Babies under 12 months old should not be exposed to direct sun, says an Australian cancer expert.
Fifteen minutes of direct sunlight is enough to burn adult skin, so imagine what it does to babies, warns Kay Coppa, the skin cancer prevention manager at the Cancer Council, New South Wales.
Her comments come in the backdrop of a survey that seemed to show that most Australian parents think babies need direct exposure to sunlight. 18,000 people were interviewed and about 80 per cent of them thought babies needed direct sunlight each day, with 60 per cent specifying 15 minutes.
Kay Coppa says the results are alarming because they indicate most parents have the wrong information.
"It's possible they are taking advice from their own parents and other members of older generations who were not given the sun-safe message," she says.
Coppa acknowledges that recent studies have linked high rates of vitamin D deficiency with a reduction in sun exposure but says it is safer to treat vitamin D deficiency with a supplement than to increase the risk of skin cancer.
Sunlight provides 90 per cent of the body's vitamin D, which helps us absorb calcium.
"But babies taken from the house to the car or in their normal incidental daily activity will get enough sun exposure to supply their vitamin D needs," Coppa told Fran Molloy of the Sydney Morning Herald.
She warned unprotected exposure to the sun in a child's first 15 years will significantly increase the risk of skin cancer, including melanoma, in later life.
While researchers in one Melbourne study reported as many as 40 per cent of women have a vitamin D deficiency, Coppa says many of the reported research findings are preliminary and many people are making incorrect assumptions about the implications.
"Some people are unnecessarily jumping to the conclusion that if there are low vitamin D levels in some parts of the population then sun exposure is the solution," she says.
Australia has the highest incidence of melanoma in the world. The NSW Government's Cancer Institute says in the 10 years to 2005 the number of melanoma cases rose by 24 per cent in women and 16 per cent in men.
Kristin Coombs, mother of two-year old Liam, says the information that parents receive can be confusing.
"I do think babies need some sun and they need to get outdoors and get some fresh air but then again you have to protect them from direct sunlight," she says, adding that she always keeps sunscreen in the car.
"I was very aware of the risks of the sun for Liam, just because I was aware of it for myself," Coombs says.
"My father is already suffering from the long-term effects of the sun and has had to have skin cancers removed."
Coppa says: "We know people are getting the message about sun safety and kids because if you go to the beach, if you go to playgrounds and parks, you see children wearing hats, mothers with sunscreen and so on.
"But it does appear that parents are receiving conflicting advice."
The Cancer Council recommends keeping infants out of the sun where possible and minimising their exposure to UV radiation. 1
Plan outdoor time before 10am and after 3pm.2
Cover skin with loose fitting clothing made of close-woven fabric.3
Baby should wear a broad-brimmed or legionnaire hat to protect the face, neck and ears.4
Shade prams and play areas and use areas with full shade for play.5
Check clothes, hat and shade regularly.6
Apply a SPF30+ broad-spectrum water-resistant sunscreen 20 minutes before going outside.