I get very frustrated when I see children and especially babies who are underdressed. I am not exaggerating when I say that approximately 80% of the children I see are underdressed. These children are out and about in 40 degree weather with no hat and only a light coat (no hood). In grocery stores they are sitting in the shopping carts with no socks and no shoes. Babies are dressed in a thin onesie without anything else. I am not sure why. Perhaps the child's mother or father is simply unaware of the critical nature of warmth. Perhaps the child's parent does not care. Perhaps the family honestly cannot afford to purchase warmer clothes. Whatever the case is, most children are not warm enough physically which can lead to a whole host of other problems. I thought that with the onslaught of snow across North America, I would take a quick moment to help parents better understand the importance of keeping your child(ren) physically warm.
Let me start with some basic science when it comes to child health through warmth. Stay with me here.
Humans have skin. Animals have fur. Animals grow a thick coat of fur to deal with the colder winter months. Humans do not. So we must compensate for our lack of fur. The human body is designed to maintain a temperature around 98 degrees. If you walk outside naked and it is 55 degrees, your body will immediately send its 98 degrees of heat out into the 55 degree air in an attempt to match the temperature of the outside air. Trust me – this is basic science. Obviously we do not walk around naked in freezing weather – at least we shouldn't. We use clothes as the means of keeping our body temperature around 98 degrees.
Children have an accelerated metabolic rate and typically feel warmer than they really are. They also are developmentally unable to accurately determine if they are warm or cold until approximately the age of nine (9). So sending a child outside with no hat and/or no coat is a major issue in cold weather. It also presents an issue if your child is indoors and underdressed. Bare feet and short sleeves are not acceptable in a house with an ambient temperature below 80 degrees.
How can you tell if your child is not warm enough?
Simply feel their hands and feet with your own hands (if your hands are cold, rub them together first to warm them up a little). Then feel your child's chest, forehead and stomach. If their hands and feet are cooler than these areas, your child is not dressed warmly enough. You need to check many, many times per day. In addition, if your child is acting over stimulated, “wild,” or out of sorts, lack of warmth may be the issue. A child's body pulls heat away from the extremities and sends it to the vital organs in an effort to keep basic body functions going. Frenzied movement is the child's way of trying to warm up their limbs.
How should you properly dress your child in cold/cool weather?
Think layers and think natural fibers like cotton and wool! (Silk is good too but better in spring/fall versus winter). Two layers will probably be sufficient indoors and three layers for outdoors. I like to use a pair of wool long underwear as Tiny's first layer. I then put a long sleeve shirt and long pants over these. She then has on a thick pair of wool socks. If we head outdoors I put on a wool coat, a wool hat, gloves, and a pair of wool leg warmers. If it is really cold, I will put on her outdoor puddle pants which are very warm and snuggly and great for repelling water. Tiny is very rarely under dressed. If she does begin to feel too warm (sweaty palms, flushed cheeks), I will simply take off her wool long johns and add a thinner undershirt in its place. Although I prefer wool, you do not have to use this material. 100% cotton thermals are fine too. You just really want to stay away from synthetic fibers like nylon and polyester.
If you have a newborn or infant, you want to make sure that you dress him/her warmly from the start. I got a lot of conflicting information about how to properly dress an infant. I wasn't sure whether to use a knit hat, to keep booties on at all times, to use sleep sacks, etc… Unfortunately, I had poor Tiny underdressed for the first 6 months of her life. I am lucky that she did not develop any serious medical issues. Failure to thrive, poor weight gain, fussiness, difficulty sleeping, and decreased appetite are all related to lack of warmth. My advice for dressing your infants is to invest in two or three pairs of wool sleepers/pajamas. Your baby can wear these 24 hours a day either under additional layers of clothing or as standalone pieces. Wool clothes are usually very generously sized and should last for the first 9-12 months.
Sleep issues are often times attributed to improper sleep wear.
Many children are put into their crib or bed with only a fleece sleeper or a thin pair of pajamas. Babies and toddlers generally do not keep blankets on them and will be too cold if only dressed in one layer. Add a pair of thermals or wool long johns under your child's pajamas or invest in two good pairs of heavy wool pajamas. Tiny alternates between two layers and one pair of heavy wool pajamas. She has stayed very warm at night this winter and that is saying a lot since we are not running our heater and it is about 58 degrees at night in our house! Make sure your child has socks on at night if he or she is not wearing a pair of feeted pajamas.
As a parent, it is YOUR job to ensure the health of your child by making sure that they are dressed properly for all weather conditions. Do not leave clothing choices up to your child because they will probably not pick an outfit that is appropriate for the weather. There is no reason that your 1st grader should be walking to and from school in shorts and a short sleeve shirt in February. It is simply not going to keep their body warm enough. I understand that getting children dressed can be a battle but try to make it fun and keep your attitude loving and positive.
Also, make sure that you are dressed appropriately as well. If you are running around barefoot and without a jacket in December, your children will surely pounce on you with the “but you aren't wearing a jacket” routine. Telling them that you are a grown up and therefore don't have to wear a jacket is not effective. Children model our behavior so model proper attire!
Stay warm and for goodness sake – put some socks on those feet and a hat on that head!