The Indian winter survival guide
Winter’s officially here (by the Indian Saka calendar), with the winter solstice around the bend, and Santa Claus is coming to town soon. In fact, we already have our own Santa sack stuffed with winter clothes, bedding, skincare, decor, toys and other products for your little one (and you!).
First, let’s admit this much: We warm-blooded mammals are actually evolved for safety against cold. It might also be reassuring to realise that baby fat is a nifty piece of innovation, and is the special kind of insulating brown fat that helps keep you warm (it’s also what people who work outdoors in cold weather or play outdoors in the cold have more of!).
That said, feeling really cold can reduce your immunity! For older kids, though, toddler and up? When we say “really cold”, we’re talking about shivering or a pale face, blue or very reddened hands and feet.
Hopefully, for most of us, it is never coming to that! But a young baby, whose thermoregulation is still a work in progress, may need some help from you to stay cosy—though often, the intervention needed is far less drastic than many of us imagine.
Winterizing your home
Often, it is easier to control the home environment than to deal with an annoyed infant or a tornado of a toddler who wants no part of your dress-up game.
Do we need carpets? What kind?
- A sturdy woollen or woven grass or jute carpet can be an useful way to make one large comfortable area for a baby on their tummy, sitting and playing, or crawling.
- Add a playpen around it, and you have a cosy nook.
- The worry once they are mobile, though, is whether the carpet can slip and slide under them. That can be super dangerous, so add a felt or other antislip backing, or choose a rubberised carpet backing.
- Foam play tiles can be another option.
- How about using gym mats or yoga mats along corridors?
What about the rest of the house?
Honestly, if it is really uncomfortable, the baby will complain to you! If they are not, chances are they are doing fine.
The thing to watch out for more is the crawling baby on a smooth tile or stone floor, who can skid and hit their chin. I like to use slightly grippy cotton pants for this (look out for joggers with a chino or felt knee patch, for example). I also suggest avoiding socks.
What temperature should you maintain at home, if you are using a heater?
Aim for between 18 degrees C and 22 degrees C for a comfortable day and night. Any more and you would be in shirtsleeves and the baby too! A sleeping bag or swaddle too would get uncomfortable at 25-plus.
Which heater, and do we need a humidifier?
- In terms of safety, oil-fin radiators are the best bet in that they are relatively cool to the touch.
- With all heaters, be careful around babies and toddlers because they can tip over, or the cords can present both strangulation and electrocution risks. Your best bet is to put a gate between the heater and the child—often enclosing the heater rather than the child is a good option in a nicely babyproofed home.
- Next best amongst heaters is a blower—but it is pretty drying. You will need a humidifier, or at least a large flat bowl of water—which can be a risk all on its own with a young baby!
- Blowers, or convection heaters, warm the room much faster than oil-fin radiators though. So you might be able to turn it on in the bedroom and then switch it off before you fall asleep. Might be an economical solution where you want warmth mainly at night.
- The radiant heater, with the visibly glowing rods is attractive and extra unsafe because the elements are not concealed and are rather attractive instead! Definitely put this one behind bars if using, and try to choose one of the models with a built-in humidifier function.
Hot foods, cold foods?
Is it safe to eat cold foods?
Scientifically speaking, since we’re warm-blooded animals, anything you eat will still be converted to... human body temperature. Hot foods don’t stay hot and cold foods don’t stay cold in our bodies (lucky mammals!). Which is to say, if you’re allowing your older child an ice cream scoop, or the baby is teething and could do with a breastmilk popsicle, it’s absolutely fine.
What should I give my child to keep them warm? To put this another way, you can still eat and drink most things all winter long. However, there is no one food or drink your child needs for staying warm.
There is one thing a child may miss out on because of the cold—and that is!
How you can help them stay hydrated:
- Don’t worry about babies. Since milk and infant formula are both warm and soothing, most babies and nursing toddlers will be hydrating just fine. Focus on your own beverages!
