Staying warm in winter: what to worry about (and what not to worry about)
The struggle is real: whether you’re wrestling with a crying toddler who absolutely cannot stand pants, or trying to convince your stubborn teenager that no, he really CAN’T wear shorts in 20 degree weather, getting kids to dress warmly enough in winter is a battle that every parent has fought again and again. The question is: does this battle really need to be fought?
Since there’s nothing I love more than some good reassuring data, I couldn’t wait to share the article “Can The Winter Coat War Be Won?” from Bay State Parent this month. To sum up a few of their points, quickly:
- Being physically cold does not make you more susceptible to a cold or flu; they’re viruses, and you’re more likely to get them during the winter because you’re probably spending a lot of time indoors with other people who may pass them to you. (Thus the continual sniffles being passed around preschools and day cares.*)
- The two main risks of getting physically cold are frostbite and hypothermia. However, neither is likely given the sorts of temperatures we see here in New England. As you can see from the chart in this article, it takes some pretty unusually cold winter temperatures plus high wind chill plus long exposure for frostbite to occur. Hypothermia is also unlikely in these conditions.
- HOWEVER, getting wet changes everything. Wind chill is also an important factor to watch. Also, length of exposure to cold makes a big difference.
So if your teenager absolutely refuses to wear long pants, don’t freak out: unless it’s raining or snowing, or unless the wind chill is unusually high, he’ll probably be fine. It’s also worth noting that you probably feel the winter cold more than he does: “comfort scientist” Matthew Decker told the Boston Globe that kids and young adults usually feel less cold than older adults, and boys feel the cold less than girls due to a different body composition with regards to body fat.
Babies are another story, of course: they don’t regulate their body temperature well, and lose heat much faster than older kids and adults. This is why stroller footmuffs are so key, as well as hats, mittens, and other teeny snuggly outfits and accessories. (Babies also overheat easily too, so keep an eye on them during temperature changes, like if you bring them into a coffee shop after strolling in the cold.)
As they get older and more active, children will stay warm more easily, and notice cold less readily. As Allison Aubrey writes at NPR Health, kids are comfortable because they’re active: “They’re running around like crazy.” And if they’re not cold enough to feel cold, they’re probably fine.
So really, it’s okay: even though all of your parenting instincts are screaming to force your stubborn child to wear a coat, they’re unlikely to suffer any harm if they insist on getting a little chilly. They’ll learn through experience that it’s no fun at all if you actually DO get really cold, and will put their winter coat on next time.
Finally: while wearing a hat if it’s cold outside is always a good idea (nobody likes cold ears!), it really IS a myth that you lose the most body heat through your head. A study at Indiana University in Indianapolis demonstrated that covering any part of the body has as much effect as covering any other. (You can read more of the science here – if you’re a nerd like me, you’ll find it super fascinating!) So while hats are a must for babies, and can be mighty cute too, they’re not a health requirement for older kids or adults.
*Kids in day care DO get sick more often, but studies show that they later have fewer respiratory ailments and ear infections in elementary school.
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