Two years ago, Tania Zapata was on vacation with her family when her then 2-year-old daughter, Azul, came down with a sudden fever. Her temperature fluctuated until it almost hit a scary 104°F. Then, two days later, blistering sores appeared on Azul’s hands and feet. The Colombian mom soon discovered that her daughter had contracted hand, foot, and mouth disease (HFMD), an infectious viral illness that tends to flourish in warm weather, and it was especially hot that week. Luckily, HFMD generally has mild symptoms and goes away without treatment, but it was an uncomfortable few days for Azul. “I gave her oatmeal baths to minimize the itchiness, but we had to stay indoors for most of the vacation,” Zapata says.
Grown-up bugs usually don’t make their rounds during the summer, but baby-centric germs do. “There are certain viruses that thrive in the late spring and summer that young children are most vulnerable to,” says Alicia Brennan, M.D., a pediatrician at the CHOP Pediatric Care Program at the University Medical Center of Princeton, in Plainsboro, New Jersey.
Illness isn’t the only seasonal killjoy. The summer months give young children a number of chances to injure themselves. “All kids have the opportunity to get into things they otherwise wouldn’t,” says Malvina Duncan, R.N., a registered trauma nurse and injury-prevention coordinator for Nicklaus Children’s Hospital, in Miami. That’s because a lot of fun outdoor summertime play, from the pool to the playground, comes with the chance of dangerous and even deadly accidents.
But don’t let the risks rain on your plans for your little one’s summer. Follow these expert tips to avoid the biggest warm-weather traps.
"Portable pools can be as deadly as regular pools. A child drowns in one every five days in summer, and those younger than 5 are most at risk."
—Gary Smith, M.D., director of the Center for Injury Research and Policy at Nationwide Children's Hospital, in Columbus, Ohio.
What to do No phone calls. No texts. No status updates. Taking your eyes off your baby can have deadly consequences. "We found in our study that in nearly 20 percent of drownings, an adult was supervising the child but became distracted," Dr. Smith says. "When a child slips under the water, there is often no splash or cry too quiet that if you're engrossed in texting, looking at Facebook, or reading, you may not even notice." Always practice "touch supervision," Dr. Smith says. You should be close enough to your child that you can touch her and easily grab her. Reinforce this diligence with all babysitters and family members who care for your child. Finally, empty a water table, bucket, or cooler when you're done with it. Your toddler could crawl back to it when you're not looking, fall in, and drown.
"Moms and dads who go down the slide with their toddlers can actually end up hurting them."
—John Gaffney, D.O., chief of pediatric orthopedic surgery at Winthrop-University Hospital, in Mineola, New York
What to do Never ride down the slide with your child. "I kept seeing the same injury happen over and over," says Dr. Gaffney, who did a study on slide injuries in small kids. "Toddlers would go down the slide on an adult's lap, get their shoe stuck on the slide, which then caused their leg to be pulled backward," he says. "But because of the weight of the adult, they would both continue to slide down, and this made the child's tibia break." Fortunately, the prognosis in such cases is very good, but your child might still wear a cast for four to six weeks, he says. Try walking alongside your tot as he goes down, or nudge him toward a smaller slide or the swings.
"I have seen severe sunburn in babies because many sunscreen labels advise against using on infants, so parents take Baby outside with no protection."
—Amy Barton, M.D.
What to do Skipping sunscreen is only okay if your infant is dressed in long sleeves and a hat and kept under the constant protection of a sun shade, stroller, or tree, says Patricia Treadwell, M.D., a pediatric dermatologist in Indianapolis. Keep your baby indoors or at least out of the sun when rays tend to be strongest, between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. Otherwise, use a squeeze of sunscreen that has an SPF of 30 or above. Look for sunscreens that contain zinc oxide or titanium dioxide as the active ingredients. These two minerals are generally thought to be safe for infants because they act as a physical block to the sun, which means your Baby's skin doesn't absorb them.
"Enteroviruses, a family of germs that cause summer illnesses such as Coxsackie, thrive in warm weather and mostly affect young kids."
—Alicia Brennan, M.D.
What to do Year-round, teething babies will chew on toys that might be those germs to lead to sick days in summer. Alas, they do. Like the common cold, these viral illnesses, which can cause flu-like symptoms such as vomiting and diarrhea, don't respond to antibiotics, but call your pediatrician if you have concerns you want to rule out. Otherwise, think like your winter self to prevent a summer bug: Wash your baby's hands and your own after playdates or errands, before meals, and after swimming in a pool or splashing in a fountain, since tots can trade germs with each other there.
"A baby should never be left in the car—not for a moment. Even in mild weather, temperatures inside a parked car can become dangerously hot in just minutes."
—Amy Barton, M.D.
What to do Bring Baby with you when you leave the car, even to pay the gas attendant. Most parents already do that—so the biggest danger is forgetting a quiet, slumbering infant in the backseat, which then becomes deadly hot. "This happens multiple times per year, usually when parents deviate from their normal routine," Dr. Barton says. For example, a sleep-deprived mom who usually doesn't do day-care drop-off drives straight to work and forgets that the baby is with her instead of dad that morning. When driving with your peanut, always leave something in the backseat next to him that you'll need when you reach your destination, such as your wallet, phone, or work files.
"Just a grain of sand in a baby's eye can cause a painful scratch of the cornea within
—Gary Smith, M.D.
What to do Reinforce "no hands in eyes" when making sand piles. If particles do sneak in, gently pour lots of water (tap is fine) from a bottle into one side of the eye, so it washes across and drains on the other side. "In the ER, we often use an entire liter, and it can take five minutes or longer to rinse eyes well," Dr. Smith says. If your tot continues to be in pain after rinsing, her cornea may be scratched; see a doctor. Scratches usually heal within 24 to 48 hours, Dr. Smith says. That's reassuring, but here's hoping you and your Baby don't miss a single summer day for a hospital visit.
"Painful objects like glass or sharp rocks can cut into babies' bare feet, and I've also seen first-degree burns from hot metal grates in sidewalks."
—Amy Barton, M.D.
What to do Take your toddler to be sized, and purchase well-fitting shoes. Sandals are fine, but they should be closed-toe and closed-back and have a bottom tread. Your footwear matters too. "I've seen parents who have fallen while holding their child because they were wearing flimsy sandals, and the child ended up with a broken arm, leg, or even skull fracture," Dr. Barton says. And don't drive in flip-flops. They can slip off and wedge under the brake or accelerator pedals, making you lose control at the wheel.
"When winter is mild, Lyme disease from deer-tick bites increases."
—Alicia Brennan, M.D.
What to do Take action if you live or vacation near a heavily wooded area, which can have deer ticks that carry the bacteria that cause Lyme disease. The best protection (for grown-ups too) is to dress in long sleeves with shirt tucked into pants and pants tucked into socks. No matter what your child wears, check him all over for ticks as part of your daily routine. Look for small black or brown spots that might be flat or puffy, and focus on warm hiding places, such as skin folds and the belly button. It takes about 36 hours for a tick to transmit the bacteria through its bite. By removing the tick before then (use tweezers), you can significantly reduce the risk of infection. If you notice a bite on your child, look to see if it turns into a red, circular rash, and watch for flu-like symptoms. Both may be signs of Lyme, so see your pediatrician.
For itchy bites from other bugs, wash with soap and water and dab on calamine lotion, Dr. Brennan says. If you see a stinger, use a credit card, not your fingers, to scrape it out, because you could accidentally spread more venom into your child's body.