- Consider offering toddlers and older kids lukewarm water—not hot! (both for safety and comfort)
- For toddlers and up, you can offer a warm beverage—it keeps things interesting:
- But beware of replacing all water with ‘drinks’ and watch, especially in toddlers and preschoolers, for liquids at meals replacing food! Space the beverages out a bit if this looks likely. (Reminder: babies should not get ANY liquid foods at all! It displaces their primary mode of nutrition, milk or formula.) This is less likely to be an issue for nursing toddlers as well.
- Exception to that last: if the child has a stuffy nose or cough that makes it hard for them to eat, by all means prioritise hydration over food (just not for babies! They get both from human milk or infant formula).
But surely there are winter foods they absolutely need?
- If the child is uncomfortable and resisting a food—be it cold or be it hot (yes, some little ones refuse warm foods too!)—you don’t want to insist.
- What they should do, though don’t strictly need to, is eat seasonal produce—but we’re betting you have that covered already in your meal planning!
- If you haven’t already, show them how you choose and prep seasonal greens, and other vegetables and fruit. Of course this applies in every season, but this is when we have a deluge of leafies in most parts of the Subcontinent, citrus fruits to peel, peas to pod, strawberries to wash in vinegary water...
- They definitely do not need honey and jaggery and sugar for warmth. In fact, it reduces immunity.
- Honey may help slightly with seasonal allergies but only if it is local to where you actually are, made from the same flowers that are causing the allergies. Also, no honey whatsoever for babies less than 12 months old, please—the risk of infant botulism may be small, but it can be fatal in babies.
- Saffron or nuts are not going to keep them any warmer than 98.4 degrees F (or whatever your child’s actual baseline is); you wouldn’t want them to be feverish anyway, right?
Shouldn’t they at least avoid cold or sour foods by evening/night? If they’re enjoying a cold treat, it is perfectly safe to have unless the child themselves seems shivery or cold. In short, whatever the time of day or whatever the temperature, it is fine for your child to have:
- Oranges and other citrus fruits
- Yoghurt (yes, even sour yoghurt–what many of us grew up knowing as ‘curd’)
What you may want to limit:
- Salty foods and sweets (because especially if your child is ignoring water because it is cold, they will add to dehydration)
- Fried foods.
- Too much liquid for babies and younger toddlers.
Believe it or not, thicker outerwear is not necessarily the cosiest option for the little ones. Layers preserve warmth much better because of air sandwiched between them, and it is easier to add or subtract just a little warmth at a time with thinner layers.
Here’s our guide to winter layering, baby- and toddler-friendly edition:
- The general rule of thumb is a baby only needs one more layer of clothing than you—and it shouldn’t be an extra puffer or down jacket! If you’re using a heavier layer, consider that an exchange for one of your heaviest layers likewise.
- Avoid having more than four layers or making the layers too bulky, as the baby must be able to move. That’ll keep them warmer than being turned into the Pilsbury doughboy!
- Keep the layers a little loose, as that better traps heat, but for babies, make sure they aren’t loose enough to be a suffocation risk.
- If you’re in northern climes in December-January, or high up the hills, stepping outside with a baby calls for:
- Layer 1: a one-piece sleepsuit or footed romper as base layer; a non-footed sleepsuit plus socks or booties if you’re using a baby carrier. A thin one will do, particularly for newborns, as we don’t want them overheating, e specially as they are typically snuggled close to caregivers anyway (and indeed, should be for their development!)
Keep checking on temperature in the middle of baby’s back and notice if they are too sleepy or looking rosy. This can suggest they are too warm and you need to exchange the heaviest layer for a lighter jacket or sweater.
- Don’t be alarmed by cold hands and feet in younger babies. This is normal because their thermoregulation is not yet perfected. Go by the torso temperature.
- Indoors, we would be shedding layers or exchanging the outer jacket for a sweater if you have any artificial heat going.
- Shed the jacket and use a sweater or lighter jacket.
