Winter is full of fun and adventure, but cold weather can be dangerous for children. As the temperatures drop, consult our guide to keeping your kids safe all season long.

By Beth Turner
Updated December 02, 2020
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Gather your cooped-up crew and throw on those layers. Whether you want to level up your backyard snowball game or teach kids how to shred the slopes, here's everything you'll need to keep your family safe in cold temperatures. (And remember: Don't let children play outdoors if the windchill is 10 degrees F or lower. Infants should only be taken out in very cold weather when absolutely necessary.)

Bundle Up for Warmth

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. As a rule of thumb, kids need one more layer than adults because they don't have as much insulation, explains Sarah Pae, M.D., a pediatrician at Northwestern Medicine, in Chicago. If you have two layers on, your child needs three. Your kid hates bundling? Go for less bulky layers, or skip the extra one and limit your time outside. Here's how to build their outdoor armor.

First Layer: The base shirt should be thin, fitted, and made from a synthetic material to wick away moisture, like the Magellan Outdoors 2.0 Thermal Reversible Long Sleeve Baselayer Top and Stretch Baselayer Pants (big-kid sizes small to extra large, $15 each; academy.com). Avoid cotton; it holds in sweat. Wet clothes will only make your child colder (and miserable!).

Middle Layer: The job of this layer is to retain heat. Try a wool sweater; a pullover made from fleece, polypropylene, or another polyester blend (Kids Sherpa Fleece Jacket, little kid, sizes 4 to 7, big kid, sizes 8 to 20, $50; landsend.com); or a vest ( Puffer Vest in Rainbow Stripe, little kid and big kid, sizes 2 to 12, $38; primary.com).

Outer Layer: This is the one that will keep your kid dry, so waterproof and windproof are key. A jacket long enough to cover your child's hips will be warmer than a shorter style; a hood provides another layer over a hat. The Snow Jacket from Hanna Andersson (big kid and little kid, sizes 18 to 24 months to size 12, $140; hannaandersson.com) has adjustable cuffs that grow with your kid and reflective details for added safety at night.

Hat: Wool hats offer the most warmth. For little kids, swing for a style that buttons under the chin, like the Kids Trapper Hat from Lands' End (extra small/small, medium/large, $35; landsend.com). It'll stay on longer. For bigger kids who are too cool for hats, the best style is anything they'll wear that covers their ears.

Mittens: The magic word here is waterproof, because cold, soggy hands almost always mean the end of fun—and can lead to frostbite. Keep kids in mittens (Kids' Mountain Classic Insulated Mittens, sizes extra small to large, $25; llbean.com) as long as they'll tolerate them. Fingers stay warmer when cozying up next to each other.

Snow Pants: Lined ones are the best option for staying warm and dry, and a bibbed overall style provides an extra layer on the torso (Insulated Snow Overalls, little kid and big kid, sizes 18 to 24 months to size 12, $92; hannaandersson.com). Pro tip: Don't tuck snow pants into boots; wear them over to keep snow out and feet dry.

Socks: Wool socks or smart socks, a blend of wool and synthetic fibers, are best for warmth and dryness. Add a second pair on extra-cold days or to improve fit if boots are a tad big.

Boots: Look for waterproof boots that hit your kid mid-calf. Rubber soles with thick treads or grooves offer the best slip resistance. Make sure they're not too roomy (extra socks can help) nor too tight—not only will they pinch, they'll hinder circulation, making feet colder faster. Our sources swear by Sorel—try the Youth Super Trooper Boot (sizes 1 to 7, $85; sorel.com).

Protect Your Kid's Skin

Cold weather and low humidity can zap skin of moisture. Amy Paller, M.D., professor of dermatology and pediatrics at Northwestern Feinberg School of Medicine, in Chicago, explains how to soothe the rough spots.

Choose baths over showers. Have kids bathe at least every other day with warm (not hot) water, soaking 5 to 10 minutes to absorb as much moisture as possible. Stick to gentle cleansers instead of bubble baths and soaps with fragrance. If your child's skin is especially dry or itchy, add colloidal oatmeal like Aveeno Soothing Bath Treatment to the water.

Moisturize immediately. As soon as your kid steps out of the bathtub, gently pat their skin with a towel so it stays damp, and then apply a cream-based moisturizer like Eucerin Advanced Repair Cream or CeraVe Moisturizing Cream, both of which contain the oil their skin needs.

Surround lips with love. Dryness causes licking, but the chemicals and bacteria in saliva are irritating to skin and lips. Dab petroleum jelly or a fragrance-free product like Aquaphor all around your kid's mouth. Nix flavored balms, which are tasty and can make kids lick more.

