Why Do Babies Have Cold Hands and Feet? When Should I Be Worried?

My first daughter was born on a day when my city triggered a code blue warning. Overnight the temperature plummeted to 25 degrees Fahrenheit with a blizzard raging across the city. But the maternity ward was so well-heated that I hardly noticed the effect of a cold wave except a baby with bluish color on her arms and legs. I raised the matter with a nurse, who said it’s quite common for a newborn to have cold hands and legs, or in some cases, bluish color to their skin. It will usually go away within hours or a few days. 

While having cold hands and feet is a normal condition is confusing for newborn parents, its cause is easy to understand. Newborn babies’ circulatory system and temperature regulating system are still under development. In a cold environment, their bodies shift blood to core organs where it matters most. So the parts that are farthest to the heart receive less blood and heat to keep them warm. It’s very typical for babies to have cold hands and feet.

Why does your baby have cold hands and feet?

Why does your baby have cold hands and feet?

Newborn babies spend most of their time sleeping and feeding. Their lifestyle could be best described as sedentary. This lack of mobility means that their limbs receive less blood and oxygen needed to keep their hands and feet warm. Frequent feeding also needs much blood flow to fuel their digestive system instead of hands and feet. There is nothing unhealthy about this lifestyle compared with an average adult. It’s just the way normal infants live their first few months. 

When your babies begin to crawl or walk, their activities will generate much heat to keep them warm, then you’ll get another problem to worry you: do I overdress my babies?

Mom checking baby who has cold feet

Much of newborn babies’ organ development takes place outside the womb. That’s something very unique about us humans. Compared with other mammals like little camels who can walk almost half an hour after they are born, we humans are puny creatures born like half-finished work. Developing core organs need many nutrients carried by blood flow. And for newborn babies, the blood circulatory system is also under development. It’s like using a half-finished tool to work on a half-finished product. For a cash-strapped company facing an investment decision, the only sound decision is to spend it on projects that matter most. That’s what a newborn’s body does when it has insufficient blood flow; it concentrates most of the blood flow on core organs and the digestive system while limbs get neglected.

Sometimes, the blood flow to the limbs is so inadequate that the newborn babies’ skin turns bluish on the legs and hands. Scary it might look, but it’s an entirely normal condition called acrocyanosis. Rest assured that it will disappear after a few hours or days at most.

When your babies have a high fever, their limbs will also turn cold. The mechanism is similar. Much of the blood flow gets diverted to combat invading viruses or bacteria. Less blood will become available to keep your little ones’ legs and hands warm because, in a situation like this, your baby’s immune system gets top priority in resource allocation.

If your babies’ high fever also combines with other symptoms, like crying incessantly, flushed face, or you sense other irregularities warrant immediate medical attention, contact your doctors right away.

Sometimes your babies’ body part turning blue is a cause for worry, especially if you notice their lips turn blue or blue patches are appearing on their skin. It might indicate a heart or lung problem or infection is overwhelming your baby’s immune system. Call your doctors in situations like this.

What should you do if your baby has cold hands and feet?

What should you do if your baby has cold hands and feet?

Put on more clothing

While your babies’ cold hands and feet are not a cause for worry, it will comfort your baby to get them warm again. The first thing to consider is to add more layers of clothing to your baby’s body. If you feel two layers of clothing are warm enough for you, add three clothing layers to your baby.

Put on mittens, socks, and hats for your little ones. These will help to retain heat in their hands and feet.

If you are not sure whether your baby is cold, check their torso and stomach temperature. Your babies are just fine if this part of their body is warm.

Maintain ideal room temperature

There are some disagreements over the ideal room temperature; I prefer room temperature between 64 to 68°F (18 to 20°F). Order a thermometer to get an accurate reading if you have difficulty judging your room temperature.

No matter what temperature you set for your babies’ room, it’s very important to maintain a constant room temperature for your young ones because a sudden drop in room temperature will make your babies’ immune system more vulnerable. 

Check for high fever

If you find the above methods fail to get your babies’ hands and feet warm or you sense something is amiss, check your baby’s body temperature.

Most experts recommend checking for rectal temperature because the rectum is near the body core to give you the most accurate reading. But it is very impractical to get a temperature reading from the bottom because most babies will wriggle all the time. Plus, it’s unsafe if not done by a steady hand.

I always use a digital thermometer to check the baby’s skin temperature. Admittedly its reading is slightly off compared with the rectal temperature reading. Still, it’s enough to give you an idea if your babies’ temperature is normal. Accuracy is not what I aim for in a situation like this; that’s why you need a specialist.

Conclusion

Your baby’s hands and feet tend to be cold in their first year because their bodies are not mature enough to regulate their temperature. Make sure they wear a layer more clothing than what’s warm enough for you and maintain a constant ideal room temperature.

Check for high fever and watch for signs that indicate a potential health problem. Contact your doctors right away if you think your babies’ condition warrants medical attention.

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