For healthy development, your child needs to have a small amount of exposure to the sun. This can be as little as 10-15 minutes per day. Your baby’s skin burns much more easily than adult skin, so taking care in the sun is important.
Pick the right time of day: UV radiation is strongest between September and April, between 10 am and 3 pm. If you can, save trips to the playground, the park or the beach for early morning and late afternoon.
Shade: shade provides some protection from UV radiation, but babies and small children can still be burned by reflected sunshine. Even if you’re sitting in the shade, cover your child with clothes to stop burning, and use sunscreen on any exposed skin. If you’re using a pram, cover it with a shade cloth and allow for ventilation. Alternatively, some prams have adjustable canopy tops that can move and offer shade as the sun’s position changes.
Umbrella or sunshade: if you can’t find shade, create your own using an umbrella or sunshade. Make sure your shade protection creates a dark shadow to prevent the reflection of UV rays. Always keep window sunshades in your car to protect your child while you’re driving.
Clothing: keeping your child’s skin covered with clothes made from tightly woven fabric such as t-shirt material will protect her from the sun. If you hold the fabric up to the light, you can see how much sun will get through it. Cotton clothes with long sleeves and cotton leggings will keep her cooler than clothes made from acrylic fibres. You can also get baby clothes that are specially designed to block the sun and that indicate how protective they are. Look for them at Cancer Council shops.
Hats: a hat is a great way to protect your child from the sun. Look for a soft hat so he can still lie down comfortably while he’s wearing it. A full crown hat with a full brim or a neck flap is better than a baseball cap because it provides more shade. A chin strap will help keep it on your baby’s head.
Sunglasses: look for close-fitting, wrap-around sunglasses that meet the Australian Standard AS/NZS 1067. Wearing sunglasses in combination with an appropriate hat can reduce your child’s exposure to UV rays by 98%.
- Sunscreen: sunscreen combined with clothing and shade is the most effective way to keep your child safe from sun and reflection. Use a SPF 30+ sunscreen on the face, hands and any other parts of your child that aren’t covered by clothes. It will work better if you put it on 20 minutes before you go outside, and reapply it every two hours.
Check your child’s position, hat and clothing regularly to make sure she’s out of the direct sunlight.
Sunscreens labelled ‘for babies’ or ‘for infants’ are less likely to cause skin irritation. A lotion is better than a heavy cream – you can also look for sunscreens that are free of PABA and are also non-alcoholic. Sunscreen with reflective particles like zinc or titanium dioxide provide the most protection and are less likely to irritate skin.
Sunscreen stops working a couple of years after it is made, so look for a use-by date on any sunscreen you’re buying.
You might have heard that children will get vitamin D deficiency if they don’t play in the sun often enough. In Australia – with our long days and high levels of UV radiation – most children get more than enough vitamin D from reflected sunlight. (Recent medical research does tell us, however, that people with dark pigmented skin require longer daily exposure to sunlight to absorb Vitamin D.) You can read more facts in our article on vitamin D.
Some people might tell you that the best cure for nappy rash is direct sunlight. Fresh air will definitely help nappy rash, but putting your baby in direct sunlight is likely to burn him. Check out our article for more information on recognising and treating nappy rash.
Recently, researchers have been looking at whether sunscreens harm babies younger than a year (most authorities don’t recommend sunscreen under the age of 6 months). They have studied whether a baby's thin skin can absorb chemicals from sunscreen, which might damage the baby’s organs. They have concluded that if you use only small amounts of sunscreen on uncovered areas such as the face and hands (that is, rely on clothing to cover most of the body, rather than slathering your baby’s legs, arms and body in sunscreen), the tiny amount of sunscreen that might be absorbed shouldn’t be enough to harm your baby. Never use baby oil as a form of sun protection.