It’s some unearthly degree below freezing, and the last place you want to be is anywhere but inside your cozy, warm house.
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 outside … 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 have a decreased ability to shiver (which is how the rest of us get our blood flowing as a temporary shield against the cold).
Can I take my baby outside in the cold?
Yes, you can take your baby out in the cold as long as you take proper precautions and avoid prolonged periods in freezing and below-freezing temperatures.
And be aware that babies are the most susceptible to the cold because their tiny bodies are more likely to lose heat faster than they can produce it and can’t really tell you when they’re too cold. This can lead to hypothermia, a condition that happens when the body temperature drops so low that it begins to impact the body’s systems.
Signs of hypothermia in infants are red, cold skin and an unusually low energy level.
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If baby’s temperature falls below normal while or after being out in the cold (and normal for infants is between 96 and 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit), call 911 immediately. Also, beware of white or pale gray coloring on her fingers, toes, nose and ears — an early sign of frostbite.
When is it too cold to go out with newborns and babies?
In general, playing outside at all in temperatures or wind chills below -15 degrees F should be avoided because baby’s exposed skin can start to freeze within minutes.
Wind chills make the temperature feel much colder than it actually is due to wind gusts. Babies should only be outside in the extreme cold for a few minutes at a time.
That said, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), newborns and babies are most vulnerable to hypothermia when they’re sleeping in a cold room.
Generally speaking, your baby’s room temperature should be between 68 and 72 degrees F in the summer and the winter. Note that if the temperature is too warm, it can increase the risk of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS).
When is it too cold to take a toddler outside?
Ttoddlers too can safely play outside in the cold. Toddlers should be properly dressed for the chilly weather, bundled up in warm coats, hats, gloves or mittens, thick pants or waterproof snow pants, and boots or warm shoes.
They should only be outside for 20 to 30 minutes at a time before taking a break.
Just like with babies, letting toddlers play or be outside in temperatures or wind chills below -15 degrees F should always be avoided. It’s just too cold and the risk is too high that your little one will be susceptible to hypothermia or frostbite.
Again, watch for signs of hypothermia in a toddler, which may include intense shivering, clumsiness, disorientation and slurring of words.
If you’re concerned or your toddler’s temperature drops below normal, call 911 and seek medical attention immediately. As with babies, watch out for white or pale gray skin, the first signs of frostbite.
Tips for protecting babies and toddlers in the cold
The best way to tell if your cutie is in the clear? If you’re feeling uncomfortable or very cold outside, then your child definitely is — in which case you should get her inside or add another layer ASAP.
Here are 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 down feathers or faux-down filler 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 threes: a soft, thin one-piece sleeper outfit closest to your child’s skin, followed by a thinner-layered, cotton or lighter fabric long-sleeved shirt and pants, and topped off with a snowsuit or bunting. That final layer should be tightly woven and water-repellent 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 months old, as they pose a choking and/or strangulation hazard. Opt for elastic or buttons at the neckline instead. If you’re traveling with a baby in a stroller, add a blanket for an extra layer of warmth. As a general rule, infants need to wear one more layer than adults.
- Stay dry. Make sure that your little one stays dry. While hypothermia is most likely to occur in the freezing cold temperatures, it can also happen in cool temperatures (above 40 degrees F) if your baby or toddler is wearing damp clothing or is exposed to the cold for too long. Water-resistant boots and coats can help keep baby dry. Also, make sure to check your little one’s diaper frequently if you’re outside for half an 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 strangulation 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 hands 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 doubly 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 to 30.
- 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. (Water and plain milk are your top choices. Up to 4 oz. of 100-percent fruit juice per day is okay for kids ages 1 to 3 years old, but fruit juice shouldn’t be given to treat dehydration.)
- 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 pale gray skin on her fingers, toes, ears and nose as this is the first sign of frostbite. The easiest way to see if baby is too cold is by feeling the nape of her neck to see if it’s cold to the touch. Also check for icy hands and feet.
- Have indoor shelter nearby. Make sure that you don’t get too far away from the house so that you can easily get inside for breaks, or if you notice that your little one is getting cold. If you realize that your toddler has cold hands and feet, you don’t want to have to walk 20 more minutes to get home.
- Avoid overheating. Babies are especially susceptible to overheating, so make sure that once you get back inside, you start to remove layers as needed.
- Don’t forget car seat safety. Winter coats should not be worn when your child is in a car seat because they can compress and leave too much room underneath the harness for movement in case of an accident. However, your child can wear multiple thin layers, as well as a hat and mittens, which do not interfere with harness safety. If you’re going on a long road trip, she can overheat, so check every 10 or 15 minutes (or have a partner or other traveling companion check) to see if she looks sweaty — and if she does, remove a layer as soon as possible.
What are the signs of frostbite?
Frostbite happens when extremely cold temperatures cause the skin and often the tissue just below the skin’s surface to freeze. It usually happens on the extremities like the fingers and toes, as well as the nose and ears.
Frostbitten skin starts by feeling like it’s burning, and then soon after goes numb. Babies or toddlers may not be able to tell you how they’re feeling. But their skin may become cold to the touch and turn white or pale gray.
If you’re concerned that your baby may have frostbite:
- Open your coat and immediately try and warm baby’s body against your body.
- Soak the area in warm (not hot) water around 102 degrees F until color returns to the skin.
- Feed your baby a warm (not hot) bottle, or breastfeed as soon as you can.
- If the numbness continues, call your pediatrician, and if the spot begins to blister, take your baby to the ER immediately.
- Be careful not to expose the frostbitten area to the cold on your way to the hospital, as it may cause additional damage.
Whether your toddler has cabin fever or you’ve just got errands to run, don’t stress too much over the cold. Just make sure that your little one is properly dressed and not exposed to the cold for longer than 30 minutes at a time.
And of course, follow your gut. If you’re at all concerned that your baby or toddler is too cold, head inside and celebrate the wintry temperatures by sipping hot chocolate and warming up next to a cozy heater or a crackling fire.