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Keeping baby safe on the beach - to use sunscreen or not?

July 16, 2015

Beach towels? Check! Flip flops? Check!

But when planning to bring a young infant to the seashore, your checklist becomes a lot more complex to be sure you and your baby – as well as your older children – have a fun and safe visit to the beach, says Dr. John O’Reilly of Baystate Children’s Hospital.

The heat can pose a variety of challenges for anyone on the beach, especially for infants. The biggest risk for infants? Sunburn, overheating and dehydration, says Dr. O’Reilly.

Each year thousands of babies are treated in the emergency room and seen in the doctor’s office for overexposure to the sun. But with a little common sense and planning, you can protect them from the dangers of the sun.

“Babies should always be in the shade while on the beach. An umbrella is your first line of defense,” says Dr. O’Reilly, who also notes that umbrellas are still only 50 percent effective in preventing radiation exposure.

“That’s why parents should be dressing their babies to minimize exposed skin. Wide-brimmed hats are a must, along with long-sleeved shirts and lightweight cotton pants,” he added.

Hats should have at least a three-inch brim to shield a child’s face, ears and back of the neck. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) suggests selecting clothes made with a tight weave, which protect better than those with a looser weave. If you are not sure how tight a fabric’s weave is, hold it up to see how much light shines through. The less light the better. Or you can look for protective clothing labeled with an ultraviolet protection factor (UPF).

Additional sun safety tips include the option of purchasing a small tent for the beach, and when walking along an open boardwalk or anywhere in the sun, don’t forget the stroller canopy.

As for what temperatures are too hot for bringing baby on the beach, the AAP says it’s more important to limit the amount of time children and infants spend outdoors.

“If possible, families should avoid being on the beach when the sun is at its strongest and the heat can be the most dangerous to their baby,” says Dr. O’Reilly. According to the AAP, of which he is a member, that means limiting sun exposure as much as possible between the hours of 10 a.m. and 4 p.m.

So, what about the sunscreen? There long has been a debate about whether babies should be using sun block with some organizations recommending it should only be applied on those older than six months.

“Improvements in sunblock products over the last few decades, along with improvements in our knowledge about how solar radiation damages our skin, have led to the conclusion that sunblock should be used on the exposed skin of everyone, now including babies under six months with stipulations,” says Dr. O’Reilly.

The AAP emphasizes that when adequate clothing and shade are not available, parents can apply a minimal amount of sunscreen to small areas, such as the infant’s face and the back of the hands.

In general, the American College of Dermatology recommends that sensitive areas such as the ears, neck and cheeks, or areas that are not covered by clothing, should have a broad-spectrum, water-resistant sunscreen of at least a sun protection factor (SPF) of 30 applied according to the product label. The sunscreen should be reapplied approximately every two hours or as often as the label says. Sunscreens that use the ingredients zinc oxide or titanium dioxide or special sunscreens made for infants or toddlers may cause less irritation to their sensitive skin. It’s always a good idea to test your baby’s sensitivity to sunscreen by applying a small amount to their inner wrist to check for any reaction first.

Why all the fuss about babies?

“Their skin is thinner than an adult and that makes them more vulnerable to the harmful effects of solar radiation,” says Dr. O’Reilly.

Radiation penetrates skin and can damage DNA in deeper tissue layers, which, in the long term, may increase your child’s risk of skin cancer as an adult, noted the Baystate pediatrician.

The fact that infants have a higher surface-area to body-weight ratio also makes them more prone to dehydration and overheating.

Since babies can’t verbalize that they are getting hot and thirsty, their first signs of overheating and dehydration may be irritability and crying. The rule of thumb is if you are sweating and getting thirsty on the beach, your baby is probably even more dehydrated than you are. Breast milk is the perfect food for babies, and breast feeding frequently when your baby is at the beach is the safest approach. If you are feeding your baby formula, you should talk to your pediatrician about whether you should supplement him or her with electrolyte solutions such as Pedialyte.

And, if you want you baby to be super-cool on the beach, don’t forget the child-size sunglasses, choosing those that block 99 percent of UV rays and have break-resistant frames and lenses. Sunglasses can help protect their sensitive eyes from developing problems like cataracts and macular degeneration as they get older.

“The biggest challenge may be getting your baby to keep the sunglasses on, but there are some with elastic head straps to may help,” says O’Reilly.