- For a day indoors, assuming there is a heater on in low double-digits:
- Layer 1: cotton thermals, top and bottom; or just the thermals on the top half and legwarmers on the legs.
- Layer 2: full-sleeve onesie and thicker pants (light fleece or just thicker cotton like French terry, maybe denim or corduroy for special occasions).
- Layer 3: Lighter jacket, perhaps with a hoodie—use the hood mainly outdoors, in the balcony or by an open window.
- We’d say, unless you are looking at drops to single-digit or very low double-digit temperatures (under 14 degrees Celsius, say), stick with cotton for most of the layers. Yes, even sweatshirts and jackets can be made in cotton!
- Avoid having wool directly against the skin for babies and younger toddlers. It is too easy for them to overheat or feel irritated but be unable to tell you.
- If you use a car heater, remember to unbundle the baby!
- Speaking of cars, it is not safe to put a baby in a car seat with puffy jackets on. Any puffers and quilted jackets must be removed before buckling the baby in. Then add layers of warmth over the carseat harness.
- Similarly, if you use a stroller or pram, it is better to carry a small lightweight blanket than to overdress the baby for ‘safety’. While using the blanket, make sure you are able to see the baby’s face at all times.
- While outdoors, be it in a car, carrier or pram, check on newborns every 15 minutes or so to confirm they are not too warm. Sweaty head or palms, a flushed face indicate you should lose a layer.
But surely they have to wear socks and mittens and hats in winter?
Not necessarily, actually. Remember, your body’s warmth comes from your stomach and the temperature that really matters is the core temperature—which is why we try to measure fever as close to internal areas as possible (rectal ideally for a baby, in-ear for toddlers, mouth for older kids, and armpit really only for the wiggly child who absolutely resists all of the above).
- First off, are you using gloves, hat and scarf? If not, chances are your baby is amply protected by a hoodie too and doesn’t need much more.
- For newborns, safer and more likely to stay on than tiny mitts and socks are footed rompers (WARNING: Not while babywearing; in this case, go with socks and booties instead) and onesies with fold-over cuffs that can enclose the hands if it does get cold.
- In colder weather, if you have bare floors with tile, stone or cement and want to use socks, choose the anti-skid sort.
- Avoid string ties of any sort with babies and toddlers. Better a lost cap or mitten than risking strangulation, yes?
- A toddler actually does not have the balance and coordination to watch their feet as they walk. They need to feel where their feet are going! Don’t deprive them of the sensory feedback from those 2 million nerve endings on their soles—it’s essential learning and actually safer for your child. Encasing their first steps in shoes and socks and booties can actually hamper even cerebral development!
What about diapers? Won’t cloth diapers be cold?
Honestly, most babies and toddlers will let you know LOUD and clear if they are uncomfortable. We’d suggest you rest easy until then. If you’re still worried, because certainly changes may need to be more frequent in winter as the young ones pee more:
- Consider switching to hemp or basically any diapering combo that is more absorbent than your usual.
- Choose a stay-dry surface (unless, of course, the baby’s skin prefers natural fibers or you are toilet training‚ which, I would suggest waiting to do in warmer weather!)
- If laundry drying fast enough is looking to be an issue, consider a mixed solution of disposal pads for night and naps, and cloth by day, with a hybrid diapering system.
Safe sleep without shivers
The first, most basic rule of safe sleep is no loose bedding, no exceptions. This means, in this instance at least, you need to dress the baby and not the bed.
- Never use loose blankets at night, when you will be sleeping. It’s okay during a nap in your watchful presence, though, or for carseats and stroller and carrier naps.
- Remove sweaters and thermals for bed. Use a sleepsack or sleeping bag or wearable blanket instead.
- Make sure the sleepsack does not restrict legs from kicking and bending easily, and leaves arms free.
- Absolutely do NOT use any clothing with ties while sleeping—they are strangulation risks, can even wind around toes and fingers, and particularly in winter, it can be hard to see them amidst all the clothing layers to be certain nothing is amiss.
