Extreme cold can be daunting, so it's important that you suit your little ones up properly and know how to spot danger signs.
It’s some unearthly degree below freezing and the last place you want to be is anywhere but inside your cozy, warm home. But whether you have a baby who needs to be buckled in a car seat for a drive to the market, a toddler stationed at the window rearing for a romp in the snow, or a young child you need to bring with you when you pick up an older sibling at school, you need to go outdoors...and you’re not sure if it’s safe. You’ve got good reason: Little bodies have a harder time regulating temperature than big ones. In fact, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), the younger the child, the smaller the ratio of her body mass to body surface — which means more heat escapes through her skin. This freeze factor is especially problematic for newborns, who have less fat to insulate against the cold, can’t store enough energy to bump up their bodies' heat production, and can’t shiver (which is how the rest of us get our blood flowing as a temporary shield against the cold).
Fortunately, there’s no reason you shouldn’t head outdoors together if you need to. That’s because the AAP says there’s no temperature at which even the littlest baby absolutely can’t be outside. In fact, it’s not the temperature you should be concerned about but the amount of time your munchkin is outdoors. So if you’re walking between your house and car, don’t sweat it as long as your cutie’s bundled up for the cold. If your older kids are playing outside, just make sure they’re properly dressed, and mandate breaks at least every 20 or 30 minutes (they’ll be having so much fun that they may forget about the cold!).
The best way to tell if your cutie’s in the clear? If you’re feeling uncomfortable, your child definitely is — in which case you should get her inside or layer up with an extra blanket ASAP. Here, a few other essential tips to protect your little one from extreme cold weather:
Layer in threes. Ever wonder how your winter parka is light yet keeps you so toasty? The empty spaces between the feathers trap heat from your body, nestling pockets of warm air between you and the frigid outdoors. That’s also why layers work in your favor — so snuggle your kids in three:
A one-piece sleeper outfit: The layer closest to your child’s skin should be soft, thin, and, for older kids, absorb sweat if they’re playing outside.
A long-sleeved shirt and pants: Opt for thinner cotton layers over, say, a bulky sweater so your little one stays cozy but can still move comfortably.
A snow suit or bunting: The final layer should be tightly woven and water repellant to bulk up the insulation factor and seal out cold. Watch out for oversize hoods, which can block peripheral vision, and stay away from drawstrings if your child is younger than 12 as they pose a choking hazard (opt for elastic or buttons at the neckline instead).
Plus, if you’re traveling with a baby in a stroller, top her off with a blanket for an extra layer of warmth.
Be cautious of car seats. Never buckle your little one into her car seat in her snowsuit: It can compress in a crash, making the straps too loose and her belt less effective. The AAP suggests one way to safely get your child out of your home is to place her into her car seat in her coat with a blanket on top while your car is warming up. Then take her outside with you to the car and position her in the rear seat, close the door, and enter from the other side. Remove her coat, strap her in, and lay the coat and blanket on top. If you’re going on a long trip she can overheat, so check every 10 or 15 minutes if she looks sweaty — and if she does, remove a layer right away.
Keep dry. Water evaporates in even the coldest temperatures, wicking away precious heat even faster, while soppy clothing loses its effectiveness at insulating. So make sure to check your baby’s diaper frequently if you’re outside for a half hour or more; if your young child has been outside dodging snowballs, change her out of any clothing that’s wet during those frequent 20-minute breaks.
Wrap it up. Breathing in chilly air is hard on little lungs — but avoid long scarves, which can be a choking hazard. Instead, shield babies from the wind with your stroller or car seat’s canopy or sun shield (and don’t cover her face, especially if she’s less than a year old, as it can restrict her breathing). For an older child, pull a neck warmer over the bottom of her mouth or cover her with a winter mask to warm the air before it hits her lungs.
Top off head-to-toe. Your munchkin’s ears, nose, and toes are the farthest away from her heart — which means her body has to work extra hard to keep them heated. This is especially true for babies, whose heads are such a big portion of their bodies. A cozy hat and baby booties or the right size snow boots for toddlers will keep those tiny appendages toasty.
Opt for mittens, not gloves. Itty-bitty fingers are also super-susceptible when the temperature drops, so always make sure your baby or young child’s are covered — preferably with mittens, which keep those dainty digits in close company so they can work together to stay warmer.
Shield skin from the sun. The sun is extra-bright when it reflects off snow and ice — so your child is still at risk of sunburn even in the midst of the deepest freeze. If you’re out for a brisk walk with your baby, her stroller canopy should do the trick, but you can also smooth on a layer of baby-safe sunscreen to be extra-safe. For older kids who are out playing for more than a quarter of an hour, cover any exposed areas 15 to 30 minutes before going out with sunscreen of at least SPF 15.
Keep sipping. Busy little bodies already need lots of energy — and all the more to keep warm when it’s cold, which means even more liquids are in order. If you notice your baby is wetting her diaper less than usual, she might be getting a bit dehydrated — so nurse her more frequently. And keep the fluids freely flowing for toddlers and kids as well (the AAP recommends 100-percent fruit juice or milk).
Do a skin check. If your little one’s skin appears extra red, she seems lethargic or clumsy, or she’s shivering, she may have hypothermia. If you notice any of these first signs, get back inside ASAP and call the doctor. Also keep an eye out for white or yellowish skin on her fingers, toes, and nose as this is the first sign of frostbite.