The American Academy of Dermatology estimates that 80 percent of harmful sun exposure occurs before age 18. That's because kids spend more time outdoors than adults do, especially in summer. Babies and young children can't protect themselves from sunburn, so the adults have to do it for them.
The most important thing you can do for your child outdoors is protect her from sunburn. It's not hard, but requires diligence. Many parents are conscientious about skin protection when they take their kids to the beach or the swimming pool but neglect it when the children are playing in the backyard or on a sports team. Sun protection is needed all the time.
We all know how painful a sunburn can be. And children are more likely to suffer because their skin is more sensitive than adults' and burns more easily.
More important is the potential long-term effect. Adults who get skin cancer typically got too much sun when they were kids. Just one or two blistering sunburns in childhood can greatly increase the risk of developing skin cancer in adulthood. If that sounds scary, we mean it to be. Skin cancer is the most common kind of cancer in the United States. Some types can be deadly.
The basic prevention steps include using sunscreen lotions, wearing hats and other protective clothing, and limiting exposure time. Avoiding the hours when the sun's rays are strongest, 10 A.M. to 4 P.M., is a good idea, but not always practical.
Special Issues for Babies
Until babies are 6 months old, pediatricians usually don't recommend using sunscreens because the risks of these chemicals on infants are not known. Covering up an infant and keeping her out of direct sun for the first six months are much preferred.
Keep your baby in the shade of a tree, under an umbrella, or in a stroller with a canopy. Even on cloudy days, harmful ultraviolet (UV) rays can cause sunburn. If you're on sand, water, snow, or concrete, be especially careful because UV rays can bounce back from these surfaces.
When you're outdoors, dress your baby in light, loose-fitting clothing that covers his body. Clothes with a tighter weave offer more protection. You can check this by holding the garment up to the light and noticing how much passes through. Always have him wear a hat with a brim because that will shade his face and also protect the ears.
A young child can get a sunburn while riding in the car. Juvenile products stores carry a variety of sunshades for car windows. Using one not only protects your child from the sun's rays and shades out some of the hot sun, but also increases the likelihood of him napping comfortably, making your car ride a lot more pleasant.