How to Keep Kids Toasty — and Safe — in Wintry Weather
What's not to like about winter when you're a kid? As a first-grader, I looked forward to sledding, snowball fights, and a cup of hot chocolate after my brother and I pummeled each other with snowballs. As my mom still says, "Of course you loved the snow. You didn't have to drive in it." Today, as a mom, I realize that my parents had more practical matters on their minds: Those kids aren't sledding toward the street, are they? Are they wearing enough layers to stay warm? They won't go near the frozen pond edges, will they?
This winter has started out cold, and even if we don't get heaps of snow in the Triangle, many families travel to the mountains or farther north where the mercury drops even lower. So we checked with the American Academy of Pediatrics, Yale-New Haven Children's Hospital in New Haven, Conn., and Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center for some tips on keeping kids safe during winter's coldest months.
Keeping kids cozy
* Think layers. The rule of thumb for older babies and young children is to dress them in one more layer of clothing than an adult would wear in the same conditions. Clothing for older kids during very cold weather should include thermal long johns, turtleneck, one or two shirts, pants, sweater, coat, warm socks, boots, gloves or mittens and a hat.
* Keep your baby warm — and safe — at night. Blankets, quilts, pillows and other loose bedding may contribute to Sudden Infant Death Syndrome and should be kept out of an infant's bed. A one-piece sleeper is preferred.
* Avoid hypothermia. This condition develops when a child's temperature falls below normal due to exposure to cold. It often happens when a youngster is playing outdoors in extremely cold weather without wearing proper clothing. As hypothermia sets in, the child may shiver and become lethargic and clumsy. His speech may become slurred and his body temperature will decline. If you suspect your child is hypothermic, call 911 at once. Until help arrives, take the child indoors, remove any wet clothing, and wrap him in blankets or warm clothes.
* Prevent frostbite. Frostbite develops when the skin and outer tissues become frozen. Fingers, toes, ears and nose are most at risk, and they may become pale, gray and blistered. A child may say that her skin burns or has become numb.
To protect against frostbite, set reasonable time limits on outdoor play. Have children come inside periodically to warm up. Young children should be checked every half hour when playing outside in cold weather. If frostbite occurs, have the child go indoors and place the frostbitten parts of her body in warm, not hot, water. You may need to start with relatively cool water and gradually work up to warm. Do not rub the frozen areas.
After a few minutes, dry and cover the child with clothing or blankets. Give her something warm to drink. If the numbness continues for more than a few minutes, call your doctor.
* Don't forget the sunscreen and lip balm. The sun's rays can still cause sunburn in winter, especially when they reflect off snow. Make sure to cover your child's exposed skin with sunscreen.
Avoiding winter health woes
* Nix nosebleeds. If your child suffers from winter nosebleeds, try using a cold-air humidifier in his room at night. Saline nose drops may help keep tissues moist. If bleeding is severe or recurrent, consult your pediatrician.
* Don't bathe baby too often. Many pediatricians feel that bathing two or three times a week is enough for an infant's first year. More-frequent baths may dry out the skin, especially during the winter. (After all, you're already cleaning certain areas with every diaper change.)
* Wash up to fight winter colds and flu. Despite old wives' tales to the contrary, cold weather does not cause colds or flu. But both tend to be more common in the winter, when children are in school and are in closer contact with each other. Frequent hand washing and teaching your child to sneeze or cough into her elbow may help reduce the risk of catching and spreading colds and flu.
Keeping winter sports safe
* Ice skating – Allow children to skate only on approved surfaces. Check for signs posted by local police or recreation departments at outdoor skating areas if in a colder climate. Advise your child to skate in the same direction as the crowd, to avoid darting across the ice, to never skate alone, and to not chew gum or eat candy while skating (to avoid the risk of choking).
* Skiing and snowboarding – Helmets are recommended. Kids should learn to ski or snowboard by a qualified instructor in a program designed for children. Young children should always be supervised by an adult. Older children's need for adult supervision depends on their maturity and skill. If they are not with an adult, they should be with a friend. They should never ski or snowboard alone. Snowboarders should wear gloves with built-in wrist guards. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that children younger than 7 not snowboard.
* Sledding – Helmets are recommended. (No specific sledding helmet is available, so wear a properly fitted helmet designed for higher impact.) Keep sledders away from motor vehicles. Supervise young children and keep them separated from older kids. Instruct children to sled feet first or sitting up instead of lying down, head first. Use steerable sleds, not snow disks or inner tubes.
Sledding slopes should be free of obstructions, should be covered in snow (not ice), should not be too steep (a slope of less than 30 degrees) and should end with a flat runoff. Avoid sledding in overcrowded areas, and never ride a sled being pulled by a moving vehicle.
Teach kids how to stop a sled by dragging their feet or making a sharp turn. Discourage them from stopping a sled by steering into a snow bank, since snow could be hiding dangers such as sharp rocks or branches. Teach them to roll off a sled that's sliding out of control.
* Snowmobiling – The AAP recommends that children under age 16 not operate snowmobiles, and that children younger than 6 never ride on snowmobiles. For parents who allow an older child to ride with an adult, be sure they: wear goggles and a safety helmet approved for use on motorized vehicles; travel at safe speeds; and stay on marked trails, away from roads, water, railroads and pedestrians. Do not pull a sled or skiers.
Kathy Sena is a freelance journalist specializing in health and parenting issues and is the mother of a 15-year-old son. Visit her blog at www.parenttalktoday.com.