Have you ever noticed that your baby’s hands and feet were cold?
I most certainly did.
The first time I realised this was during nighttime feeds when I felt something rather cold touching me. It turned out – it was my little girl’s icy-cold hands!
I was in shock. My precious baby girl was freezing! And strangely, she didn’t seem to be bothered by this…
I’ve done everything by the book.
Olivia was snuggled up in a sleeping bag and wearing two layers. And the room temperature was around 20°C… When I touched her chest, she was nice and warm.
So, what is going on? Why are my baby’s hands and feet so cold? Should I do something about it?
Let’s find out.
Why Are My Baby’s Hands And Feet Always Cold?
It is common for babies younger than 3 months to have cold hands and feet. The blood circulation system of newborns is still undergoing intensive development since they are gradually adapting to life outside the womb. Thus, blood is directed to the most vital organs in the centre of the body, and the extremities are given less priority. As a result, their limbs are a lot colder than their core body. Furthermore, babies are not capable of regulating their body temperature and are prone to lose heat quickly. And finally, newborn babies spend the majority of their time sleeping, which means they are motionless. This impedes blood circulation and heat transfer to their hands and feet. Occasionally, cold limbs may indicate a health problem, which is why you should always be on the lookout for other symptoms.
1. Blood Circulation
The blood carries oxygen and nutrients from the lungs to the body cells and removes carbon dioxide and other waste. Blood circulation plays a crucial role in regulating body temperature. Specifically, the speed at which blood flows affects the temperature, i.e. when the blood flows slowly, the heat is lost.
Newborn babies do not have a fully developed blood circulation system. As a result, the blood flow is predominantly concentrated on the most vital organs, such as the brain and lungs. These organs require the most oxygen to survive. Furthermore, a baby’s body only contains a small amount of blood, approximately one cup. As a result, peripheral body parts such as feet and hands receive less blood supply.
Now, poor circulation means limited oxygen and heat travels to extremities. That’s why little hands and feet can be a bit chilly, and their colour can be a bit pale or blueish.
But the good news is – it is normal and nothing to worry about!
As the baby grows, the blood circulatory system becomes more mature and efficient. The little limbs should feel warmer by the time your precious one turns 3 months.
*** As a side note, this also explains why we should never check a baby’s temperature by feeling her hands. This can be inaccurate and very misleading. The best way to determine a baby’s temperature is to feel their core body – their back or torso.
2. Thermoregulation In the Newborn Babies
According to norms, a newborn’s core body temperature should range between 36.5°C and 37.5°C.
Having too much or too little heat can cause thermal stress. In this category are hyperthermia, hypothermia, and excessive heat loss.
Unlike adults, newborns cannot maintain a constant body temperature by balancing heat production and heat loss.
In other words – babies are not capable of temperature regulation.
So, to keep warm, they need external thermal protection.
Poor thermoregulation is caused by several factors, including;
- Large surface to body-weight ratio. Meaning, a baby’s body is too small to generate heat, but its surface area allows it to lose heat quickly. That’s why babies are dried and wrapped in a blanket immediately after birth to prevent the evaporation of heat.
- Large head size relative to the body size. The head can make up as much as 30% of a baby’s whole body. As the heat can easily escape through the head, so, for disproportionate babies, heat loss is more likely. For this reason, newborns are frequently dressed in hats for the first few days of their lives to conserve heat.
- The process of adjusting from a constant temperature inside the womb to variables outside of it.
- Low levels of muscle and body fat, which makes thermal insulation less efficient.
For the reasons above, newborn babies’ temperatures are closely monitored in the early days of their lives.
3. Activity level
Sleeping, eating, and digesting (aka pooping) occupy most of a baby’s time.
Because of their relatively static lifestyle, their blood flow is low, especially to the extremities such as hands and feet. As a result of slow blood flow – their limbs are on the chilly side.
This is especially evident during nighttime in older babies who have slept peacefully and motionless for a long stretch. That’s when their little hands are really freezing!
Blood circulation to these parts is generally better during the day when the baby is becoming more mobile and active. This may explain why you do not see this phenomenon as often during the daytime.
4. Medical Condition
Cold hands and feet may be a sign of fever or a more serious condition in babies.
Cold limbs will, however, be just one of the minor symptoms of this illness. Therefore, you should pay attention to the other symptoms as well.
Fever occurs very commonly in babies and children. A newborn can develop it as early as 8 weeks after their first dose of vaccine.
Increased temperature is a normal body response to bacterial or viral infection. It means that the little organism is trying to fight it, which is a good thing!
For babies younger than 3 months, fever is the temperature above 38°C. For babies over 3 months, fever is the temperature above 39°C.
When a child is experiencing fever, it is common for her forehead to feel warm, but her hands and feet to be cold. Furthermore, the breathing and heart rate is accelerated in their organisms. This results in increased blood flow to the critical organs, indicating that the body is battling microorganisms in infected organs. Hence little hands and legs can be quite chilly to touch since they are the last to receive a good blood supply.
Generally, a mild fever is not dangerous and should resolve by itself or with a boost of baby paracetamol. It should pass within a day or two if the baby is responsive, feeds well, and generally appears to be doing well.
However, if fever continues and other unusual symptoms are present, this may indicate an illness that requires urgent medical attention.
Meningitis is a viral or bacterial infection causing inflammation of the lining around the brain and spinal cord.
One of the early symptoms of meningitis is cold hands and feet, which are often accompanied by high temperatures. Other symptoms to watch out for include rash, headache, loss of appetite, stiff neck, nausea, and sensitivity to light.
This is a very serious disease that progresses rapidly, so it should be diagnosed and treated immediately.
Babies and children under the age of five have the highest risk of contracting the disease. This is why children are routinely vaccinated for it.
Sepsis is another life-threatening illness, difficult to diagnose due to its non-specific symptoms.
Sepsis is a response to the infection in the blood. It occurs when the infection spreads to the blood from another infected area, i.e. urinary tract, the lungs, skin or bone.
Besides the cold hands and feet, the most common symptoms of sepsis include; fever or feeling cold, fast heart, breathing difficulty, vomiting, reduced urination, skin rash (similar to meningitis), blotchy skin or mouth or tongue.
Therefore, if your baby shows any of these warning signs, you should seek immediate medical attention.
5. How Can I Treat My Baby’s Cold Hands And Feet?
Well, if you’ve ruled out fever and the baby seems healthy and shows no other symptoms – there is not much you can do about this.
Keeping your child warm and dressed appropriately for the weather is all you can do.
You should keep the nursery’s temperature within the recommended range. The safest room temperature for babies is between 16-20°C. This is because the risk of cot death is relatively low at this range.
During wintertime, you may be tempted to cover your baby with another layer for extra warmth. Please use your common sense, though, as this might not be the best idea! If you do this, you could put your child at risk of overheating. Instead, you could just cover the baby’s hands with mittens or fold-over sleeves and put on some warm socks on her feet as well.
Final Few Lines
Healthy babies experience cold hands and feet all the time, and it’s rarely a cause for concern.
In this respect, you should never measure a baby’s temperature by touching her hands because it is not an accurate indicator. You should rather check your little one’s chest or the back of the neck to determine whether she needs an additional layer of clothing or not.
The discomfort associated with cold limbs will eventually disappear as your baby grows and her circulatory system gets stronger.
With increased activity and mobility, blood flow to her limbs will also improve.
And finally, with time, your baby will develop the ability to regulate her temperature more effectively. It will ultimately help to keep her hands and feet warm as well.
Nevertheless, you should always trust your instinct since you know your baby best. If something doesn’t feel right or your child just seems unwell, you should always seek medical advice.