How to Protect Newborns in Cold Weather

Baby, it's cold outside! Here's how to keep your little one safe from the elements this winter.

sleep training newborn baby asleep
Photo: Public Domain Pictures/Pixabay

New parents might be hesitant to take their baby outside during the cold weather months, but it's important to safely step outside when you can. "Babies and new parents need fresh air," says New York pediatrician Erika Landau, M.D., co-author of The Essential Guide to Baby's First Year. "Unless it's dangerously cold, being outdoors helps infants acclimate to the seasons and the day-and-night cycle, and it often calms fussiness."

But that doesn't mean braving the winter weather with no safety precautions. Once the temperature gets below freezing, you shouldn't take a very young baby out for long periods of time. Even when it's above freezing, wind chill can make it dangerous. "Newborns and infants do not yet have the ability to self-regulate their core temperature," says Janice Montague, M.D., of Tuxedo Pediatrics in Suffern, NY. She recommends limiting exposure to the cold elements to a few minutes at a time and saving play in the snow for when kids are older.

"Infants lose heat faster than adults, and the younger their age, the less able they are to cope with cold," adds Kate Puttgen, M.D., a pediatric dermatologist practicing at Intermountain Healthcare in Taylorsville, Utah. "Small babies lack the ability to increase heat by shivering and don't have the body fat needed to warm back up once they get cold."

Here are eight expert ways to keep your baby warm and safe this winter.

Dress Your Baby in Layers

Anytime your baby is not in a car seat and will be outside, layers can help keep them warm. "If you are comfortable with a jacket on top of your clothes, you should have your baby in a jacket or snowsuit and a blanket," says Molly Broder, M.D., a pediatrician at the Children's Hospital at Montefiore Medical Center in the Bronx, New York.

Dressing your infant in layers allows you to adjust to their needs. "The bottom layer can be snug, like leggings and a bodysuit. On top of that, you can put another layer of pants and a long sleeve shirt. Finish up with a jacket, hat, mittens, and warm booties to keep hands and feet warm," says Dr. Broder. Choose breathable fabrics such as cotton and muslin.

Ditch the Coat in the Car

Despite the cold weather temps, it's very important to make sure you never put your baby in a car seat with any sort of coat or snowsuit on. Taking off your baby's coat in the car may seem counterintuitive when it's cold. But the problem with that cute puffy coat is if there's too much material between the baby and the car seat straps, the material could compress during an accident, leaving space for your baby to become unsecured.

"Coats are unsafe because you need to loosen the car seat harness in order to accommodate them, but in a crash they can compress, leaving a big gap between the harness and child, upping the chance of injury," explains Rallie McAllister, M.D., of Lexington, Kentucky, co-author of The Mommy M.D. Guide to Your Baby's First Year.

Instead, click your baby into the car seat first, and then layer over top if needed. "If you're using a car seat cover, you should buy one that doesn't come between the baby and the car seat—it should be over the lower part of the baby, like a blanket," says Dr. Broder. "Alternatively, you can use a blanket or coat (placed on top), and then remove it once the car warms up so the baby doesn't get overheated."

You can also pre-warm the car to keep your baby cozy. And of course, be sure you can always keep a close on your baby to ensure there's no hazard of a blanket covering their face.

Bundle Up for a Jaunt Outside

If the temperature or windchill dips below freezing, or if nonfreezing temperatures are mixed with wind or rain, keep your little one inside except for brief excursions, like to and from the car. If it's not arctic outdoors, dress your baby in a winter jacket, a hat that covers their ears, mittens, and a stroller blanket or bunting.

"Check your baby often for signs of discomfort," says Dr. McAllister. If their face gets red, their skin is warm, and they're fussy, they're probably overheated, she explains. If, on the other hand, your baby is fussy and teary-eyed and their skin is cold to the touch, they're probably not bundled up enough, she adds.

Wear Your Baby for Warmth

Carriers are a great way to use your body heat to provide extra coziness for baby in the cold weather—but then they probably don't need that extra sweater. Even so, "always keep their head and feet covered as that is how they lose heat," says Dr. Montague. As always when you're wearing your baby, make sure their face is not pressed against your chest or clothing (especially when you're donning a winter jacket) to keep their airway free. "And be careful of ice and slipping and falling yourself," adds Dr. Montague.

Be Careful With the Stroller

In an abundance of caution you might want to throw a blanket over your baby's stroller, or protect it with those old-fashioned plastic covers. But Dr. Montague warns that this could compromise the air flow to your baby inside. "Many strollers have covers especially fitted to that brand to allow appropriate air circulation," suggests Dr. Broder. "Otherwise, put your baby in a jacket, hat, mittens, and booties, and then tuck [them] under a blanket to chest level to keep [them] warm and snuggly in the stroller." If you can, try to walk against the wind.

Keep the Indoor Temperature Right

You may be worried about the baby being too cold, but too much indoor heat can also be a problem. "Indoor heating has low humidity, and it's that lack of moisture in the air that can dry your baby's delicate skin," says Dr. Puttgen. "To avoid that, keep your indoor temperature as cool as you can tolerate during the day—anywhere between 68 F and 72 F."

When your little one is sleeping, however, you should set the thermostat lower, to between 65 F and 68 F, which will not only benefit your baby's skin, but can also reduce the risk of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS). Dress your baby in a sleeper and sleep sack—a wearable blanket—to keep them warm enough.

Prevent Dry Skin

"Cold temperatures, the lack of humidity, and recirculated air can all contribute to dry, itchy, scaly skin," says Dr. Swanson. Ironically, water can also dry out skin, and most babies don't really need to be washed daily in the winter anyway. Use warm water (not hot) and don't let your baby soak too long.

Keep the water to about 100 F (stick your elbow in to gauge; it should feel comfortably warm, not hot) and limit time in the tub to 10 minutes, less for a newborn. "When you dry baby off, apply a good moisturizer without a laundry list of chemicals," says Dr. Montague. "Reapply moisturizer as many times daily as you like." Dr. Broder says the goopier the better, so consider using ointments, which lock in moisture better than creams. If your baby's skin turns red or irritated, call the pediatrician.

Watch Out for Warning Signs

If your baby starts shivering, or their extremities—hands, feet and face—are cold and red, or have turned pale and hard, bring them inside right away. "You shouldn't rub the cold area to rewarm it, as this could further damage the cold skin," says Dr. Broder. Instead, use warm washcloths to gently reheat the skin, then put on warm and dry clothes. If your baby doesn't improve in a few minutes, call your doctor. Other signs that your infant has gotten too cold and needs medical attention are lethargy, non-responsiveness, and blue lips or face.

Updated by Tina Donvito
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