Advice From Our Experts

How Warm Does Your Child Need to be During the Winter

Growing up in Southern California and raising two children gets a little tricky sometimes with our great weather. I mean, what do we know about cold temperatures? Californians think it’s cold when it hits 50 degrees outside and when it drops to 40. Well, I am happy to say that both my kids and I enjoy winter fun, but keeping kids healthy, warm and entertained can be trickier than putting snow boots on a squirrel. Little ones will head straight into a blizzard in their underwear if they can; big ones may need the PlayStation pried away. Here’s how to make sure everyone gets out there and has a great time, safely. Don’t let the plunging temperatures keep you and your family cooped up indoors this winter.If you gear up and take some precautions against the cold, your kids can benefit from all that fresh air and enjoy the great outdoors.

When the weather drops into the single digits, it is common for parents to want their children to stay indoors to play. But when we stay indoors during the winter, we are not only missing out on play, but also on necessary vitamins that the outdoor environment gives us. Children get vitamin D through sun exposure, and absorb it even though the sun is not as warm in the winter. Vitamin D helps regulate mental and emotional moods by increasing serotonin levels in the brain. Serotonin plays an important role in regulating mood and keeping us happy.

Green zone: 30°F and higher

Kids can usually play outside comfortably when it’s 30°F and higher. Just layer their clothing and make sure they wear hats and mittens. Offer water often (it helps regulate body temperature), and watch for signs that they’re getting chilly. If they’re shivering, bring them inside even if they insist they’re fine. Feel babies’ hands and (if possible) feet regularly to see if they’re turning icy; also, watch for unexplained fussiness. It’s a good idea to come inside for a quick break every 40 minutes or so, just to warm up a bit.

Yellow zone: about 20°F - 30°F

Be cautious. It’s OK for your kids to go out, but follow the guidelines above, and expect to see signs of chill sooner; take short indoor breaks every 20 to 30 minutes. It’s especially crucial to layer older kids’ clothes, since they may ditch their coats if they get sweaty and so need to be wearing more than a thin shirt underneath.

Red zone: under 20°F

I would be very cautious; try to avoid these temps for small children.

The best way to dress for winter is to wear layers. This gives you flexibility to add or remove layers, depending on the weather and your activity. There are three main layers to consider: wicking, insulating and weather protection.

  • Wicking layer: This is the layer worn next to the skin, usually consisting of long underwear, heavy socks, and thermal tees and turtlenecks.
  • Insulating layer: This middle layer includes sweaters, sweatshirts, vests and pullovers. The purpose of this layer is to keep heat in and cold out, which is accomplished by trapping warm air between the fibers.
  • Weather-protection layer: The exterior layer, generally a shell and pants, serves as your guard against the elements. It should repel water from snow and rain and block the wind. So, that means wearing a warm snowsuit, dressing in several warm layers that can be put on or taken off easily, including a hat that covers the ears, because the ears can be prone to frostbite. Mittens generally keep hands warmer than gloves because fingers can be bunched together for extra warmth. And having warm, waterproof boots is important as well.

Too little clothing is dangerous, but too much has its problems as well. I had to find the fine balance with my son Christopher, my first child. Dressing him was an issue, just because he’s a very warm body. I found that he’s such a warm body that I used to overdress him. When I start to disrobe him, he’s just all sweaty and hot. Overheating should be avoided because kids who are sweating in their outdoor gear can then get a chill.

Keep them dry. Water evaporates in even the coldest temperatures, wicking away precious heat even faster, while soppy clothing loses its effectiveness at insulating. So, make sure to check your baby’s diaper frequently if you’re outside for a half-hour or more; if your young child has been outside dodging snowballs, swap out any clothing that’s wet during those frequent 20-minute breaks.

For infants

Older children can let you know if they are cold, but how can you tell with babies or toddlers who cannot yet speak? A good measure is if their hands and feet are warm, then they’re warm enough. Boots should be roomy enough so that a child wearing an extra pair of socks for warmth can still wiggle his or her toes. Scarves aren’t recommended for little children; they pose a strangulation risk. Neck warmers are a better option. Likewise, snowsuits shouldn’t have drawstrings and mittens shouldn’t be attached by strings. Use Velcro, clips or snaps instead.

Babies in strollers should be in dressed in the appropriate number of layers and should have a blanket over top. But parents and caregivers need to be careful to ensure that all these layers aren’t blocking the baby’s airways. When you are outside with infants and small children they should be checked often to make sure they are warm enough and nothing is covering their mouths or noses. Skin should be checked for the telltale signs of frostbite. Red and swollen patches of skin are the early signs; patches of white, numb skin are a signal the frostbite is more progressed.

Breathing in chilly air is hard on little lungs, but avoid long scarves, which can be a choking hazard. Instead, shield babies from the wind with your stroller’s (or car seat’s) canopy or sun shield. Don’t cover the child’s face, especially if he or she is less than a year old, as it can restrict her breathing. For an older child, pull a neck warmer over the bottom of the mouth, or cover the child with a winter mask to warm the air before it hits the lungs. Top off head to toe. Your munchkin’s ears, nose and toes are the farthest away from the heart, which means the body must work extra hard to keep your child heated. This is especially true for babies, whose heads are such a big portion of their bodies. A cozy hat and baby booties, or the right-size snow boots for toddlers, will keep those tiny appendages toasty.

The dangers of over-bundling a baby have been directly linked to sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS). Part of the problem of swaddling young babies in too much clothing or blankets is that their body heat is unable to escape their body and elevates their internal temperature unnecessarily. This is perhaps why, after naps or long car rides, it is only natural to feel your baby and wonder if he or she is running a temperature or not. More than likely, your child is just overdressed. On a similar note, infants should never be placed in their car seats wearing thick clothing, jackets or blankets. To ensure that the straps are tight enough to avoid injury, an infant should be buckled in wearing regular clothes, and if it is especially cold, then a blanket can be used over the harness. If you are ever unsure about whether your baby has a fever or is just dressed too warmly, undress the baby for a few minutes, and then take his or her temperature.

In closing, during the summer months, children become used to the warm, green climate that the season has to offer. After the change in season or the first snowfall, children view their environment through a different lens: fallen leaves, brown grass, snow, ice. This new lens enables them to imagine the outdoors differently and to be creative and play in different ways. Honestly, the possibilities are endless, with fun activities to keep your child entertained in the winter. Sometimes it just takes thinking outside the box a bit. Let your child get involved and help you plan fun things to do! Children’s little minds are quite creative and you may be surprised at some of the fun things they come up with! And remember, stay warm!