Babies and young children can easily get sunburnt in Australia, even on cooler or overcast days. But with a few simple steps, you can protect both yourself and your baby from the sun.
Sun protection is important in Australia
You need to protect your child from the sun from the day they are born. Babies have sensitive skin that can burn easily. Being exposed to too much ultraviolet (UV) radiation from the sun can lead to sunburn and eye damage. It is also a major cause of people going on to develop skin cancer in later life.
Cancer Council Australia recommends you should take several steps to protect your baby or child from the sun whenever the UV index reaches 3 or above.
Remember your child doesn’t need to be directly in the sun to be burned by UV radiation. The UV can still reach them on cool or overcast days, or if it’s reflected off water, sand or snow. Your baby can also be exposed to UV radiation while you are walking with them in the pram, driving, or if their clothing isn’t positioned correctly.
What is the UV Index?
The UV Index tells you how intense UV radiation is at any time during the day. Each point on the index corresponds to 25 milliwatts of UV radiation per square metre. A UV index of 3 or above means the UV radiation level is high enough to damage your skin and lead to skin cancer.
You should keep babies under 12 months away from direct sunlight when UV levels reach 3 or above. Plan your day so you avoid going out in the sun during the middle hours of the day in summer, when UV levels are at their highest.
The amount of UV varies across Australia. Check the following sources for the UV Index in your area and information on the times of day when you need to use sun protection:
- the Bureau of Meteorology website
- the Cancer Council's website
- the Cancer Council’s free SunSmart app
- your local newspaper or radio station
Slip, Slop, Slap, Seek, Slide
Babies and children most need sun protection whenever UV Index levels reach 3 or above as shown by the daily sun protection times. During these hours, you should:
Slip on clothing that covers as much of the baby’s skin as possible. Use loose fitting, densely woven clothes, preferably rated UPF 50 (ultraviolet protection factor 50).
Slop on sunscreen (see below). For babies over 6 months, apply sunscreen 15 to 20 minutes before going outside and reapply every 2 hours.
Slap on a broad-brimmed bucket or legionnaire-style hat to protect your baby’s face, neck and ears. For young babies, make sure the fabric will crumple easily when they lie down and place the strap at the back of the head to prevent them from choking.
Seek shade. Your baby should preferably be in a dark shadow. You can create shade from the pram, play area or window covers. Remember you still need sun protection in the shade because some UV can still reach your baby.
Slide on some sunglasses. You can find sunglasses for babies with soft elastic to keep them in place. Look for sunglasses labelled AS/NZS 1067:2016. Don’t use toy sunglasses.
Babies have very sensitive skin that can react to sunscreen. Using sunscreen is not recommended if your baby is under 6 months. For older babies, test the sunscreen on a small patch of skin inside the forearm for a few days to check there is no reaction.
Choose broad spectrum, water-resistant sunscreen that is at least SPF 30+. Put it liberally on your child’s face, hands and any other parts of skin that aren’t covered by clothes. Make sure sunscreen is within its use-by date, and keep it stored in a cool, shady place under 30°C.
Sunscreen should be used as the last line of defence after avoiding direct sunlight, putting on covering clothing, a hat and shade. If your baby has to be exposed to the sun, apply sunscreen to those small areas of skin not covered by wraps, clothing and a hat.
Choose long sleeves and pants to cover up as much of your child’s skin as possible. Cotton, loose-fitting clothing will keep them cool. Use a rash vest ('rashy') or a wetsuit when your child is in the water.
Some fabrics have an ultraviolet protection factor (UPF) rating. Choose the highest UPF rating you can find. Alternatively, test a fabric by holding it up to the light. The more light that gets through, the more UV radiation can get through too.
Treating sunburn in babies and children
If your child has red, sore and warm skin, they may have sunburn. You need to treat sunburn like any other burn.
If the sunburn is minor, keep your child indoors and give them paracetamol or ibuprofen for the pain and swelling. You can bathe the area with cool or lukewarm water. Don’t use over-the-counter sunburn ointments or creams or any natural remedies on babies.
You should see a doctor if:
- there are blisters
- your child has a fever or is shaky and shivering
- they are nauseous, vomiting or have a headache
- you can’t control their pain
- the area is very swollen or looks infected
Eye damage and the sun
UV radiation can damage the eyes. This can cause short-term problems that leave your child’s eyes red and sore. But repeated exposure to the sun can lead to serious, long-term eye problems including cataracts, damage to the retina or cornea, or cancer.
Following the sun protection methods above will help protect your baby’s eyes.
Babies and young children are particularly at risk of dehydration. It is therefore important that your child consumes enough fluid to prevent this happening. Babies should produce 6 to 8 pale wet nappies a day.
If you are breastfeeding, your baby might need extra feeds during hot weather. Bottle-fed babies can have cooled boiled water. Give young children water to drink throughout the day. Do not give them sugary or fizzy drinks.
Your baby may also be dehydrated if their fontanelle (the soft spot on top of their head) is sunken.
Severe dehydration is very dangerous for young children. See a doctor immediately if your baby:
- is extremely thirsty
- has a very dry mouth
- is breathing fast
- has a fast heart rate and low blood pressure
- has a fever
- has little or no urine
- is irritable, drowsy or confused
Heat rash and prickly heat
If your child gets too hot they can develop heat rash, sometimes called prickly heat. This is indicated by little red spots or blisters on the skin. It is common in babies and occurs because their sweat glands aren’t properly developed.
Treat heat rash by giving your child a lukewarm bath. Put them in light clothing and take them into the fresh air for a while. Avoid over-the-counter creams when treating babies.
You should see a doctor if:
- the blisters get infected (they have pus)
- the rash lasts for longer than 3 days
- your baby isn’t well
Young children are at risk of overheating and becoming very unwell. This is called heatstroke and is a medical emergency. If you think your child has heatstroke, call triple zero (000) and ask for an ambulance.
Symptoms of heatstroke include:
- being unwell and irritable
- pale, clammy skin
- being sleepy and floppy
- being dehydrated (fewer pale wet nappies than normal)
- being too weak to drink
- dry skin, mouth and eyes (no tears when crying)
- sunken fontanelle
- a high body temperature, red, hot and dry skin
- rapid breathing
If you think your child has heatstroke, move them to a cool area and remove all unnecessary clothes. Try to give them a drink and cool them down with damp cloths or a sponge. If they are very unwell or unresponsive, call an ambulance on triple zero (000).
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Last reviewed: January 2020