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Dr. Neumann’s KidsTravelDoc Ten Tips: Children/Cold weather/Car rides/Health and safety

Date January 6, 2013

Many steps that parents take to keep infants and toddlers safe and warm for car rides in cold winter weather are ineffective, unhealthy and, sometimes, dangerous.

Here is what you should know:

1. Secure your footing when maneuvering a car seat and infant in and out of cars. Is the ground icy? Holding an infant/car seat may prevent you from seeing the ground and requires you to bend, reach and stretch, sometimes standing on one leg (not conducive to keeping your balance). Think out your strategy for maneuvering before you go outside. Older children who climb in and out of cars by themselves may need assistance on slippery surfaces. 

2. Be careful where you place car seats with infants in them. Such seats are safe only when correctly installed in cars (or, with some models, in strollers specifically made for that car seat). Each year infants are injured when seats  tip over from being placed on hoods and tops of cars – as well as on chairs, tables and other surfaces. Soft surfaces such as mattresses and sofas are especially dangerous. (Never place seats with infants on washing machines or dryers. These machines vibrate and can move seats, allowing them to fall off.)  

3. In snow country, think sun. Snow, especially in hilly terrain, reflects the rays of the sun so that an infant sitting in the backseat can be affected. The closer to a window the infant sits, the greater the exposure. While most car windshields are treated to filter out harmful rays, the glass in side and back windows is generally not. You can have tinting added at qualified auto shops.

4. Position infants and toddlers to prevent the sun from shining in their eyes. Infants and strapped-in toddlers can’t move out of the sun themselves. Having the sun in their eyes is uncomfortable, possibly making them cranky. Sun exposure is cumulative over a lifetime, contributing to cataract formation. The position of the sun to the car changes with the time of day and the direction you drive. Consider using window shades (ones which do not interfere with your vision of the road) and appropriate sunglasses for older children.

5. Prepare the car before placing young children in it. Never leave children in idling cars that are parked in poorly ventilated places. Infants are especially sensitive to carbon monoxide (CO), the invisible, odorless gas from car engines. The gas builds up rapidly inside the car during idling when tailpipes are clogged with snow or the car is parked in an indoor garage. The smaller the garage is, the higher the concentration of CO.

6. Safety measures for infants in cribs apply to car seats. You can’t adequately watch an infant in the back seat while driving.  Avoid the following: pillows, loose blankets, comforters, quilts, hoods (especially those with strings), large stuffed animals and other potential items that can suffocate infants. Heavy toys in the backseat can injure infants in case of an accident.

7. Avoid bulky clothing. Heavy snowsuits and padded coats make it difficult to properly tighten the harnesses in an infant safety seat. In a crash, the padding compresses, allowing slack. There should be less than one inch of movement in the harness from side to side or front to back. For toddlers, secure harnesses and then place the coat over the child.

8. Dress kids as if you’re going to get stuck in a snow drift. Dressing them for cold winter weather is a hassle. Don’t be tempted to keep them in their indoor clothing for drives from one warm place to another. Dress them for the outdoor temperature, with about as many layers as you wear yourself. Adjust the heater in the car accordingly. Carry a charged telephone. Know emergency numbers where you are driving. 

9. Think “perspiration.” Modern winter clothing is so effective in keeping kids warm that in an overheated car (or other excessively warm places) the kids will perspire profusely. This wets the layers of clothing next to the skin. Wet clothing loses much of its insulating ability and can be a problem if kids subsequently spend time out in the cold. Wetness next to the skin is also uncomfortable.

10. Check weather reports. Keep waterproof outer clothing in the trunk of the car in case you get caught in cold rain or wet snow – at outdoor winter activities or in ski country, for example. In mountainous regions weather is somewhat unpredictable. Clothing wet on the outside from snow/rain/sleet and wet on the inside from perspiration accelerates heat loss five-fold. This can lead to hypothermia and can do so well above the freezing point. The younger the child is, the greater the risk of cold weather-related issues. Very young children are unable to verbalize that they are cold. When infants and toddlers become inexplicably cranky, check their clothing.

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