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Usable Knowledge

Excessive Heat Hits Young Children Hard

A paper published earlier this year highlighted the dangers of rising temperatures on infants’ development and health, offered practical solutions to mitigate its effects
Overheated boy in front of fan

Note: Back in January, we reported on a new paper that explained the risks of extreme heat for babies and young children. With much of the United States experiencing the hottest season of the year, we are republishing our article which includes practical tips for beating the heat at the local level. 

More frequent record-breaking world temperatures, such as the ones experienced in 2023, the warmest year ever recorded, can cause major health complications for the most vulnerable among us, including babies and toddlers whose bodies react differently to excessive heat than adults. Young children are not able to regulate their body temperatures in the same way as grown-ups and severe heat can lead to “muscle breakdown, kidney failure, seizure, coma, or even death in extreme cases,” according to a new working paper from the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard. It can create additional risks during pregnancy too. 

“High temperatures may result in reduced blood flow in the placenta, dehydration, and inflammation,” the authors explain, which can cause premature births and low birth weights for babies, and other research has found that extreme heat exposure increases the rate of stillbirths

The new paper highlights how rising temperatures, related to climate change, can impact the long-term development of all children and especially those from low-income communities of color and poorer countries through:

  1. Learning loss. Children’s cognitive functions slow down and their ability to concentrate. Overheated classrooms can cause students and teachers to become unmotivated, distracted, or irritable, the report says. The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that days that are just 7 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than current average temperatures cause more than a $13 billion loss in future earnings per year because of missed learning in schools. 
  2. Sleep. Hotter and more humid temps reduce the likelihood of a good night’s sleep. Children need plenty of rest for healthy growth and development and without it, problems can emerge such as obesity, emotional and behavioral challenges, language development concerns, and diminished problem-solving skills. 
  3. Mental health. The body’s stress response system can be activated and, if it happens too often, disturb the development of healthy emotional regulation circuits in children’s brain
Practical solutions at the community level: 

Efforts to address climate change nationally and globally can help children’s health and development, according to the paper, but its authors also stress the importance of engaging with local leaders and residents who best understand specific challenges and needs on the ground. 

The scientists offer the following strategies for policymakers and community and education leaders: 

  • Evaluate all childcare, preK–12 schools, and after-school and summer programs for potential exposure to extreme heat and provide resources to help, including shade, cooling options, and access to clean drinking water. 
  • Design new buildings and retrofit older ones to be energy efficient and reduce heat exposure. New building materials can be used for cooler pavements, roofs, and permeable surfaces. Consider planting more trees and vegetation to provide shade and reduce air temperatures outside.
  • Put air conditioning and other cooling mechanisms into public schools. Districts can consider less expensive and less power-draining solutions than air conditioners, including evaporative coolers. 
  • Consider more sustainable sources of energy, like solar power. Lower-income families may be eligible for help with energy bills through a federal cooling assistance program.
  • Build up community resilience with “heat action plans” which can bring together local government agencies, community groups, and health care facilities to collaborate and identify areas and people at greatest risk during heat waves. 

Extreme Heat Affects Early Childhood Development and Health is a working paper produced by the Early Childhood Scientific Council on Equity and the Environment at the Center on the Developing Child.

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