Seattle's Child

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Baby cold weather safety

Baby, it’s cold out there! Safety tips for newborns and infants

You CAN get out in the cold winter forecasted for Puget Sound.

“The best thing you can do for a baby is take him outside every day – rain, shine, sleet or snow.”

That was the advice I received 25 years ago from a pediatrician friend, who happened to also be the head of the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) at a major Seattle hospital at the time. Unless it’s perilously cold, going outside in the full range of weather helps babies habituate to the cycles of day and night and acclimatize to the flow of seasons.

“Fresh air,” my baby-doctor friend stressed, “is medicine for his lungs, plain and simple.”

[ Related: How to dress kids for outdoor fun on wet, cold days ]

But when is it safe to start venturing out? And what do you need to consider when taking a newborn or older baby into frigid weather? 

I didn’t pump my friend for that information way back when, but with snow in the forecast, it’s important information today if you’ve got a newborn or babe-in-arms under your roof. The National Weather Service warns Puget Sound residents to expect a very cold, very wet winter this year.

Dr. Jonathan Cogen, assistant professor in the Division of Pulmonary and Sleep Medicine at Seattle Children’s and the University of Washington, is all about lung health and keeping kids safe and healthy outdoors. We asked him what parents need to know before heading outdoors during a baby’s first winter.

Seattle’s Child: How much time in the cold is safe for babies?

Dr. Cogen: In general it is safe for babies to go outside in winter, but once the temperature is below freezing I would not recommend prolonged outside exposure of more than 15 to 30 minutes. It’s worth taking into account wind speed and wind chill, which can make it much colder than just the recorded temperature. Babies have a more difficult time regulating their temperature and thus even pretty short durations in very cold weather can lead to things like hypothermia.

Seattle’s Child: At what point after birth is it safe to take a newborn outside in winter? 

Dr. Cogen: I don’t think I really have a particular age in mind, it’s more related to making sure the exposure is fairly short for a newborn baby and that they are layered appropriately.

Seattle’s Child: What are unique cold weather issues with babies and what do parents need to know about them?

Dr. Cogen: As mentioned above, newborns have a more difficult time regulating their body temperature compared to older children and adults and thus are at risk of things like hypothermia, even when exposed to cold weather for a fairly short time. In addition, newborns lose their heat faster than older children in part because their body surface area (the total surface area of a body) is greater than that of an older child or adult and also because they have less body fat. While this is probably obvious, newborns can’t really tell their caregivers that they are cold and want to go inside.

Seattle’s Child: What’s the best approach to dressing a baby for the cold?

Dr. Cogen: In general, it’s best to dress your baby in layers – leggings and long-sleeved onesie first, then pants and shirt, then jacket, hat, socks, booties and mittens. Your baby should wear the same thing you would comfortably wear plus one additional layer. Hats are essential for newborns and infants as well as are things like waterproof snowsuits and coats when possible.

Seattle’s Child: Any concerns about stroller use in winter?

Dr. Cogen: Keep your baby warm in a stroller by using blankets as another layer. Stroller covers made specifically for your stroller are fine because they are made to allow air to pass through, but don’t drape blankets over the stroller like a tent as that can make it difficult for fresh air to circulate. 

Seattle’s Child: What about keeping the baby warm in a car seat?

Dr. Cogen: Keep in mind that puffy baby coats may lead to improper fastening of the carseat. Better might be to put the coat on when leaving the car, take it off while in the car and instead use a blanket placed over the carseat (but below baby’s neck) while driving.

Seattle’s Child: What are the warning signs of too much weather exposure for a baby?

Dr. Cogen: It’s very important for a caregiver to watch their baby closely and look for signs of hypothermia, including shivering, crying or decreased attentiveness. You should also watch out for frostbite, which is most common on the extremities. With frostbite, initially the fingers and toes would turn red and feel cold to the touch. And, in general, if your baby is really fussy and not acting like themselves, it might be most prudent to cut the cold-weather trip short if you can.

More tips for cold weather outings with a baby:

Wear your baby out in the cold: Baby carriers keep your newborn or infant close to your body, which means close to the warmth you generate. Especially in winter, when both of you are more bundled, be sure your baby’s face is not pressed into clothing and there is a free flow of air around their head.

Protect tender skin: Low humidity, cold and indoor recirculated air can all lead to dry skin on a baby, as can too much exposure to water. To prevent chapping and chaffing, bathe baby just once or twice a week with short bathtimes. Then moisturize — making sure what you use has very few ingredients. “I recommend Aquaphor Healing Ointment Advanced Therapy to parents who are looking to protect little cheeks from the cold dry air as well as healing them if they get dry and chapped,” says Colleen Stewart, a postpartum doula. “Parents should always double check with their provider to make sure anything they put on their baby’s face is safe, especially if baby has any skin conditions.” Finally, keep indoor temperatures lower so as not to add to outdoor chapping: set between 68°F and 72°F during the day and between 65°F and 68°F at night.

Avoid the spread of seasonal germs: Winter is the season of flu and other respiratory illnesses and, for the last three years, COVID-19 spikes. La Leche League cautions parents of infants and babies to keep other hands and faces (kids’ and adults’) away from your baby’s hands, face and mouth – not only indoors but outside as well. 

Avoid going outside with your baby in temperatures below 20°F. 

Don’t wrap scarves around a baby.

More at Seattle’s Child:

Winter survival guide for Seattle-area families: How to stay warm and dry outside

About the Author

Cheryl Murfin

Cheryl Murfin is managing editor at Seattle's Child. She is also a certified doula, lactation educator for NestingInstinctsSeattle.com and a certified AWA writing workshop facilitator at Compasswriters.com.