Sun protection declines between the first and second summers of children's lives


CHICAGO Mothers reported more sunburns and tanning in the second summer of their children's lives compared to the first summer, according to an article in the August issue of The Archives of Dermatology, one of the JAMA/Archives journals.

According to the article, many of the skin cancers diagnosed in the United States are caused by unprotected and excessive exposure to the sun. Sunburns during childhood are important in the development of melanoma (skin cancer) later in life, the article states, and it has been suggested that sun protection habits should begin early in life and be taught as part of routine preventive health care.

Lori Steinberg Benjes, M.D., of Boston University, and colleagues investigated whether an intensive intervention program aimed at mothers of newborns would increase sun protection practice and lower rates of sunburn for their children. The researchers also examined changes in sun protection practices and sunburn rates between the first and second summers of the children's lives.

A total of 92 mothers completed surveys on their own sun protection habits and how they protected their children from the sun in 1998, within the first six months of their child's life. Forty-five mothers were in the intervention group and after their child's birth received counseling from nurses on effective sun protection techniques for their newborns, received written materials, and participated in telephone counseling. The 47 mothers in the control group received only in-hospital sun protection counseling after their child was born.

The researchers found that the intervention and control groups had similar decreases in routine use of sun protection (long-sleeved clothing and pants, sunscreen and shading) between the first (average age, 6 months) and second summers (average age, 18 months) of the child's life.

However, sunscreen use increased 62 percent in the intervention group and 56 percent in the control group between the first and second summers of life.

The researchers also found that the proportion of mothers who reported that their child had experienced a sunburn increased from 7 percent to 45 percent in the intervention group compared with 17 percent to 37 percent in the intervention group. The increase in skin damage (burning plus tanning) for the children was 32 percent for the intervention group and 43 percent for the control group from the first to second summer of life.

"The overall analysis of the 92 families' experiences in the first and second summers revealed two major findings. First, skin damage rates increased from 22 percent in the first summer for 6-month-olds to 54 percent in the second summer for 18-month-olds, despite more than 90 percent of mothers reporting that they routinely used sunscreen in the second summer," the authors write.

"Second, it appears that lack of full protection in the child's second summer rather than increased sun exposure resulted in more sunburning and tanning; that is, use of hats, long-sleeve shirts, and shade dropped substantially for children between ages six months to 18 months in both study groups, despite efforts that consistently publicized total and comprehensive sun protection," write the researchers.

They conclude: "Sun protection habits must be taught as part of routine preventive health care and in school settings, but bolstered again in preadolescent and adolescent years, when such habits are known to deteriorate."

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Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 21 Feb 2009
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