Summer used to mean carefree days laying out by the pool – but as a new mom, you're now more concerned about your baby's safety in the heat. Overdress a baby and he could develop an angry heat rash. Expose his fragile body to hot conditions and he could be vulnerable to a painful sunburn or to heatstroke, a serious affliction characterized by a high fever and rapid breathing. Overheating has also been linked to sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS), a fatal sleeping disorder. "Babies sleep deeply when they're hot, making them difficult to arouse, which may increase the risk of SIDS," explains Bruce Epstein, M.D., a pediatrician in Pinellas Park, Florida.
To make sure your little one stays cool and protected during the long, hot days of summer, check out our expert advice.
Related: Treating Heat Rash
Once it gets over 80 degrees, the body has a harder time cooling off – especially for babies. The American Academy of Pediatrics has no official statement on babies and high temperatures, but Dr. Jan Montague, director of pediatrics at Good Samaritan Hospital in Suffern, NY, says to avoid the heat as much as possible. "It is not OK to take a newborn or any infant outside when it's very hot – over 80 degrees or so," she says. "Babies cannot sweat, which is your body's way of cooling itself off, so they can often suffer heat stroke much quicker than an older child or adult." Plus, babies can get dehydrated faster, too.
If you're going to be indoors, dress your infant in loose-fitting, lightweight garments, preferably made from a natural fiber like cotton, which absorbs perspiration better than synthetic fabrics. A good rule of thumb: "Dress the baby the way you're dressed," Dr. Epstein says. "If you're wearing shorts and a T-shirt, that will be fine for her, too." For the outdoors, put her in light-colored long pants, a long-sleeved shirt, and a wide-brimmed hat to shield her face. Resist the temptation to leave her exposed on a gray day, since harmful rays can penetrate the clouds.
Since a baby doesn't perspire effectively, he can become overheated far more quickly than an adult. That's why you should never leave an infant in a hot room or a parked car. Even a few minutes could cause his temperature to spike and, in extreme cases, may prove life-threatening.
In addition, don't overdress your newborn for the car. "Since we keep babies rather tight in the car seat and rear-facing, it can get quite hot, so keep him dressed in one light layer only, no hats or feet covered – babies transfer some heat out to cool themselves from their feet and head," Montague says. "Also, make sure the sun is not beating on the infant during your drive." You can use a window shade to avoid a sunburn.
The combination of your body heat and the carrier's confining space can make an infant hot and bothered within a matter of minutes. Choose a carrier made from lightweight nylon rather than a heavy fabric like denim. If a child's face starts to look flushed, remove her from the carrier at once. "You can help keep your baby cool by spraying his hands and feet with water or by wiping him with a wet cloth occasionally," Montague says. "A carrier that is lightweight made from thin material will keep him cooler than one made of thick, dark material."
Even if you don't see beads of sweat dripping from your infant's forehead, he can be losing precious fluids to perspiration in hot weather. A flushed face, skin that's warm to the touch, rapid breathing, and restlessness may be warning signs of dehydration. Since infants under 6 months shouldn't drink water (babies over 6 months can take in modest amounts), replace the lost liquids by giving him extra formula or by nursing more frequently. Babies should drink at least 50 percent more than usual in the summer (normal fluid intake is at least two ounces per pound per day), so a ten-pound baby who usually takes in 20 ounces should be offered a minimum of 30 ounces. Also make sure your newborn is having as many wet diapers as usual.
The worst time for your baby (and you, for that matter) to be outdoors is between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m., when the sun does the most harm to skin, says Eric Siegel, M.D., a dermatologist in Millburn, New Jersey. Plan outdoor activities for before or after this peak period.
When outside with your little one, monitor him closely for signs of heat exhaustion. "If he's overheated, he may get very cranky or irritable, or he may get very lethargic and not wake to eat or drink," Montague says. Also look to see if she is flushed or feels hotter than normal. "As the overheating gets more severe, she might be more sleepy, might vomit, and her skin might go from being moist to very dry," Broder says. "She can develop a fever. A baby with these signs needs immediate medical attention."
When you arrive at the beach or the park, look for a protected spot, such as under a tree, an umbrella, or a canopy. A handy item to take to the shore is a tent made of fabric treated to block the sun's harmful rays. Make sure it has see-through mesh sides for proper ventilation. Sunglasses for your little one can protect her eyes and reduce glare; the label should state that the lenses block at least 99 percent of ultraviolet (UVA and UVB) radiation.
Since a baby under 6 months has thin, delicate skin, try to keep him out of direct sunlight. But for times when that's impractical (such as taking a dip in the water with Mom or Dad), make sure he's wearing sunscreen. The American Academy of Pediatrics now says it's okay to apply a minimal amount of sunscreen to a baby's exposed skin, including the face.
For a baby older than 6 months, use sunscreen more liberally and more often. Reapply every two hours, or whenever he gets wet or sweaty. Choose a waterproof sunscreen designed for kids, with a sun protection factor (SPF) of at least 15. Apply it under clothing too. "An average cotton T-shirt has an SPF of only five," Dr. Siegel notes.
If an infant sweats profusely during hot, humid weather, tiny red bumps may start to cluster on her neck or groin, in the folds of her skin at the back of her knees, or in the crease of her elbows. To relieve heat rash, remove her sticky outfit and dress her in loose cotton clothes (or simply a diaper), and apply cornstarch baby powder to the affected areas. Keeping her in a cool, well-ventilated room will help relieve symptoms.
A sunburn, characterized by hot, red, swollen skin that's painful to the touch, can cause a baby even greater misery. Contact your doctor immediately if a child under age 1 gets a sunburn. He'll likely have you apply cool (not cold) tap water, followed by a moisturizer, to the burned area. Don't pop blisters; they protect against infection. Infants' acetaminophen or ibuprofen may be appropriate for relieving discomfort.