What about swaddles?
While many experts no longer consider swaddling best practice, it certainly can be convenient and other professionals are happy to recommend it. Our suggestions:
- Try to leave the baby’s hands free. If you are swaddling over the arms, then try to release the wrap once baby has fallen asleep. This preserves the Moro reflex, which protects against SIDS and ensures baby rouses often enough to get adequate milk.
- Hands near the face also allows baby to cue their hunger before they are desperate enough to cry.
- Make sure the bottom of the swaddle is roomy. The baby should be able to curl and straighten legs, kick etc—much as they would in the womb!
What about using socks, mittens or a hat while sleeping? Babies aren’t moving then so may be colder, and they won’t get in the way of exploring…
- Never cover the baby’s head while sleeping. This can easily become a suffocation hazard if it slips down.
- Remember, the easiest places to lose heat are our hands, feet and head. Letting a baby get overheated increases the risk of SIDS—and you aren’t likely to be checking at night, so play it safe here.
How about a heating pad, electric blanket or a hot water bottle in the crib?
Avoid, avoid and yet again, avoid.
- First, a truly certified child-safe blanket or pad is not easily found in India.
- Secondly, a blanket is already a suffocation hazard.
- Finally, a leaky water bottle or one that comes unstoppered is a huge risk, even for grown-ups.
- If you must, you can place a pad or hot water bottle in the baby’s bed under a blanket, and then remove both when you lay your baby down to sleep.
Play, indoors and outdoors
The whole business of a child’s existence is play! Please, don’t resist taking them out or letting them get down on the tiled, stone or cement floor just because of the cold. Because physical activity actually amps up immune function for a whole day.
When is it truly unsafe to play outside?
- In general, it is actually an immunity-building exercise to play outside.
- It is supposed to be dangerous for children to be outside when the temperature or wind chill drop to less than -20 Celsius, and that’s a long way off for most of us!
- In fact, babies are put outside to nap in subzero temperatures in large parts of northern Europe.
Bathing and skincare
In most parts of India, barring the retreating monsoons, you are working with drier air. That and friction with clothing, especially wools and synthetics, can lead to dry skin. The easiest fix is hydration from the inside. However, there are a few things you can do to avoid aggravating the dryness:
- Massage oils are a popular choice, especially in places where winter sun is warm enough for sunbathing. For best results to seal in moisture, apply before the bath so the skin has an extra seal against the drying effect of the warm water itself.
- Speaking of warm water, keep it comfortably blood-warm—dip in the tip of your elbow and check; if you can’t really feel it, that’s the right temperature.
- For some children, eczema can worsen in winter. Talk to your paed about getting targetted mousturiser.
- Natural humectants can also help in the bath; the easiest is a bundle of oats. You can knot some in a washcloth to scrub your baby with, just tie it over the tap so the water flows through it into the bucket, or just pop it in the bathtub.
- For babies, in general but particularly in dry weather, avoid soap. Often oil alone and a wet washcloth will take off any milky spit-ups, food spills and such.
- Which oil is best? Honestly, it does not matter hugely—with the exceptions of mustard oil, which can irritate skin, and olive oil, which can interfere with the skin’s barrier function, and worsen the condition of skin that is extra dry.
- Coconut oil is a very popular and easily available option—many paeds recommend it too. The catch is, it solidifies in the cold, which can be a palaver to deal with alongside a frisky little person.
- If you have been using coconut oil and it seems to suit the little one, it is fine to continue. You can squeeze some into a small jar with a tight lid, and pop this in the bucket or tub while filling in the warm bathwater. This usually softens it enough to at least scoop out by finger, if not pour.
- Other options if you are after a ‘seasonal flavour’ include apricot oil, almond oil, sesame oil, jojoba (light enough for babies prone to pimples, usually), peach kernel oil and such.
- Keep the oil massage external only; nothing needs to go inside the nose, ears, navel, or penis. These are all organs best left to their own natural cleaning devices, be it wax, mucus or other natural secretions.
