Is Sun Good For Babies?
Since we brought our daughter Arya home from the hospital last month, lots of people have given us conflicting advice regarding my question: is sun good for babies.
Members of our extended family have offered lots of advice related to whether we should take Arya outdoors. While some people have advised us that “a little sun is good for babies”, others have cautioned that “it’s bad for the baby to go outside.”
With confusing guidance from our current library of baby books, I set out to learn if sun is good for babies.
A prominent research article published in 2007 in the New England Journal of Medicine (with 2920 citations as of this post date) highlights high incidence of Vitamin D deficiency in otherwise healthy adult Americans. The prevalence of Vitamin D deficiency is exemplified by this quote:
“32 percent of healthy students, physicians, and residents at a Boston hospital were found to be vitamin D–deficient, despite drinking a glass of milk and taking a multivitamin daily and eating salmon at least once a week.” (p.267) [data sourced from Tangpricha (2002)]
The author lists a host of diseases linked to Vitamin D deficiency including cancer, osteoarthritis, diabetes, schizophrenia, and depression and states that children and young adults are particularly at risk:
“For example, 52% of Hispanic and black adolescents in a study in Boston and 48% of white pre-adolescent girls in a study in Maine [had Vitamin D deficiency].” (p.267) [data sourced from Gordon (2004) and Sullivan (2005)]
Other than making me concerned that we live in the Northeast, my main takeaway from the study is that sun exposure (particularly for children and young adults) is vital to prevent Vitamin D deficiency. The author states that:
“Exposure [to the sun] of arms and legs for 5 to 30 minutes (depending on time of day, season, latitude, and skin pigmentation) between the hours of 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. twice a week is often adequate [to provide necessary amounts of Vitamin D].” (p.277)
If insufficient sunlight puts my daughter at risk for Vitamin D deficiency, then what happens if we give her too much sun? The limited research on Vitamin D makes me believe that huge amounts of Vitamin D are harmful to my daughter. However, my greater concern is that direct exposure to sunlight will give my daughter sunburns and skin cancer.
As early as 1989, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommended that its member pediatricians educate parents about the long-term dangers (primarily from skin cancer) of children encountering direct exposure to the sun. Research indicates little public health awareness regarding safe sun habits for newborns even when parents understand the dangers of sunburns.
Overall, research shows that while excess amounts of Vitamin D may or may not be harmful, excess amounts of direct sunlight are certainly harmful. Research is still inconclusive regarding the proper amount of Vitamin D for adults and whether the exclusive use of supplements is sufficient to combat lack of Vitamin D propagation from sun exposure.
I believe the data show that too little sun is bad for babies because it results in Vitamin D deficiency. Babies might still have the deficiency even with a vitamin supplement like tri-vi-sol. I also believe the data show that too much sun is bad for babies because it causes skin cancer. My mom and mother-in-law may now make fun of me for spending hours analyzing the topic only to come to same conclusion that they had reached intuitively.
However, the difficult part of the analysis is to determine exactly how much sun is good for babies. With some research as support, we have enacted our plan to ensure Arya receives a “good” amount of sunlight during her development. The facts of our particular situation influence our plan:
- We live in the Northeast where — presumably due to frigid winters — the incidence of Vitamin D deficiency is particularly high.
- We have decided to give Arya Tri-Vi-Sol, a Vitamin A, D, and C supplement.
- We are able to monitor Arya’s sun exposure and diet very precisely throughout the entire day for the foreseeable future.
- We have secondary care givers (all four of our parents during their vacations at varying times over the next year) who are willing to follow our instructions when they watch Arya.
- We live in the middle of the city with access to a fantastic public park.
Since I have a personal bias for taking my baby outside more often than most, I am more concerned about her getting too much sun as opposed to not enough sun. To reduce the risk from too much sunlight, we’ve devised a simple system to protect baby from direct sunlight when we are outdoors. The picture above shows our (admittedly odd-looking) method.
We start with our stroller’s built-in sun-shield. Just by leaving the sun-shield down we can block most direct sunlight from hitting Arya’s face.
Next we place a thick blanket over the sun-shield and tuck it into the bottom section of the stroller. The blanket blocks all remaining sunlight from hitting her head, face, and torso. The stroller’s weather-resistant plastic cover goes over the sun-shield and secures to the base of the stroller to hold the blanket in place.
The breathable air holes on either side of the stroller are opaque and allow a little bit of sun to enter the stroller while we are moving about the city. Because Arya likes to move her hands and legs and look outside, we don’t want to block these side air holes. The amount of sunlight that passes through the sides of the stroller should be a moderate amount given the time of day when we go outside and the length of time we spent outdoors.
Our schedule fluctuates, but we have been taking our baby outside in her stroller every other day for approximately one hour. Of that time, the vast majority is spent in indirect sunlight (filtered by buildings, trees, etc.) with only five to ten minutes per day of direct sunlight exposure as we walk through Boston Common and the Boston Public Garden. As Arya gets older we will investigate different baby suntan lotions, sun-protective clothing, and varying lengths of exposure.
For now, when combined with her diet of 85 to 90 percent breastmilk and Tri-Vi-Sol supplement, I am very confident that my baby is getting a good amount of sun to balance the competing risks of Vitamin D deficiency and skin cancer.