What’s not to like about winter when you’re a kid? As a first grader, I looked forward to sledding, snowball fights with my brother, and, of course, the cup of hot chocolate that followed. And, according to my mom, it was easy for me to love the snow because “[I] didn’t have to drive in it.”
Now that I’m a mom, I realize that my parents had more practical matters on their minds: How thick is the ice on that pond? Those kids aren’t sledding toward the street, are they? How many layers should the kids be wearing? Did they go to the bathroom before they put on all those layers?
As parents, we can all use a few tips when it comes to winter and kids. Even families who live in warmer climates often travel to see snow. So, I checked with the American Academy of Pediatrics, Yale-New Haven Children’s Hospital in New Haven, Conn., and the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center in Ohio for some tips on keeping kids safe during winter’s coldest months.
• 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, turtlenecks, 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, sheepskins 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. The child may complain that his 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, bring the child indoors and place the frostbitten parts of her body in warm — not hot — water. Warm washcloths may be applied to frostbitten areas. Do not rub the frozen areas. After a few minutes, dry and cover the child with clothing or blankets. Give him something warm to drink. If the numbness continues for more than a few minutes, call your doctor.
• Don’t forget sunscreen and lip balm: The sun’s rays can still cause sunburn in the winter, especially when they reflect off snow. Make sure to cover your child’s exposed skin with sunscreen.
• 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, right?)
• Wash up to fight winter colds and the flu: Despite old wives’ tales to the contrary, cold weather does not cause colds or the 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 his elbow may help reduce the risk of catching and spreading colds and the flu.
• Ice skating: Allow children to skate only on approved surfaces. Check for signs posted by local police or recreation departments, or call your local police department to find out which areas have been approved. Advise your child to skate in the same direction as the crowd, avoid darting across the ice, never skate alone and not chew gum or eat candy while skating, to avoid the risk of choking.
• Skiing and snowboarding: Helmets are recommended. Kids should be taught by a qualified instructor in a program designed for children. They should never ski or snowboard alone and 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 at least be accompanied by a friend. They should never ski or snowboard alone. Snowboarders should wear gloves with built-in wrist guards. Children under the age of 7 should not snowboard.
• Sledding: Helmets are recommended, although 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. Kids should avoid sledding in overcrowded areas, and should never ride a sled being pulled by a moving vehicle. To stop a sled kids should drag their feet or make 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 American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that children under the age of 16 not operate snowmobiles and that children under age 6 never ride on snowmobiles. For parents who choose to allow their older child to ride with an adult: Do not use a snowmobile to pull a sled or skiers. Wear goggles and a safety helmet approved for use on motorized vehicles such as motorcycles and travel at safe speeds. Stay on marked trails, away from roads, water, railroads and pedestrians.
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.parent