When winter hits, some parents bundle up their kids as if they were facing a bivouac on Mount Everest, while others let their children out wearing just a heavy sweater and gloves. What's the best way to dress a child against the cold?
Kids 5 and under do need more insulation than their parents, since they lose heat more rapidly than adults. One big reason: There's less body mass to cool on a child and proportionally more skin, through which heat is lost. Also, kids can't generate body heat for as long as adults, because their smaller muscles can store only so much heat-generating glycogen, explains Mark Widome, M.D., a professor of pediatrics at the Pennsylvania State University College of Medicine.
The mercury doesn't have to dip below freezing for the cold to harm your child: Depending on how long your child is outdoors, wind and dampness can also accelerate frost nip (temporary damage to exposed skin), frostbite (severe tissue damage, most often to hands and feet), and hypothermia (lowered body temperature, which in some cases can be life threatening).
One thing to look forward to: Children's resistance to cold improves as they grow. Here is, by age, how much and what type of clothing kids need.
Birth to 6 Weeks
When the temperature or windchill dips below freezing, or when nonfreezing temperatures are mixed with wind or rain, it's best to keep newborns inside except for brief excursions (e.g., to and from the car). "They're just getting used to the outside world after living in a temperature-regulated, ninety-eight-point-six-degree bath," explains Dr. Widome. If you do take a newborn out in the cold, use several inner layers, such as a cotton snap-bottom undershirt and a fleece sleeper. Then button your baby up in a polyester- or down-filled bunting, and wrap him in a blanket. Placing him in a front carrier inside your coat can help block wind and cold, but make sure his mouth and nose aren't obstructed. Once back indoors, be sure to remove layers promptly so that the baby doesn't become overheated; a newborn isn't any better at cooling himself down.
6 Weeks to 1 Year
Older babies typically need one layer more than their parents, especially if they're lying inactive in a stroller. Hooded infant snowsuits (without drawstrings, which are a strangulation hazard) of polyester or down are ideal. Always put the hood up (use a fleece hat if the snowsuit has no hood) to cover a baby's head and ears. Uncovered, body heat escapes rapidly from the head.
To tell if your baby is dressed warmly enough, feel her toes and belly as soon as you come indoors: The toes should feel slightly cool (not chilly) and the belly warm. If the stomach is also cool, the baby is struggling to warm herself. If the belly and the toes are equally warm, she could be overdressed.
1 to 4 Years
A damp down snowsuit or cotton jacket pulls heat away from the body, so once your child starts playing outdoors, choose water- and wind-resistant material. Outerwear doesn't have to be bulky to be warm; thin materials, such as Quallofil or Thinsulate, protect against cold. The overall fit of the suit or jacket, including closures at wrists and ankles, should be snug (the neck should be high but comfortable) to keep out wind and snow; bibs on overalls should come up high on the chest and back.
High-performance underwear is even more essential than a premium snowsuit. Avoid cotton, which will dampen with perspiration after your child starts running around. Try polyester-rayon blends or silk, which wick moisture away from the skin.
Always make sure to protect the head, hands, and feet. Good bets: a wool or polyester fleece hat, water- and wind-resistant gloves or mittens, and waterproof and insulated boots. Toddlers are notoriously bad at judging when their hands or feet are cold because they become so absorbed in whatever they're doing. "They'll even get frostbite without complaint," warns Dr. Widome. Watch for bright-pink skin with white spots, the early signs of trouble.
Don't bother with scarves; they can catch on something and wrap too tightly around the neck. Fleece neck gaiters are a safer bet.
Lastly, fill 'em up with a hearty meal and plenty to drink before they go out, suggests Dr. Widome. The fluids will help their bodies fight the cold more effectively, and they'll come in sooner because they will need to urinate.