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How cold is too cold for kids? Plenty of factors to consider

  • McClatchy-Tribune News Service
  • Published Tuesday, Dec. 3, 2013, at 12 a.m.

As temperatures begin to dip, parents may hesitate to let their children play outside. How cold is too cold? There’s no magic number, said Jennifer Shu, a pediatrician and medical editor for the American Academy of Pediatrics’ (AAP) healthychildren.org informational website.

“It depends on where you live and other factors like age of the child, wind chill and humidity, among many others,” she said.

A child’s age is a major consideration. “The younger the child, the smaller the ratio of body mass to surface area, leading to increased heat loss,” she explained. “Very young infants do not have the ability to increase heat production through shivering, and young children have limited glycogen stores to support increased heat production in response to cold.”

This doesn’t mean, however, that you should keep the kids inside all winter.

“A lot of parents, especially those with newborns, are afraid to take children outside. But you should get out. There’s more room for people to move around, which often leads to increased activity, and fresh air is a good thing,” she said, adding that germs are also less likely to be spread in wide, open spaces.

Experts agree that common sense can guide parents – and most are already doing a great job keeping their children protected.

“People are reasonably educated about winter safety, so we don’t see a lot of cold weather-related incidents,” said Elizabeth Powell, an emergency room physician at Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago.

Still, she notes, it’s always good for a refresher since children are at a greater risk for hypothermia than adults.

Here are a few quick tips to keep kids safe.

Cover up

Because their hands and feet are small, children should be well covered. That includes hands, feet and head. According to Powell, it’s especially important for infants, whose heads comprise a large portion of the body.

Parents don’t have to buy the most expensive winter gear to keep kids protected either. Powell said you just want to ensure the fabric has a sturdy, tight weave. She also considers the old standby wool a very effective material for warmth.

In addition to the extremities and head, a child’s ears and nose may need to be covered depending on the conditions, according to Shu.

Stay dry

Powell suggests periodically checking children’s gear to make sure it’s dry since anything wet is going to make them colder. Leaky boots tend to be a major source of wetness, so inspect your child’s socks to ensure they’re nice and dry after playing. If not, it’s time to replace the boots.

Also invest in clothing that is water resistant to maintain the child’s body heat.

Remember sun protection

Even though it’s winter, that doesn’t mean the sun’s harmful rays are in hibernation mode. In fact, they can actually be more powerful when reflecting off snow.

“People often forget about sunscreen and sunglasses, but they’re very important for protection,” Shu explained.

Be sure to apply both sunscreen and a lip balm with SPF protection, and make sure children wear sunglasses.

Watch for symptoms

Curious if your child is too cold?

Shu offered a few signs parents should look for: If a child is shivering, cold to the touch or turning blue, bring him or her inside. Also pay attention to how you feel. If you’re cold, said Shu, chances are your child is too – unless he or she is running around while you are not moving.

For more information about symptoms and treatments, see AAP’s winter safety guide at healthychildren.org. Search for winter safety tips.

Despite the dire warnings, winter is actually a great time for families to get outdoors. It seems that many families’ vigilance means being cooped up in the house during the colder months.

“Don’t avoid outdoor activities,” Powell said. “Winter is a great time for families to be outdoors; it’s actually probably better for kids’ physical health and parents’ mental health to get outdoors.”

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