I recently flew to San Diego with my 10-month-old. (She was great on the plane. Really. Except for trying for four hours to eat the passenger-safety card.) As I waited at baggage claim for the tractor-trailer-sized suitcase that houses her small sovereign nation’s worth of accoutrements, I jiggled her in her Ergo and watched as she showed off her latest charm offensive: waving at everyone. The first victim appeared to be a little old lady who came close and peered at her. I thought it might be one of those instances where a total stranger exclaims over the preciousness of my little scamp, the sheer joy she exudes and brings out in others.
The lady took one look at my daughter’s pudgy feet, bare from kicking off her socks during an airborne contortion, and exclaimed, “PUT SOME SHOES ON HIM!”
Winter is coming, fellow parents, and you know what that means (even in San Diego). Strangers (and the odd relative) are going to helpfully share their helpful help. They are definitely going to let us know that our tiny charges—who, conveniently, cannot yet express their exact feelings in words—are cold.
That baby needs a hat! That baby needs mittens! That baby needs a balaclava! How dare that baby not be wearing shoes!!!!! (Who cares that it’s 70 degrees, and she doesn’t know how to walk?)
Concern-trolling vis-à-vis a small human’s relative temperature is a beloved year-round pastime, but never more popular than in winter. I recently reached out to parents on social media for “funny stories” about strangers (or relatives) offering unsolicited bundling advice. But what I heard back, time and again, from friends and readers alike, was: “Happens all the time, but it’s not funny.”
It’s possible that I’m desensitized to what counts as funny after the hundredth person threatened to call Child Protective Services on me for making a mildly obscene gesture in the general vicinity of my daughter while she napped. But it’s also possible that it’s not really funny when you’re doing your level best to transport a baby into the out-of-doors without turning her into a Kidcicle, but said Kidcicle (to use a random example I randomly made up) absolutely loathes anything touching her head, and thus immediately yanks all hats off and tries to eat them, and then, oh look, she’s flung her mittens into the gutter, and you’re balancing groceries in one hand and pushing the stroller in the other, and it’s 45 minutes past her naptime, and then helpfully, a helpful helper appears—not to offer you a hand with said groceries, but simply to remark, in regard to your aggressively gender-normed female child who is currently wearing a pink-and-white faux fur coat that makes her look like the mistress of a Russian mobster: “HE NEEDS A HAT!”
Yes, madam, I am aware. And I am truly, deeply sorry that she hates wearing hats, but she does. “You should just MAKE HIM!” Oh yes, I forgot, I am Kilgrave of the Babies and can compel any infant to do my bidding.
But must I? Is my baby really cold?
I recently solicited the learned counsel of Dr. Rae Brager, a Toronto-based pediatrician, for some answers that might be slightly more reliable than the unsolicited opinion of a rando in a city where winter does not exist.
Yes, Brager confirms, infants and small children are indeed more at risk for hypothermia than adults, because their big fat noggins have more “relative surface area.” This means that in hat weather, which she defines roughly as “about the time that adults are wearing a light jacket,” little ones with bare heads are “much more exposed than the corollary adult would be.” Responsible parents should, she cautions, know the signs of mild to moderate hypothermia: shivering (which can actually disappear as hypothermia worsens), goose bumps, and blue lips or skin.
Yes, hypothermia is a real danger, especially if your tyke is playing in the snow. Still, cold-related complications don’t register in the top causes of infant mortality here in the U.S., which are birth defects, preterm birth/low birth weight, sudden infant death syndrome, pregnancy complications, and accidents. Between 2006–10, about 1 infant per million per year died of “cold-related deaths” (according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)—tragic, absolutely, but more infants and small children die each year of influenza.
In the dead of winter, a kid obviously needs a hat (and mittens, and a snowsuit, and booties, etc.). “Parents should be prepared to take their kids inside if they refuse to wear appropriate gear,” Brager says. But still, she continues, concerned strangers (and grandmas) should recognize that most parents are doing the best they can—and we know whether our own kid runs “hot,” as my little furnace does. Furthermore, the consequences of concern-trolling can be more than just passing annoyance. “I hear a lot of guilt and insecurity in mothers I see in my practice and in my personal life, and that doesn’t help anyone parent well,” Brager explains. This is especially true because many little ones may have extenuating circumstances that make hat-wearing especially difficult, such as children on the autism spectrum who “have sensory issues and can’t manage having fabric on their heads.”
Brager shares one quick test that any parent or caregiver with non-icy hands can administer immediately to determine, once and for all, if that baby—hat or no hat, mittens or no mittens, balaclava or bare-faced—is really cold. All you have to do is place a hand under the neckline of baby’s shirt. “Does her skin feel warm? Is your baby pink? Comfortable and alert? Then she is probably fine.” Do you hear that, grandmothers and neighborhood busybodies of the world?
Brager also offers an excellent outlet for those who just can’t help but offer this kind of helpful help in the wintertime. “Parents know all too well how quickly gloves and mittens and hats disappear just when you need them,” she says. “Many families don’t have the resources to replenish those lost winter items. Please consider buying an extra or two for your local shelter, or to leave with your child’s teacher or day care provider for children in need.”
I, for one, would be happy to supply several relevant addresses to the next person who insists my kid is cold. It will stop me blurting out what I really want to say, which is: “It’s cool. She’s too drunk to notice.”