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How to Dress a Baby for Cold Weather

Keeping a baby comfortable in winter temps requires extra time, extra layers, extra clothes and extra patience.

With a frighteningly cold polar vortex descends from Canada, the proper baby winter clothes become a necessity. But there’s more to protecting a baby from bitter cold than simply throwing a baby jacket over a warm onesie and calling it a day. In fact, dressing a baby for the coldest temperatures requires a strategy. That strategy needs to be practiced and well formulated to ensure parents feel comfortable with getting their kid outside, whether that means a walk from a store to the car, some chilly sledding, or waiting for public transportation. After all, as the Scandinavians say: There’s no such thing as bad weather, just inappropriate clothing. And they should know, they’ve long practiced chilly endeavors like cold weather napping

The key is layering. Layers provide excellent insulation and can be added to or removed in order to find the right comfort level. Babies should have at least as many layers as their parents. A thin onesie, then a few long-sleeved shirts and pants, then a sweater or a sweatshirt, and coat or a snowsuit is a good start, according to Dr. Alison Mitzner, a board-certified pediatrician. Don’t forget the feet – if footie pajamas are called for, socks under footie PJs are better.

“Always have gloves or mittens, hat and boots,” advises Mitzner. “Every child (and adult) needs a hat in the winter weather. You lose a good percentage of your body heat from the head.” Babies, with their ginormous noggins, are no exceptions.

When it’s time to travel, building in a little extra time into the schedule can keep the process from being overwhelming. Taking the time to warm up the car, if possible, helps keep kids warm. So does stashing the car seat carrier inside when not in use. But blankets are absolutely indispensable.

“Keep the bulky snowsuits or big coats off and put them on after you reach your destination,” suggests Mitzner. “Keep a blanket with you to put over the buckle and harness if you need added layers – not underneath.” The harness straps need to fit snugly; a bulky garment such as a coat or a snowsuit can reduce the efficacy of the car seat, and in case there’s an accident on icy roads, that can mean serious injury – or worse. Hat, gloves and boots can stay on.

How to Dress a Child for Winter

  • Dress a child in layers when going outside, starting with a onesie and including long sleeve shirts sweaters and jackets. Don’t forget socks under footie pajamas.
  • Babies lose most of their heat through their big heads. Make sure to use a hat to keep them warm.
  • Never put a child in a car seat with a bulky snowsuit or coat. Use blankets over the buckles and straps instead.
  • Look for frostbite which starts as very pale and cold skin
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Getting the level of coverage wrong means a baby that’s too cold or too warm, obviously. A baby that’s too cold is a candidate for hypothermia. If parents see their baby shivering, it’s time to go inside. A shivering baby is a cold baby, and shivering can be a sign of developing hypothermia, a dangerous condition where the core body temperature drops below 95 degrees. Babies need to use their caloric intake for growing, not trying to raise their core temperature, and they can’t count on exertion to keep them warm. 

Attentive parenting makes frostbite an unlikely threat for an infant but older, more mobile kids may be at risk. “Frostbite can occur if the skin is exposed to really cold temperatures – most often with fingers, toes, ears and nose,” warns Mitzner. “If you see the skin becoming very pale and cold, immediately bring your child inside. Warm washcloths work well for the ears and nose – do not rub affected areas.”

Conversely, layering too much can cause a child to overheat. A baby who is cranky, red, unusually warm to the touch or dehydrated (look for a sunken fontanelle or fewer wet diapers) may be too warm. Try to shed a layer or two, but don’t overdo it.

Generally, the key to wintertime comfort is to remember that it’s going to take extra time, so take it. Add a few minutes to the departure time to let the car warm up sufficiently – not just the engine, but the heater. Add another five minutes or so to deal with cold hands adjusting car seat straps, arranging blankets, and making goofy faces at a seven-month-old who’s wondering why it’s so damn cold. And speaking of extra, make sure to bring additional clothes, hats, mittens, and socks. Since wet cotton doesn’t insulate worth a damn, one poorly-fastened diaper or wet blowout can quickly turn all those layers into liabilities.