Summer is right around the corner, which means your little one’s about to become a bonafied beach baby. Sun, sand and surf offer up lots of new, exciting stimulation for your child, but pose extra risks as well.

Babies have very delicate skin, so they’re especially vulnerable to the dangerous effects of the sun. Children burn much more easily than adults, and sun damage done while your little one’s young can affect her skin health for a lifetime. It’s crucial to take precautions to protect your from sun damage now.

Obviously, avoiding sunlight completely is unrealistic and unnecessary. Instead, follow these tips to keep your baby safe while enjoying the great outdoors.

  • Stay shady. Keep your baby out of direct sunlight, particularly when the sun’s rays are the strongest, between 10:00 am and 4:00 pm. Sit under a tree, under an umbrella, in the shade of a building, or put your child in her stroller with the canopy over her head. This way, you’ll be able to take in nature without any dangerous ultraviolet exposure.
  • Hat defense. Put a wide-brimmed hat on your little one whenever you’re out in the sun. She may not like it at first, but she’ll get used to sporting headgear if you start when she’s tiny. If your baby’s older and yanks off her adorable bonnet, use your powers of persuasion—along with a favorite doll or snack—as a distraction to keep the hat where it belongs. Alternatively, consider tying the hat straps together so she’s physically unable to remove it.
  • Lightweight outerwear. Dress your baby in a lightweight, long-sleeved shirt and long pants, making sure the clothing material is tightly woven. Test this by holding them up to a bright light. The tighter the weave, the less light—and sunlight—that’ll come through the fabric. Watch for signs she’s getting too warm, such as flushing, excessive sweat, and a hot neck. Keep her well hydrated with breast milk, formula or water (depending on her age) and if you put her in shorts, be extra vigilant about the time she spends in the sun.
  • Baby shades. Pick up a pair of tiny sunglasses with UV protection to add to your baby’s summer wardrobe, to prevent sun damage to her tiny corneas, which can lead to cataracts later in life.
  • Sunscreen. Generally, it’s a good idea to avoid using sunscreen on a baby younger than six months old. There are exceptions, however. For example, if your tiny explorer’s itching to check out the beach but you can’t cover her from head to toe, it’s fine to use a small amount of sunscreen on uncovered skin. Keep the lotion away from her eyes and hands, since they may end up in her mouth. If she’s older than six months, always lotion up before heading out into the sun. Test a patch of sunscreen at home and wait a few hours, or overnight, to check for signs of an allergic reaction. Pay attention to the label—pick a kid-friendly version that protects against UVA and UVB rays, with at least SPF 15, and reapply as often as needed. Alternatives to typical sunscreen include non-chemical varieties available in health food and body lotion stores, and zinc oxide.
  • Sunshine vitamin. While everyone produces vitamin D with help from the sun’s rays, it’s not required that you subject your baby to the sun’s rays to soak it up. In fact, babies receive small amounts of this vitamin through breast milk and enriched formula. As little as 10 to 20 minutes a day in the outdoors is often enough for a baby’s body to produce adequate vitamin D.

After a Baby Burn

Even with the best planning, the sun has a way of sneaking in sometimes. If you notice that your baby’s become bright pink or red from the sun, here’s what to do:

  • Get your burned baby out of the sun, immediately.
  • Give her lots of breast milk, water or juice to stay hydrated.
  • Run your baby a bath with a few inches of lukewarm water and let her play and splash, or wipe her with a cool, wet cloth.
  • If your little one’s under six months old, call your pediatrician and describe the extent of the burn. If she’s a bit older, call the doctor if you notice blisters, pain, or fever.
  • Keep her out of the sun until the burn has healed.

Since babies run a higher risk for sun damage, it’s important to pay close attention to your little one as she plays outdoors. By being diligent about protection, you can ensure that your baby has the opportunity to explore outside and have fun in the sun without running the risk of harmful rays—meaning a happy, sunny summer for the whole family.

Parenting educator Elizabeth Pantley is the president of Better Beginnings, Inc., a family resource and education company. She is also the author of twelve parenting books, including the popular "No-Cry" series.