Ask the Pediatrician

Q1: Should I apply SPF lotion to my baby and if so, what number should I apply?

Protecting all children and teens from excessive sun exposure and the damaging effects of ultraviolet light is an important effort to make as a parent. Starting early in life and continuing throughout childhood and adolescent years will go a long way to help reduce the rising rates of a number of preventable skin cancers, including the most aggressive cancer—malignant melanoma.

For infants, it is generally recommended to wait until six months of age before applying much sun screen/SPF lotion. This is because infants under six months have more “permeable” skin than older infants and children, allowing for more of the chemical from the lotion to be absorbed through their skin. There are products designed for older infants and toddlers who have more sensitive skin. Generally, a SPF level of 30 or higher is recommended if they are going to have a lot of direct sun exposure. However, it is important for parents to note that keeping children out of direct exposure is always a good idea, even if they have SPF lotion applied.

Q2: How early can I begin swim lessons for my child?

Swimming is a great recreational activity. It is one that you can involve your children in at a very young age, and most generally like the sport. In an area of the country like Minnesota where the outdoor swimming season is fairly limited, anticipation for swimming in the lake or outdoor pool begins to increase as the final snow banks are melting away.

Swim lessons can start at an early age, but it is important to consider what you hope the lessons will do for your child. Parent-infant and parent-toddler classes typically can start at six to nine months. Getting comfortable with being in the water and learning basic swimming strokes can start as early as three years of age. Classes are available through a variety of community groups and are also available through private organizations and fitness clubs.

However, parents should remember this important “heads up” if they choose to put their children in swimming lessons at an early age: this does not replace the basic safety measures you should take with children being around the water. Parents or caregivers should closely supervise children when near water, even if a young child can jump from the side of a pool into the “deep end” or off of a diving board. Also, lake swimming is a different experience from pool swimming and care needs to be exercised with this change. A gradual sloping pool bottom with clear water has few surprises, whereas lakes have cloudier water and frequently have sudden drop offs.

Q3: What can I do with the precious time I have left with my son before he leaves for college?

This transition can be very challenging for parents and students alike. Parents are “sending off” their students to campuses near and far and even if it is only a handful of miles away, a family unit will no longer be as closely connected. You may view this as a transition that only you are feeling at sea about, but this is often a very challenging transition for the student as well, as he or she will have the sudden responsibility to be an independent “adult.” Additionally, the student has to acclimate to a new environment, often with one or more roommates that he or she has never met before. Acknowledging these transitions ahead of time, along with the challenges that they may include, is an excellent first step.

A short list of “lessons that I wish I had shared with you” is an acceptable approach for you to take. Your son may accept it very reluctantly, but will likely appreciate it after he has had some time away from home. Some talk about “keys to success in life” is also a good discussion to have before he leaves for college.

Finally, remember that this is just the start of a new phase in the relationship between you and your son. It will take some learning and some time figuring out how to conduct it, but you both will learn. And, this may surprise you, consider how little your son has probably listened to you over the years: you will always be seen as a source of advice and support regardless of what your son eventually does with his life. Best wishes to the both of you.

This column is intended to provide general information only and not medical advice. Contact your health care provider with questions about your child. Dr. Peter Dehnel is a board-certified pediatrician and medical director with Blue Cross Blue Shield of Minnesota. Send questions to