Playing Outside, No Coat - How Bad?

Filed under: Expert Advice: Big Kids


"My son refuses to wear a coat," reports a worried mom. "He's 9 years old and it's 20 degrees outside here. How bad is it for him to go out without a coat? Is it unsafe?"

Ah, the old at-the-door, put-on-your-coat drama. Is it dangerous for a child to go out coat-less when it's cold? To find out, I called Gwenn Schurgin O'Keeffe, MD, who is a board-certified pediatrician and an active member of the American Academy of Pediatrics (she goes by "Dr. Gwenn."). "Well, on the good news front," Dr. Gwenn says, "It sounds like this mom is encouraging her child's independence and that's always positive." Oh good, because who among us has never let a child put on their coat outside once they realize they are cold, rather than wrestling it on in the hallway?

"On the bad news front," Dr. Gwenn continues, "This isn't the greatest time to encourage independence, because if it's 20 degrees, a 9-year-old can get cold-related illnesses incredibly quickly."

Like a cold?

"Like cold-related illnesses, such as hypothermia and frostbite," says Dr. Gwenn.

Is this true even if it's not that cold out? What's the cutoff?

"In fact," Dr. Gwenn says, "A child can get hypothermia in 50 degree weather with no jacket. If their body gets chilled and their core temperature drops, it can happen. It's a myth that it has to be below 0 degrees to get hypothermia."

Is this true even if it's not that cold out? What's the cutoff?

"In fact," Dr. Gwenn says, "A child can get hypothermia in 50 degree weather with no jacket. If their body gets chilled and their core temperature drops, it can happen. It's a myth that it has to be below 0 degrees to get hypothermia."
What about frostbite? The colder it gets, the greater the wind chill factor, says Dr. Gwenn, "The faster frostbite can occur, and I've actually seen this happen. A child is walking home from school, their boots get wet, and by the time they get home they've got the beginnings of frostbite on their toes." (Dr. Gwenn is based in New England.)

Here are her tips on how to keep kids safe in cold weather:

Talk about how the cold is coming before it gets freezing out. "Help your child pick out a coat they like and will want to wear, and talk about how when it's cold we put on coats and why. For older children, Dr. Gwenn suggests, "You can find articles on trusted weather Web sites that will describe how important it is to protect yourself against the cold and why."

Make sure outerwear is cool and weatherproof. "Some very attractive boots may not be waterproof -- check before you buy them."

Put coats on before you leave the house. "Otherwise you're setting yourself up for an argument outside that you might not win, and then you've got a child outside for too long without a coat."

Try for a hat. "Children lose a lot of heat through their head, but unfortunately many refuse to wear a hat. If your child hates hats, consider buying a coat that has a cozy hood that your child likes." Will a baseball cap work? "If it's all your child will wear, it's better than nothing but ideally, they are wearing something warm on their head that protects their ears."

Don't rely on children as weather reporters. "They may feel warm if they're being active outside but meanwhile they could be ignoring the beginning signs of frostbite such as tingling in their fingers or toes. Trust your knowledge of the temperature and dress children accordingly and make sure they come in to warm up at regular intervals."

Final words: Take cold weather advisories seriously. "Even if you're on vacation and are all set to go skiing or sledding in the snow, when the news reporters say there's a cold advisory and it's too cold to go outside, it's too cold."

If you've ever had a less-than-perfect parenting moment that has left you wondering, "How bad?" Send it to Sabrina at PrincessLPink9@aol.com. She'll try to answer as many as she can.

Sabrina Weill is the founder of the pink and princess-y gift site:
PrincessLovesPink. Many of the Mommy Advisors in this column are the writer's personal or professional friends.


Related: Avoid Winter Injuries, More How Bad?

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Start by teaching him that it is safe to do so.