Ages 0-5: Beach-Bound Babies

Summer with an infant can be like a “Where is Waldo” scavenger hunt for parents coveting a friendly spot of shade. But with new options in summer gear, tips from experienced parents and a be-prepared motto, it’s possible to shield infants and children from harmful ultraviolet radiation and the sweltering summer heat.

Sun exposure provides vitamin D, a necessary nutrient for healthy bones and teeth, but skin damage from ultraviolet rays during childhood can lead to skin cancer, the most common of all cancers, later in life. And an infant’s vulnerable skin can burn in less than 10 minutes.

Be an early bird

When a trip outdoors is in the works, a wise strategy is to go early in the day and steer clear of midday, when the sun’s most dangerous rays are intense.

Kristen Howell of Holly Springs is mother to three girls: Megan, 7; Anna, 4; and Kathryn, 1. The Howell family enjoys the beach and pool, but Howell says it requires extra diligence to protect her fair-haired girls from the sun.

“We take them down (to the beach) early, about 9:30 a.m., and while we are on the beach I reapply sunscreen every 40 minutes or so,” Howell says. By noon, the crew is inside for lunch followed by a long stretch of indoor activities to beat the midday heat. This past summer, Howell’s youngest daughter, Kathryn, only ventured onto the beach for short walks in a covered stroller.

Howell also supervises her girls in a small baby pool in the shade. She packs books, games and videos for indoor entertainment during the hottest part of the day.

Wear protective clothing

Sun-protective clothing, which originated in Australia, is becoming increasingly popular in this country. Sun suits for both sexes are made of fabric that protects against ultraviolet light. The material is rated according to an Utraviolet Protection Factor (UPF). Children also need eyewear that blocks ultraviolet rays and appropriate footwear.

Anne Marie McGinty, Cary mother of four, says she was careful to shelter her youngest, Megan, when she was outdoors with her three older boys. “I always picked up a big sun hat that would cover her head and the back of her neck while we were at the pool,” McGinty says. “I would drape a light towel or blanket over her, and the hat would protect her face because I couldn’t put sunscreen on her.”

Get the scoop on sunscreen

The debate about whether to use sunscreen on infants remains controversial since some reports have raised concerns about infants absorbing chemicals through the skin. Chemical-free sunscreens made with titanium dioxide and zinc oxide are available.

“The general rule is before 6 months, no sunscreen, so you just need to keep them out of the sun,” says Dr. Catherine Hren of Cary Dermatology.

The American Academy of Pediatrics policy on ultraviolet radiation states that infants younger than 6 months of age should stay out of direct sunlight. When on a reflective surface, such as sand, water or concrete, moving under an umbrella or canopy may only reduce ultraviolet radiation exposure by 50 percent.

Stay vigilant around water

Howell is careful to stay close to her girls when they are in the water. She also uses reliable flotation devices on all children, another important safety measure.

Water safety experts recommend only using flotation devices that are U.S. Coast Guard-approved and that fit properly so they won’t slip over the head. But don’t be lulled into complacency when using these devices. Your constant and close supervision is necessary as well. And when staking out your spot at the beach, set up near a lifeguard and away from piers or jetties where rip tides are more common.

The key is to supervise your children closely, because if you are right there with them, you can better protect them, says Mira Batchelor, director of preparedness and safety services at the American Red Cross Triangle Area Chapter.

The most important part of water safety is learning how to swim, according to Batchelor. Both children and adults should take swimming lessons as well as courses in CPR and first aid.

Batchelor also refers to the “dangerous toos” regarding water and young children. “Don’t let them become too tired, too cold, be too far from safety or get too much sun,” she explains.

Keep children hydrated

In addition to watching children when they are in or near the water, keeping an eye on the water they drink is important, as well. Children at the beach or pool need to replace fluids frequently. Infants are at greater risk for heat-related illness because their bodies may not be able to regulate temperature efficiently, and heatstroke can be a real problem for all young children.

“Always drink plenty of water, even if you don’t feel thirsty. Your body needs that water to feel cool. Your children need it,” Batchelor says. “You can be having a lot of fun, a lot of activity, and you just don’t realize your body is in distress, and it can be life-threatening.” So keep drinks close at hand and offer them often.

When the sun, sand and heat become too much, a trip to the ice cream shop is a tried-and-true favorite for cooling off on a hot summer day!

Carol McGarrahan is a Triangle-area mother and freelance science and health writer.

For More Information

American Academy of Pediatrics *
Specific tips about children and sunscreen

American Academy of Dermatology*
Information about sunscreen and decreasing the risk of skin cancer

American Red Cross, Triangle Area Chapter *
Water safety and area swimming lessons