Sun, Surf and Safety
By Helen ZelonAh, summer: You spend lazy afternoons swinging in a hammock and hours strolling the beach at low tide. Or at least that's what you used to do. These days, your languid hours poolside must coincide with baby's nap times, right? Not always. Believe it or not, there are loads of opportunities for cool summer fun with baby. Whether it's at the beach, by a river, in a pool or in a scrubbed-clean kitchen sink, babies find enormous pleasure in the wet parts of their world. Summer plus baby? You bet. It's a whole new world.
Fun Out of the Sun
Overexposure to the sun's ultraviolet rays puts children - and their parents - at risk for diseases like skin cancer. "Malignant melanoma may be linked with early sun exposure, especially a burn," says Dana Best, MD, MPH, of George Washington University and the American Academy of Pediatrics National Committee on Environmental Health. The link between too much sun and basal and squamous cell carcinoma is well-established, according to Dr. Best, as is the long-term risk of "cataracts and, possibly, immune system suppression." Experts recommend avoiding the sun in peak hours, from about 10 am to 4 pm (daylight savings time). For many parents, though, this is about as realistic as asking kids not to touch a fresh snowfall. It's summer - it's hot! - and you and your baby want to be outdoors.
When you head out, protect your infant by staying in the shade as much as possible. At the beach, try a baby-sized shade canopy or awning, or park the whole family's blanket in the shade.
Long-sleeved, lightweight clothing, some treated to filter UV light, will protect your baby against the sun's rays. A cotton hat with a full, floppy brim shades her face and neck - and isn't a bad idea for parents, either. Most pediatricians discourage using sunblock on babies younger than six months, and especially for babies of three or four months, who busily suck on hands, fingers, toes, and any other body part in reach. If your baby's too young for sunblock, make sure he's sheltered during the hottest part of the day and enjoy the sunshine in the early morning and late afternoon.
Water Water Everywhere
At the beach, babies dig, paddle, and explore sandy puddles. Fresh water rivers, streams, and lakes refresh tiny toes, and offer an endless variety of stones, shells, and leaves to float - and toss - into the water. On a really hot day at home, plop baby in a cool bath in a sink or in a secure baby bath in the tub. Drop in a few ice cubes for her to chase and catch until they melt away. Pour with paper cups; spill with spouts; dump and fill and dump again, to your baby's content.
Irritations and Infections
Salt water won't harm baby's skin (it's very close to the amniotic fluid he "swam" in while in the womb) but bits of sand can chafe tender skin folds, and soggy diapers only add to trouble. Make sure to change diapers often while at the beach and at the pool. Don't let a baby or toddler with a dirty diaper play in water where others are wading or swimming; it's an invitation to infection. Check baby's diapers often to limit the risk. It takes a little extra time, but use soap and water to wash your hands and baby's bottom. Waterborne infections can lead to wicked diarrhea and to more serious illness in infants, pregnant moms, and people with compromised immune systems.
The chlorine in well-maintained pools kills most of the germs in the water. Some pesky germs, like Cryptosporidium, can live for days, even in chlorine. Pool chemicals can also irritate some babies' sensitive membranes, reddening eyes or causing a red rash in baby girls' genitalia. Limit your child's exposure to heavily treated pool water, especially if there's any irritation or discomfort.
Fresh water (rivers, lakes, streams and ponds) doesn't carry the risk of chemical irritation, but might be invisibly contaminated by animal waste or other sewage. Don't let kids drink river or lake water without boiling or purifying it first. It may look crystal-clear, but the bugs that make babies sick could be thriving in its otherwise refreshing depths.
Safety First and Foremost
Water play can seem deceptively safe - the baby's so happy, and the water's shallow, hardly deep at all. But never, ever leave a baby alone near water, even if he's not yet crawling and seems as stable as the Sphinx. Drowning remains a lethal threat for children younger than five. Unattended babies fall prey to buckets, tubs, and bathroom toilets, so don't let those curious crawlers out of sight for a minute. Toddlers and preschoolers are most easily lured by the azure call of a backyard pool. Sadly, most accidents happen fast, and at home, when the child has been out of a parent or caregiver's sight for less than five minutes.
Swimming readiness courses can help baby get used to being in the water, but offer little in terms of actual water safety. Doctors say that most kids younger than four aren't developmentally ready to truly 'learn' to swim, or to adequately judge the risk a body of water can pose. Always stay close to your child, either with a hand on his or her body or, at the very least, within an arm's instant reach.
Take the Centers for Disease Control's Healthy Swimming IQ quiz to learn more about how to protect your family in the water. If you have a backyard pool, think about learning CPR, and be sure to keep safety equipment in good condition and handy. With care, attention, and a measure of luck, you'll never, ever need to use it.