To many, sunburn is a nuisance.

Not only is it uncomfortable, but even just a few burns can increase the risk for more serious consequences like skin cancer. While adults can easily prevent exposure, it’s not so easy for babies.

As a parent, you are your baby’s ultimate protector against harm, including excessive ultraviolet (UV) ray exposure from the sun. Even one minor sunburn has risks in children so young, so it’s important to learn how to treat them in a timely manner.

Signs and symptoms of sunburn

Physical signs of minor sunburn in people of all ages include:

  • redness of the skin
  • minor swelling
  • skin that is warm to the touch
  • itchiness

Babies don’t have the ability to be vocal about their sunburn-related discomfort, so you might notice that they are fussier than normal. They might also cry.

Treating sunburn in babies

Whenever you have playtime outside, it’s important to be mindful of the possible effects of sun exposure. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), a sunburn might not appear until six to 12 hours after being in the sun. You’ll want to be on the lookout for signs and symptoms of sunburn, especially if your baby was exposed to any direct sunlight.

Bathe your baby in cool water or use cool compresses to decrease warmth of the skin. This will also help alleviate pain. Never use ice or frozen peas, as this can heighten the burning sensations in your baby’s skin. Your doctor may recommend applying moisturizing creams or ointments or products with aloe vera on your baby’s sunburn.

If you notice that your baby is in some pain, you may use acetaminophen (Tylenol). Be sure to check with your doctor for the right dosage, as this is based on age and weight.

When to call a pediatrician

The pain and discomfort associated with sunburn usually resolves within a few days, with the first 24 hours being the worst. However, you should call your pediatrician right away if your baby develops:

  • blisters on the burned skin
  • significant discomfort
  • redness that is severe or increasing
  • swelling (especially in the face)
  • a fever
  • chills
  • excessive crying or fussiness
  • headaches (your baby might cry and touch their head)

The above could be signs of complications from sunburn, so it’s important to have your baby checked promptly. Severe sunburn that damages the skin significantly may be treated like other types of severe burns. In severe or extensive cases, hospitalization may be required. Your doctor may prescribe an antibiotic or other treatment to prevent blisters from becoming infected.

Severe sunburn can also be associated with dehydration and heatstroke, which is another reason to call for medical help right away. Signs may include:

  • excessive fatigue
  • faintness or decreased alertness
  • excessive thirst
  • decreased urination
  • very dry mouth or no tears when crying

Prevent sunburn before it happens

For adults and older children, sunscreen is the go-to method of sunburn prevention.

However, such products are not recommended for babies under 6 months old. While the AAP does say sunscreen may be used in limited quantities on the faces, hands, or feet of infants under 6 months of age, the best form of sunburn prevention is decreased exposure. Aside from keeping your baby in the shade, you can:

  • dress them in UV clothing
  • place a lightweight jacket and pants on your baby
  • sit under a beach umbrella with your baby
  • place a wide-brimmed hat on their head
  • give them sunglasses
  • keep your baby hydrated (to prevent heatstroke)

The AAP also advises avoiding peak sun hours, which are between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. It’s important to remember that even if it feels cooler outside or it’s a cloudy day, sunrays can still filter through. In fact, some babies are at a higher risk on days like these because parents stay outside with them longer, thereby increasing UV exposure.

Bottom line: Sunburn isn’t the only worry

When it comes to sun exposure, we tend to worry the most about sunburn. However, your baby’s skin doesn’t necessarily have to “burn” in order to get damaged.

Frequent sun exposure over the years can lead to skin cancer, premature wrinkles, sunspots, and an uncomfortable and unattractive toughening of the skin later in life. While this might not seem like such a worry in people so young, failing to not regularly protect your little one from excessive sun exposure can lead to bad habits later in life.

The takeaway

Think of sun protection as an everyday task for overall health, just as you help build other healthy habits in your baby’s life. Good habits will pay off in the long run.