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Sun and heat protection for babies and kids

11-minute read

If you think your child has heatstroke, call triple zero (000) and ask for an ambulance. If your child shows signs of severe dehydration, seek urgent medical attention.

Key facts

  • Babies and young children can easily get sunburnt in Australia, even on cooler or overcast days.
  • Make sure your child drinks extra fluids on hot days to prevent dehydration.
  • Keep your child in a cool environment on hot days to avoid heatstroke.
  • You can protect your child from the sun by ‘slipping’ on appropriate clothing, ‘slopping’ on sunscreen (on babies over 6 months old), ‘slapping’ on a hat, ‘seeking’ shade and ‘sliding’ on sunglasses.
  • Severe dehydration is very dangerous for young children. See a doctor immediately if your baby has signs of severe dehydration.

Why is sun protection is important?

Your child needs protection from the sun from the day they are born. Babies and children 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 skin cancer in later life.

Cancer Council Australia recommends taking 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. UV rays can still reach them on cool or overcast days. UV radiation can also be reflected off water, sand or snow. Your baby can also be exposed to UV radiation while you are walking with them in the pram, through the car windows while you’re driving, or if their clothing isn’t sitting on them properly.

What is the UV Index?

The UV Index is a handy tool that tells you how intense UV radiation is at any time during the day. A UV index of 3 or above means the UV radiation level is high enough to damage your skin and lead to skin cancer.

Babies under 12 months old should be kept away from direct sunlight when UV levels reach 3 or above.

The amount of UV radiation varies across Australia and changes based on the season and time of day. You can 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:

How can I protect my baby from the sun?

Babies and children need sun protection whenever UV Index levels reach 3 or above, based on the daily sun protection times in your local area. During these hours, you should:

  • Slip on clothing that covers as much of your baby’s skin as possible. Use loose fitting, densely woven clothes, preferably rated UPF 50 (ultraviolet protection factor 50). It’s a good idea to check the tags of your baby’s clothes before you buy them, and note the UPF.
  • Slop on sunscreen. For babies over 6 months old, apply sunscreen 15 to 20 minutes before going outside and reapply every 2 hours. Remember to check if your baby is allergic or sensitive to the sunscreen before you use it for the first time.
  • 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 fold easily when they lie down. If the hat has a strap, place it at the back of their head, to prevent them from choking on it.
  • 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 radiation can be reflected off surfaces and 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, as these won’t necessarily protect your baby’s eyes from UV radiation.

It’s a good idea to use a combination of these measures, and not rely on just one. For example, even when your child has a hat on, adding long sleeves and sunglasses will help avoid excessive exposure to dangerous UV radiation.

Is it safe to apply sunscreen to my baby’s skin?

Babies have very sensitive skin that can react to sunscreen. Using sunscreen is not recommended if your baby is under 6 months old. 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+. Make sure you apply enough sunscreen to your child’s face, hands and any other parts of skin that aren’t covered by clothes. Check that the sunscreen is within its use-by date, and keep it stored in a cool, shady place under 30°C. It’s not a good idea to keep sunscreen in the glove box of your car, which gets very hot.

Sunscreen should be used as the last line of defence after avoiding direct sunlight, putting on 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.

Why do I need to protect my baby’s eyes from the sun?

UV radiation can damage your child’s eyes. If your baby’s eyes get sunburnt, they will be 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.

Using sun protection will help protect your baby’s eyes from UV radiation.

It’s a good idea to get your child used to wearing sunglasses from a young age. Try to make it a normal part of getting dressed for the outdoors. It helps if you model this behaviour, by wearing sunglasses yourself whenever you are out in the daytime.

How should I dress my baby for the outdoors?

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 ('rashie') 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.

How can I treat my baby’s sunburn?

If your child has red, sore and warm skin, they may have sunburn. You should treat unburn like any other burn.

If the sunburn is minor:

  • Keep your child in a cool and shady place.
  • Give them paracetamol or ibuprofen if they have pain or swelling.
  • Bathe the area with cool or lukewarm water. You may also apply cool gauze padding to the sunburnt area.

You should see a doctor if your child has severe sunburn. Signs of severe sunburn include:

  • blisters
  • swollen skin
  • signs of infection (such as pus)
  • severe pain

How do I know if my baby is dehydrated?

Dehydration is when you don't have enough fluids in your body to keep it working properly. Mild dehydration can be treated by giving your child more to drink. But severe dehydration in children can be very serious. It’s important to know what to look out for and to treat dehydration promptly.

Signs of minor dehydration include:

  • dizziness or light-headedness
  • headaches
  • nausea
  • dark yellow or brown urine
  • fewer wet nappies
  • dry lips and mouth

Severe dehydration is very dangerous for young children. See a doctor immediately if your baby has signs of severe dehydration such as:

  • extremely thirsty
  • lethargy
  • feeling cold
  • breathing fast and / or a fast heart rate
  • being irritable, drowsy or confused
  • in young babies, sunken fontanelle (soft spot on the head)

If your child shows signs of severe dehydration, seek urgent medical attention.

How can I prevent my baby from becoming dehydrated?

Babies and young children are particularly at risk of dehydration. It is important that your child drinks enough fluid to prevent this from happening. Babies should produce 6 to 8 pale, wet nappies a day.

Whether you are breastfeeding or bottle-feeding, your baby will need extra feeds during hot weather. You shouldn’t give water to babies under 6 months old unless your doctor advises you to.

Give young children water to drink throughout the day. Fruit juice, sugary drinks and fizzy drinks are not recommended.

What is heat rash?

If your child gets too hot, they can develop heat rash, also sometimes called prickly heat. Heat rash looks like little red spots or blisters on the skin. It is common in babies because their sweat glands aren’t properly developed, but adults can develop heat rash too.

Treat heat rash by cooling your child in a lukewarm bath. Dress them in loose, light clothing and make sure they are in a well-ventilated environment.

Heat rash usually gets better on its own once the person has cooled down.

You should see a doctor if:

  • the spots or blisters get infected (they have pus)
  • the rash lasts for longer than a few days
  • your baby isn’t well

What is heatstroke?

Young children are a higher risk than adults of overheating and becoming very unwell. This is called heatstroke and is a medical emergency.

Symptoms of heatstroke include:

  • high body temperature (over 40°C)
  • red, hot and dry skin
  • rapid pulse and breathing
  • lethargy or confusion
  • unconsciousness

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 you think your child has heatstroke, call triple zero (000) and ask for an ambulance.

Speak to a maternal child health nurse

Call Pregnancy, Birth and Baby to speak to a maternal child health nurse on 1800 882 436 or video call. Available 7am to midnight (AET), 7 days a week.

Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.

Last reviewed: August 2022


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