Last weekend, a five month-old baby in the seaside town where I live was rushed to hospital in an ambulance with burns over 40% of his body. He was dehydrated, and according to doctors, may be at a higher risk of kidney failure. He will be in pain for some time. Like me, you will probably think that it was a barbecue accident, but no: the baby was on the beach with his family, and he was napping in the sun. He was sunburned. You can just imagine the gasps of horror in the neighbourhood!
Most of us know that we should cover up when we’re in the sun. But are we really careful enough with our kids, whose sensitive skin is much more at risk? Most toddlers HATE having sunblock applied, and squirm and wriggle so that it is nearly impossible to get it on them properly. The whole operation can be so tedious that it’s easy to do a halfway job, and then regret it later. Sometimes, like last weekend, it’s pretty sunny but the breeze blows cool and we just don’t feel hot enough to remember to reapply sunblock.
Or we might think that after months of being covered up like slugs for the winter, we NEED some colour and a little pink in our family’s cheeks. Sunshine and Fresh Air, we think. Experts recommend applying sunblock 30 minutes before sun exposure, because it takes at least ten minutes to soak in and become effective. Before you leave home is the best time! It’s easy to get out into the great outdoors, and spend a few minutes unpacking and a few minutes getting comfy, and then start to look for the sunblock… by which time the kids have been in the sun, unprotected, for fifteen minutes. And THEN you have to catch them! And yes, a child – even an adult – can burn in fifteen minutes on a hot day.
One bad sunburn in childhood or adolescence can more than double the risk of skin cancer in later life. And in the short term, unprotected exposure to the sun can cause pain, blistering, dehydration and heat stroke. Sunburn can take all the fun out of your day out.
So we must be vigilant in our crusade against those harmful rays.
It is good to get into the habit of applying sunblock at a certain time of day: When my family is on a beachy holiday, sunblock-time is built into our morning routine: Breakfast, Sunblock. The kids take it for granted, and line up with minor moaning about the sun not even being UP yet. (Why oh why do they have to get up so early, so hungrily, and so loudly, on holiday mornings?)
Another routine that really works, especially for younger kids, is an early lunch and an after-lunch indoor or shade activity. This is great for so many reasons: Kids are generally hungry earlier when playing on the beach (and getting up too early), and they are generally exhausted by midday. Serving lunch in the shade or indoors at eleven prevents overtired-and-hungry meltdowns (you know the ones), and then you can keep the kids in playing after lunch, during the hottest hours of the day (eleven to three). They may even nap! You can use this opportunity to fill them with fluids, like water or juice. Then, reapply sunblock before heading back into the sunshine, rejuvenated!
You may have noticed that I’m using a tactic here which little kids love anyway: Routine. Develop sun habits that are healthy, and later on you may notice that your older kids keep them, reading in the shade after lunch or watching a DVD.
If you’re just heading to the beach for the day, you could try another sunblock tactic: Sunscreen-and-a-Treat! Ice lollies while sunblock is re-applied? A favourite drink? Chips and dip? A good tactic for older kids, because you’re not yelling “Come and let me reapply your sunblock!” you’re yelling “Ice lollies!” … see, you can’t lose. Get everyone to drink some juice or water, too. They are bound to feel thirsty, and it is important to stay hydrated.
Ideally, sunblock should be reapplied every two hours when you’re in the sun, so if everyone’s on the beach for the whole day, regular sunblock-and-hydration breaks are a must.
I know that hats are good for blocking the sun, but don’t think that you can skimp on the sunblock if your child is wearing a hat. The sun’s rays reflect off of sand and water, and sneak in under the brim of any hat… and a hat can (and probably will) be removed. So can a T-Shirt. My kids think I’m weird, but I tend to apply sunblock and then a T-Shirt, and that means that if they take their T-Shirt off, I don’t have to panic.
Some types of sunblock can get into kids’ eyes and they sting. Ow! I can see why anyone would squirm and complain about this. For faces, it’s best to use a clear stick designed especially for the face. It doesn’t rub off easily, and never runs into eyes. I like to use a factor 50 if I can get it (although there are claims that factor 50 isn’t THAT much more effective than factor 30 block). For the rest of the body, any sunblock with an SPF of 30 or higher is fine. If kids are swimming or sweating, waterproof block is essential.
Use liberally! Skimping will make sunblock less effective. Experts estimate that most parents use half the recommended amount of sunscreen. Creams are much better than sprays for this reason, the gunkier the better. If you prefer to use a spray-on sunscreen, at least use a good thick cream for the first application, and rub it in well.
Remember to apply sunscreen to all of those easily-forgotten bits: The ears, which can stick out and catch the sun terribly! The feet, calves, knees. The arms, all the way down to the fingers. The parting in their hair. The back of the neck. The tummy. And remember that sunblock is non-negotiable. I have seen parents get into lengthy whining matches with their kids, and agree to put the sunblock on ‘In a while’. Are they mad? If your child would rather not wear a seatbelt, would you give them their way?
And do remember to set a good example. Apply sunblock to yourself! Get a truly gorgeous hat! Expound upon the virtues of sunblock, its anti-ageing effects, its ability to keep you comfortable after a day out. An extreme tan is no longer cool, anyway. Especially not on your children.
by Nan Sheppard
Photo graciously provided by .: sandman, through a Creative Commons license, some rights reserved