Spending time outside is fun for babies and young children, but it’s important to protect their delicate skin from the sun’s harmful UV rays whenever they are outdoors. Even on cloudy or overcast days there is a risk of your little one getting sunburned. The good news is that there are some simple strategies for keeping her skin safe and healthy. If your child does become mildly burned, it's good to know about at-home treatments you can use to help soothe her skin, and when you'll need to call the healthcare provider.

What Is Sunburn?

Sunburn is similar to a regular burn except that it’s caused by the sun’s powerful rays. A sunburn can happen within 15 minutes of being outside, but sometimes it won’t show until hours later, leaving your child’s skin red, warm, itchy, and painful to the touch. Keep in mind that your child doesn’t have to actually get sunburned to have been negatively affected by the sun’s rays. Repeated exposure to the sun can make the skin more wrinkled, tough, and freckled, and lead to serious health issues. Those with fair skin, moles, or freckles are at a greater risk of getting sunburned and having sun-damaged skin. To ensure that your little one’s skin stays healthy, practice consistent sun protection from the time she’s born by keeping her out of the sun for her first six months, limiting sun exposure after that, and making sure she is shielded from the harmful effects of UV rays whenever she's outdoors.

When Can Sunburn Happen?

The sun is strongest between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. Keep in mind, it’s not just on a hot and sunny summer’s day that your child is at risk of getting sunburned. It’s actually the light that you don’t see, the ultraviolet rays, which are harmful to skin. This means your child is at risk of sunburn even on a day when it’s overcast, foggy, or hazy.

What Are the Signs of Sunburn?

If your baby has sunburn, you may see the signs about 6 to 12 hours after exposure. The skin may be

  • red

  • warm to the touch

  • painful to the touch.

In serious cases, the skin may blister and your child may feel unwell with fever, chills, or a headache.

How Can You Prevent Your Baby From Getting Sunburned?

Your best bet for preventing sunburn is to avoid exposing your baby’s skin to the sun altogether, particularly during the peak daylight hours. This is especially crucial for babies younger than 6 months, whose skin is extremely delicate. Here are some other ways to shield your baby from the harmful effects of the sun:

  • Clothing. When heading outdoors in warm weather, dress your baby in lightweight clothing with long sleeves and pants. Choose a tightly woven fabric such as cotton or one that's labeled as having an ultraviolet protection factor (UPF).

  • Brimmed hat. Top off your baby’s sun-safe outfit with a baby sun hat that has a three-inch-wide (or wider) brim to give your baby’s face and neck added protection.

  • Sunglasses. Complete the beach baby look with a pair of child-size sunglasses with at least 99 percent UV protection to protect your baby’s eyes.

  • Sunscreen. Fifteen to 30 minutes before heading outside, cover your baby’s skin with sunscreen. You'll need to reapply every one-and-a-half to two hours, especially if your child is sweating or has been in water. Choose a sunscreen with broad-spectrum protection, which means it protects from both types of UV rays, UVA and UVB. It should have a sun protection factor (SPF) of at least 15. If your baby is younger than 6 months, you can apply sunscreen to the areas that aren’t covered by clothing like the o face o neck o ears o hands o feet.

  • Shade. When you’re outdoors with your baby, stay in the shade as much as possible. Sit in a covered area or use the shade of a tree, beach umbrella, or the stroller’s canopy. If your baby is younger than 6 months, you should keep her out of the sun at all times, both direct and indirect sunlight. This is especially true between the hours of 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. when the sun is at its strongest.

How Can You Treat Your Baby’s Sunburned Skin?

Mild sunburn can often be treated at home. If after being out in the sun you see that your child’s skin is red, soothe your child’s sunburn by

  • applying a cool compress to the affected area

  • giving your child a cooling bath

  • giving him pain medication as directed by your healthcare provider

  • giving him extra liquids for the next few days

  • applying a moisturizer or aloe gel to the affected area daily

  • keeping your child out of the sun until the affected area has fully healed.

When Should You See Your Baby’s Healthcare Provider?

As with any other severe burn, severe sunburn may need emergency treatment at a hospital, especially when it's accompanied by dehydration or heatstroke. If your baby has any sunburn and is younger than 1 year old, call her healthcare provider immediately. If your child is 1 or older, she should be seen by her healthcare provider if she has any signs and symptoms of severe sunburn, which include:

  • Blisters

  • Fever

  • Swelling

  • Chills

  • Headache

  • Confusion

  • Faintness

  • Dizziness

  • Nausea

  • Feeling generally unwell.

The Bottom Line

Sunburn isn’t to be taken lightly. Although the skin can heal, the effects of repeated sun exposure can be serious and may lead to skin damage, skin cancer, and other health problems later in life. Following smart sun protection strategies is something you can do from the get-go and will benefit your child throughout his life. When your child is old enough, you can teach him the importance of being safe in the sun so that he can take these good habits into adulthood as well.

How We Wrote This Article
The information in this article is based on the expert advice found in trusted medical and government sources, such as the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. You can find a full list of sources used for this article below. The content on this page should not replace professional medical advice. Always consult medical professionals for full diagnosis and treatment.