No responsible parent would leave a child in a hot car, yet many of them are committing another potentially fatal mistake. Picture the scene: A parent straps a baby into a stroller for a walk on a hot, summer day. The sun is bright, and the infant’s skin is sensitive, so the parent covers the stroller with a blanket for protection. This can be extremely dangerous. Even if a thin cloth-like muslin wrap is used, the covering creates a furnace-like effect that can raise the temperature inside the stroller to higher levels and result in infant heatstroke.
“It gets extremely hot down in the pram, something like a thermos,” says pediatrician Svante Norgren. “There is also bad circulation of the air and it is hard to see the baby with a cover over the pram.”
The Covered Stroller Experiment: Measuring the Temperatures
The Swedish newspaper, Svenska Dagbladet, decided to conduct its own stroller experiment and was surprised by the results. They left a stroller outside in the Swedish sun between 11:30 a.m. and 1 p.m. on a warm day.
Without a blanket or cover, the temperature inside the stroller was 22ºC (71.6ºF.)
Then they placed a thin blanket over the stroller. Within half an hour, the temperature beneath the cover rose to 34ºC (93.2ºF.) After an hour, it became 37ºC (98.6ºF.) Keep in mind that the temperature rarely rises about 30ºC in Sweden. Imagine how much hotter the stroller could have been in a warmer climate.
“[Parents] think that once they put the baby in the pram and put the cover over, that the baby is being protected, but they are actually heating it up,” says Child and Adolescent Community Health principal nursing advisor Isabel Redfern.
“It can get very, very warm. The parents think the baby is fine because it is sleeping a lot but that can actually be more of a concern because you have overheated them.
“This can happen on any day where the sun has got a bit of a bite in it.”
Young children are at a higher risk of overheat, which can lead to heatstroke. Their bodies are more sensitive to heat and their temperature can rise five times faster than an adult or older child.
What is Infant Heatstroke?
Heatstroke occurs when a person becomes overheated to the point his body loses its ability to cool off. The body’s temperature keeps rising and this could be life-threatening.
Infants and young children are more vulnerable to heatstroke than adults. A baby playing outside for too long in hot weather in thicker clothes can easily become dehydrated.
A more well-known risk is leaving a child in a hot car but can occur anywhere that is overly hot. Infant heatstroke can strike within minutes because in enclosed areas like a car, so avoiding these situations is important.
A baby may show signs of heat exhaustion, which is a milder form of heatstroke. He might be unusually tired or thirsty, or his skin is damp and cool. If he’s old enough to talk, he may complain of stomach or leg cramps.
If the heat exhaustion progresses, symptoms of infant heatstroke may follow. They include:
- A temperature of at least 103 degrees Fahrenheit (39.4 degrees Celsius) without any sweating
- Hot, red, dry skin
- Rapid pulse
- Headache (often accompanied by irritability)
- Lethargy (or slow responses to stimuli)
- Rapid, shallow breathing
- Overall signs of dehydration
What Should You Do If You Suspect Infant Heatstroke?
To fight the effects of heatstroke, it’s crucial to bring the baby’s internal temperature down as quickly as possible. Every moment counts since a child with heatstroke can slip into unconsciousness.
- Call 911. The operator may advise you over the phone as you wait for the ambulance.
- Undress the baby and bring him into a cool area, most preferably a cool room inside. If you are stuck outdoors, carry the baby into the shade.
- Sponge the baby’s body with a cloth dipped in cool water. Fan him with an electric fan or even a piece of paper or magazine.
- Calm and reassure the baby.
- Don’t give the baby anything to drink and don’t give them acetaminophen. It can’t lower the body temperature from heatstroke.
If the baby demonstrates heat exhaustion, take him to a cool place, indoors if possible. Feed him breast milk or formula. If he’s older than four months, give him some water. Bathe him in cool water and keep him inside the rest of the day. If his symptoms don’t improve, take him to the doctor or the emergency room.
How to Protect Babies from Heatstroke
It’s very easy for children to develop heatstroke, especially if they have never been exposed to hot weather before, such as during their first summer or on vacation. Here are some ways to protect them:
- Dress the baby in light, loose-fitting clothing.
- Avoid direct sunlight by keeping the baby under shade when possible.
- Ensure the child is cool during car rides.
- Give the baby more fluids to drink on hot days.
- On days of extreme heat, keep the baby inside if possible.
- If one’s home is very hot or there is no air-conditioner, find comfort at a public center, such as a library, mall, or community shelter set especially for protection from the heat.
- It’s preferable to avoid going outside from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. and even later during a heat wave.
Instead of using a blanket to protect a baby on a walk, make sure it has a far-reaching canopy or attach an umbrella to the stroller. This will effectively block out the sun while still allowing the air to circulate around the infant’s seat. Alternatively, cover the stroller with mesh materials that allow air circulation.
Remember to check the child’s temperature. If the baby’s skin feels hot or sweaty, it’s time to go inside.