Protect those chubby cheeks. Before going outside, slather exposed areas of the face with a layer of petroleum jelly or Aquaphor to prevent chapping. Apply it under masks, too; breathing can make skin damp and chafed.

Keep hands dry. Wet mittens dry out skin, and if they're also cold, it can lead to cracked fingers. Change gloves as often as they need, and apply moisturizer once they come in.

Double down on eczema. Rub on a hypoallergenic moisturizer once or twice a day and after a bath. Ointments such as Aquaphor are the most effective against eczema, followed by creams like CeraVe. Avoid wool and other scratchy shirts or sweaters. For severe flares, wet wraps can help your kid sleep: Pat moisturizer on the affected area, then cover it with wet gauze or snug pajamas, followed by an elastic wrap (such as the kind you use on a sprained ankle).

Remember sunscreen. We know, it's a hassle you don't want to deal with right now. But winter sun can be plenty strong, especially in high altitudes (read: while skiing). Use SPF 30 or higher. (Sticks are easy and work well on faces.)

Try a humidifier. "Using a humidifier, especially in your child's room, can minimize the drying effects of the season," says Anthony J. Mancini, M.D., an associate professor of pediatrics and dermatology at Northwestern University, in Chicago. For safety reasons, don't place the humidifier near or directly over your child.

Don't Forget to Hydrate

Kids are working up a sweat when playing in all that gear, so make sure they take a water break at least every two hours, and help them rehydrate and refuel when they come inside, says Rupa Mahadevan, M.D., a pediatrician in Houston.

Water is always the preferred option, but if you want to up the excitement, serve it warm with mint, lemon, apples, oranges, or berries. Put it in a thermos so they can sip outdoors.

Herbal Teas aren't just for you. Kids like chamomile, ginger, or golden milk tea, which contains warming spices such as turmeric, cinnamon, ginger, and black pepper.

Brew a new version of hot chocolate with a half cup each of warm water and unsweetened almond milk and a quarter cup of cocoa powder. Throw in one or more add-ins like honey, cinnamon sticks, vanilla extract, or mini marshmallows. 

Clear broth-based soups are ideal for both warming up and rehydrating. Use alphabet pasta to turn lunch into a word game.

Top water-filled fruits like apples, pineapple, or pears with cinnamon and bake 10 minutes or so (enough time to warm them up without evaporating too much liquid). Serve with a dollop of Greek yogurt, whipped cream, or ice cream.

Ward Off Hypothermia

Hypothermia develops when a child's temperature falls below normal due to exposure to cold, and often happens when a child plays outdoors in extremely cold weather without proper clothing.

Give them a 10-minute warning if they develop rosy cheeks, a runny nose, or complaints of cold fingers or toes. Also bring them inside soon if their hands and feet are clearly wet. Once they're out of the cold, remove wet clothing. Have them move about and drink a hot beverage to raise their body temperature.

Take your kids inside ASAP if you notice uncontrollable shivering, lips that are starting to turn blue, clumsiness or confusion, and slurred speech. In severe cases, the child may stop shivering and becomes incoherent and possibly unconscious. Call 911 right away after noticing severe hypothermia symptoms. If care is unavailable immediately, get your child inside. Dry them and wrap them in layers. Focus on warming core areas: chest, neck, head, and groin. Don't treat with direct heat.

Prevent Frostbite

Frostbite happens when the skin and outer tissues become frozen. This condition tends to happen on extremities like the fingers, toes, ears, and nose. You can avoid it by setting reasonable time limits on outdoor play, and have your children come inside periodically to warm up.

Mild symptoms of frostbite include numbness or white patches of skin on the ears, nose, cheeks, fingers, or toes. If you notice these symptoms, get your child inside. Have them change clothes and soak affected areas in warm—not hot—water until the skin turns pink. Warm washcloths may be applied to frostbitten nose, ears, and lips. Do not rub the frozen areas. After a few minutes, dry and cover them with clothing or blankets, and give them something warm to drink.

Moderate frostbite is characterized by waxy, hard, white or grayish-yellow skin; numbness; and a burning sensation. Follow treatment for frostnip. Rewarm skin that can't be soaked in water with blankets, or put feet or hands under your armpit or between your hands. Apply sterile gauze. Call a doctor. Do not use direct heat, rub the area, or break blisters.

In severe cases, skin might turn blue to purple or splotchy. You should immediately go to the emergency room for these symptoms.

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