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Winter weather: What parents need to know about keeping kids safe during extreme cold

Child in coat and knit hat standing in snow.
Experts share tips on protecting children from extreme cold. (Getty Images)

Winter weather is in full swing, with snow, ice and freezing temperatures expected across the country and experts sounding the alarm about the importance of being prepared. That's especially important for babies and young children, who experts say are particularly sensitive to the effects of extreme weather.

“Babies are especially vulnerable to cold due to the fact that they have a large body surface area compared to their size, which causes them to lose heat more rapidly,” Dr. Esther Liu, chair of pediatrics and director of group-based care at University of Maryland Baltimore Washington Medical Center, tells Yahoo Life. “Additionally, they don’t have the ability to regulate their temperatures as well when they are young,” she adds.

According to Dr. Tiorra Ross, a practicing pediatrician in Houston, a lack of communication skills can also complicate matters. “Cold weather is more dangerous to infants and younger children because they cannot communicate to their caregiver their symptoms and express that they are cold,” she tells Yahoo Life.

It’s important, then, to bundle up and take other precautions to keep little ones warm. But how much bundling is too much? And how long should kiddos stay outside when the snow is piled up on the ground? As families from Texas to the Midwest bring out their space heaters and snow pants and brace for extreme weather, experts share how parents can best protect their kids.

When should kids stay indoors?

Your child might be thrilled to have a snow day — but there are a few factors to consider before letting them loose to build a snowman. Everyone’s tolerance for cold weather is different, and parents should not let the temperature alone be their guide. Whether or not there is precipitation, Liu says, is important.

“Getting wet will drop body temperature more because you lose more body heat through wet skin,” she explains.

Additionally, wind chill can make a significant difference in staying safe out in the cold.

“If (it’s) below -15 degrees Fahrenheit, it’s a good day to play inside. The risk of hypothermia and frostbite is in minutes of exposure,” Dr. Tracy Butler, a pediatrician and medical director at Pediatrix Primary and Urgent Care of Colorado, tells Yahoo Life. “Proper clothing and time limits can help avoid this complication.”

How to stay safe when outdoors

Depending on where you live, avoiding extreme winter weather may be unavoidable — as is keeping children at home for long stretches of time. Here’s what health experts advise to offset the cold.

  • Dress them in appropriate clothing. Pediatricians who spoke to Yahoo Life all recommend dressing your child in layers. “This allows people to find just the ‘right’ amount of warmth without overheating,” says Liu. This might include long-sleeved shirts, pants, socks, hats, boots, gloves or mittens (the latter are typically easier to get on a young child) and a water-resistant coat or jacket — especially if there’s any rain or snow. If you’re unsure whether or not you’re overdoing it, Butler offers this rule: “Dress them in one more layer of clothing than an adult would wear in the same conditions.”

  • Protect kids from wind during walks. Braving the cold? “During stroller walks, shield kids from the wind [using a rain cover or weather shield that attaches to the stroller], consider the outside temperature and how comfortable you feel in the same and check on extremities occasionally,” Dr. Erik Johnson, vice president of primary care services at Pediatrix Medical Group, tells Yahoo Life. Liu also recommends considering adding blankets for this, when necessary.

  • Monitor the time you’re spending outdoors in extreme cold. Everyone’s child is different, so pediatricians all say there’s no specific amount of time one can stay outdoors. However, there are additional things you can do to monitor the situation. “Depending on the outside temperature, set limits on the time they are outside and remind them to come in for warmth checks on a regular basis,” says Butler. “If they are shivering, it’s time to come inside for a break.”

Cold weather safety in cars

When the weather is especially chilly, there’s a good chance you might opt to drive your child to where they need to be rather than walk. But there are several rules one should follow to remain safe.

  • Take coats off before buckling up. “No child or infant should wear a jacket while in a car seat or seat belt,” Ross says. “It is best that the safety harness is close to the body to provide the best safety.” Adds Butler: “Too much bulk can create extra room in the harness, causing a loose fit, and putting the child at risk for injury in the event of a crash.”

  • Bring a blanket along. To stay toasty while the heater starts up, Butler suggests draping your young child in a blanket (over their car seat harness or seat belt). You can also put their coat backwards on top of them.

  • Be mindful of where your car is idling while it warms up. “The garage door needs to be open and the door into the house needs to be closed,” says Johnson.

  • Don’t go overboard with the heater. You don’t have to keep it cranked at high heat for the baby’s sake. “The car doesn’t need to be any warmer than what you feel comfortable in,” Johnson notes.

Sleep safety tips

The recommended room temperature for babies is generally between 68 and 72 degrees Fahrenheit, and experts warn that overheating is linked to sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS). Liu notes that older children, who are better able to regulate their body temperature, are typically more "tolerant" of wider temperature ranges in the home.

As for the sleep environment, Butler says that for babies, it’s safest to keep blankets, quilts, pillows, bumpers, sheepskins and other loose bedding out. “While they are warm, they are associated with suffocation deaths. It is better to use sleep clothing like one-piece sleepers or wearable blankets,” she says.

If you rely on space heaters primarily, there are a few rules for using them safely around children.

“[Space] heaters should always be on a hard surface, preferably the floor, and kept away from children, especially crawling infants,” says Ross. She and other pediatricians all recommend parents stay present when space heaters are in use for babies and young children.

Liu also says space heaters should not be hot to touch (like radiators) and suggests having a model that includes an automatic shut-off mechanism in the event it tips over.

“Space heaters should never be plugged into an extension cord, as the risk of fire increases,” adds Butler. She also advises against the use of fuel-burning space heaters, which put kids at higher risk of carbon monoxide poisoning. At the very least, have a carbon monoxide detecter present if needed.

How can you tell if your child is too cold?

Pediatricians recommend keeping an eye out for the following symptoms indicating that your child may be too cold:

  • Shivering. Liu notes, however, that this doesn’t develop until a baby is around 6 months of age.

  • Change in skin color. Ross urges parents to look for “discoloration” of the hands, feet and lips. Adds Liu: “Pale, cool skin is a late finding. Children will usually get red before getting pale, as the body tries to initially send more blood flow/body heat to the cold skin before trying to conserve body heat.”

  • Complaints of pain in the extremities.

According to Butler, children complaining of burning pain or numbness, especially in areas like the fingers, toes, nose and ears, may be experiencing frostbite. If this is the case, she recommends placing the “extremity in warm (not hot) water of around 104 degrees. Warm washcloths can be applied to the face and ears. Avoid rubbing the areas. If the symptoms don’t improve, contact your physician,” she says.

Additionally, parents should be aware of the signs of hypothermia:

  • Slurred speech

  • Lethargy

  • Clumsiness

“If your child suffers from signs and symptoms of hypothermia, activate 911 for immediate help,” says Butler.