilly air, drying us out even more. But just because your snow man isn't soaked in sweat doesn't mean he doesn't need to rehydrate. Keep giving him water throughout the day, just like you would in the summer. And consider this a smart reason to indulge kids in some hot cocoa—hey, it's water too!
9. Avoid Danger Zones
Every year, we hear reports of a child attempting to re-create the famous A Christmas Story scene where Ralphie's friend Flick licks a frozen flagpole. Assure your daredevil that any such attempts will be met with similarly painful results. "The minute you put wet skin—even your finger—on a frozen object, you can do some pretty significant damage, ripping off skin," notes Dr. Benjamin.
Allow ice-skating on approved surfaces only (call your local police department for a list). You should also counsel kids to stay out of snow banks and advise against building tunnels and forts. The former may be the target of city snowplows that will have no clue a child is burrowing inside; the latter can collapse—with catastrophic consequences. In 2008, an 8-year-old New Brunswick, Canada, boy suffocated to death when a snow tunnel he had built caved in on him. To head off danger, enforce a strict buddy system at all times.
10. Take a Breather
Kids loving see their breath in the air, but for asthmatics, simply taking a breath in subzero temps can be challenging. That's because cold, dry air is a risk factor for asthmatics, more likely to provoke the condition than warm, moist air. "Just as the cold dries and chaps your hands, it can also be drying to the lungs, causing tightening of the bronchial muscles," says Amy Burack, R.N., community asthma programs manager for Children's Hospital Boston. Talk with your pediatrician to see if you should prepare for winter play with a preventive inhaler or other medication. Pull a neck warmer up over little mouths to warm the air before it's inhaled and monitor them for early warning signs of an impending asthma attack, such as shortness of breath, wheezing, dizziness, or chest pain. Spot trouble? Have them head inside ASAP and treat with moist heat, like taking a steamy shower. Follow up with hot chocolate: Doctor's orders!