Hooray! It's almost summer. With the birth of my first child approaching rapidly, I've been daydreaming about taking the baby on leisurely strolls around the neighborhood. As my due date nears, though, I'm realizing there's so much I don't know about equipping my little one to venture outside. What clothing is appropriate? Is sunscreen a "must" or a "don't" for an infant? What about baby sunglasses -- are they just for looks (they are awfully cute) or something a baby really needs?
The good news: "There are simple steps you can take to keep a child's skin healthy," says Adelaide Hebert, MD, a dermatologist at the University of Texas Medical School at Houston.
Spending too much time in the sun without the proper protection can wreak havoc on skin. The harm is done by the sun's ultraviolet rays. UVA rays penetrate deeper into the skin than UVB rays, but both are thought to cause skin damage and contribute to skin cancer.
"Exposure to UVA and UVB rays is cumulative, and all children who have had blistering sunburns are at risk of developing malignant melanoma, the most serious form of skin cancer, later in life," says Anthony J. Mancini, MD, head of dermatology at Children's Memorial Hospital, in Chicago.
Because babies' thin skin burns more easily than older skin, the best defense is to keep children under 6 months out of direct sunlight. So...
When proper clothing and shade aren't available, you can apply a minimal amount of chemical-free sunscreen to small areas -- such as the face and the back of the hands -- on your young infant, says the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP). Chemical-free sunscreen is made with only physical blockers such as zinc oxide or titanium dioxide, which sit opaquely on skin (like finger paint) and are less likely to cause irritation than sunscreens with chemicals.
For children 6 months and older, opt for a "broad-spectrum" product, which blocks both UVA and UVB rays. (These sunscreens usually contain both physical and chemical blockers.) As for SPF, Dr. Mancini recommends 30. "We used to say SPF 15 or 30, but now I tell parents to go with 30 for greater protection," he says. Would 45 or 50 be better? "Beyond 30, there's probably not a significant increase in protection." Other sunscreen musts: Apply it to all exposed areas 30 minutes before heading out. Reapply it after one and a half to two hours have passed and after swimming or toweling off -- even if it's waterproof.
Here are more tips for protecting kids of all ages from harmful rays whether at the beach or in a car (UVA rays can penetrate windows):
Despite its dangers, the sun does play a role in the production of vitamin D, which is important for bone health. Because shunning sun and wearing sunscreen can cut down on vitamin D production, children need to get the vitamin through other sources such as fortified formula or milk, or supplementation.
The AAP recommends vitamin D supplements of 200 IU per day for infants (over-the-counter liquid drops are available, but consult your baby's pediatrician before using) who are exclusively breastfed and for nonbreastfed infants who consume less than 16.9 ounces per day of vitamin D-fortified formula. Weaned children can drink at least 16.9 ounces of D-fortified milk a day or take a daily multivitamin with sufficient amounts of vitamin D.
Kristen Finello, expecting her firstborn this month, lives in Scotch Plains, New Jersey.
Originally published in American Baby magazine, June 2005.
All content here, including advice from doctors and other health professionals, should be considered as opinion only. Always seek the direct advice of your own doctor in connection with any questions or issues you may have regarding your own health or the health of others.