- For skin that seems more even-tempered, a regular child-friendly moisturiser after the bath and before bedtime might be all that is needed.
- For babies, it might be useful to choose fragrance-free items.
- For chapped lips, a dab of ghee or a bit of lanolin or nipple butter cream are easy and safe alternatives.
Oranges, curd, banana, tamarind… what else are you supposed to not give your baby in winter? Short answer: it’s all good and nothing dire happens from eating summer foods in winter.
Bear in mind that in large swathes of the country, ‘winter’ temperatures are as high as many temperate places’ summer high!
We don’t have any links for this ‘nothing happens’ assertion, unfortunately, but logically—there’s just no scientific way to prove a null hypothesis.
What about giving some traditional supplements, like amla (Indian gooseberry) and chyawanprash (an Ayurvedic ‘immunity booster’ preparation)?
Again, you don’t need to.
- You don’t want to boost immunity.
- Regular foods that provide enough vitamin C will do the job. Even potatoes have vitamin C! It does not need to be amla (or oranges, or any other specific fruit or vegetable).
- Remember breastfeeding children are getting immune support in their milk, alongside nutrition.
- If you don’t think it can be harmful at least, think again. Adulteration is rife, to the point that items like chyawanprash are actually banned in some countries. Some chyawanprash even has caffeine!
So there’s no change to immunity in winter?
Not quite so fast. Now here’s some things that can actually affect immunity:
- Lack of sleep (usually more a parent problem than a child issue!)
- Stress, both physical and psychological (so try and allay those anxieties—even the ones about the cold!)
- Lack of exercise—we discussed this in “Play”, and that’s exactly why it’s a great idea to let your toddler run and your baby crawl! Even outdoors, but certainly indoors, they ought to be active most of the day, really. It’s imperative for musculoskeletal development too—which impacts everything from core strength that later helps them sit and write, to strengthening the body to climb and jump, improving lung function and circulation, as well as immunity.
- Too much sugar.
- Low vitamin D—and this one is a biggie, given how common vitamin D deficiency is in India and how covered up most of us are in winter. Schedule sunshine time every hour, especially for young children. (In the pandemic, you can let them take a break in the balcony between classes, yes?)
- Lack of vitamin A (or beta-carotene), C, and E, and zinc. This translates to red-orange vegetables, lots of fresh vegetables (ideally include some leafy greens in there too), and nuts and seeds offered daily. Of course, as always, if you suspect a deficiency, ask your paed to test for it and add a supplement if necessary. Remember that excess of vitamins A and E can be toxic so you don’t want to just supplement blindly.
- Too much fat—though a little is quite necessary, especially for growing children.
- Air pollution! Get an air purifier already. You’ll actually be increasing your child’s life expectancy.
- NB: Air pollution is not just outside; it is indoors and often worse if you are cooking, have upholstery back from the dry cleaners, using floor cleaners and mosquito repellents that are dispersed in the air, perfumes and incense sticks, and so forth. Indoor air can even be worse than outdoors, so ventilate from time to time.
But what if they are sick already?
- Limited studies have shown chicken soup and mushroom may help.
- Milk (from cattle, in this case) does not increase congestion or mucus production or phlegm. (If you feel like it does for you, you might want to shine a light on casamorphins.)
- What can increase mucus production is spicy food—but they can also help clean out sinuses in older kids, at least (best avoided in babies, who can’t clear snot on their own yet!)
- Glutathione in cruciferous veggies—cauliflower, broccoli, cabbage, mustard greens, and even good old spinach may help maintain immune function; but don’t sweat it if your child is disinterested in eating just now. Focus on hydration instead.
- For toddler up, a persistent cough that won’t let up at night can be soothed by a single dose of honey at bedtime, yes, that’s true.
- Don’t insist the child stays in bed if they seem well enough to be playful. Like we said in talking of play, it actually helps the immune system to function well.