Parents out for a stroll or trying to get fit have been warned not to let babies dangerously overheat under pram covers designed to block out UV rays.
Child and Adolescent Community Health principal nursing advisor Isabel Redfern said while she believed WA parents had now got the message about the dangers of hot cars, many were still unaware about the risk from hot prams.
Heating up in the intense midday summer sun and shut off from circulating air, a baby in a covered pram was often several degrees warmer than the rest of the family and, as temperatures soared, at risk of becoming listless and less likely to cry out for attention.
“Mums and dads are still walking with covered prams in the middle of the day,” Ms Redfern said.
“They think that once they put the baby in the pram and put the cover over, that the baby is being protected, but they are actually heating it up.
“It can get very, very warm. The parents think the baby is fine because it is sleeping a lot but that can actually be more of a concern because you have overheated them. This can happen on any day where the sun has got a bit of a bite in it.
“The first thing is lethargy and that they aren’t crying. Then they can become quite flat and they are more droopy than a normal baby is. And there is dryness in their mouth and you can almost feel the dryness in their skin.”
Her advice was to still use the UV covers but restrict pram walking in summer to before 10am and after 3pm, or even much later during a heatwave.
Another concern was that child health nurses were reporting that parents were taking babies out on errands in the midday heat, Ms Redfern said, even though extended shopping hours had increased options to shop at cooler periods.
“If we are going to have more heatwaves due to climate change, then we will probably need to be looking at more public health messages,” she said.
“Difficulties coping with heat quite often come up in the conversation in new mothers’ groups.”
Parents could be concerned when they did not have air conditioning.
“I hear stories of families sleeping on the lounge room floor with their one fan on just to keep cool,” Ms Redfern said.
“Particularly troubled are those from European countries. They love those first few days of the heat and think ‘This is terrific’. But then when we have a week of 38C or 40C-plus, the novelty wears off very quickly and they struggle to cope with the heat and sleep deprivation and keeping up fluids and nutrition levels.”
She urged exhausted parents who felt overwhelmed by a heatwave to ask a friend or family member for help or to provide cooler short-term accommodation.
Parents could also call their child health nurse or the Ngala help line (9368 9368, 1800 111 546, 8am-8pm, seven days a week).
And while a dip in the ocean has been the traditional way to cool off, the WA Health Department has warned there may be times during a heatwave when it is better to stay home and find other ways to escape the heat.
“Being at the beach is a bit of a tightrope walk — between trying to get cool because it is hot outside and not wanting to spend too much time in the sun, particularly in the middle of the day, when it is at its peak radiation,” Andy Robertson, deputy chief health officer, said.
“So it is about trying to get that balance. Not a bad solution is to try and make your own house cool and if you don’t have air-conditioning, try fans and wet towels.”
Ms Redfern agreed, warning against making plans for the family to spend the whole day at the beach because young children, in particular, should not have that much time in the sun. And if babies and toddlers were tired, they needed to be taken home to bed, rather than being put down for a nap in a hot pram or portable cot so other family members could keep on swimming.
“At the beach they are at risk,” Ms Redfern said.
“The sand can reflect rays and heat them up — it is just too hot. And I could not think of anything worse than taking a baby to an all-day summer event like the Skyshow.”
Princess Margaret Hospital emergency department head Meredith Borland confirmed that Australia Day celebrations and other all-day summer events could put the health of small children at risk.
“They are being taken to events that start at 8 o’clock in the morning and finish late at night and are out in the sun the whole time, and they do not drink enough,” she said. Such events had also led to an increase in heat-related medical problems among minors, with, in the past, groups of teenagers needing treatment for dehydration and intoxication after sitting in the sun all day and drinking alcohol.