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Sunlight for babies: what the US Department of Labor used to recommend

Posted on: May 18, 2012   by  John Cannell, MD


Times certainly change. In 1931, the U.S. Department of Labor published a pamphlet entitled, “Sunlight for Babies.” The pamphlet reports, “Every mother who wishes her baby to have robust health should give him regular sun baths from early infancy until he is old enough to play in the sun himself.” It adds, “If the sun’s rays are to help the baby grow properly and to prevent rickets, they must fall directly on the skin and tan it.”

Can you imagine showing up to a government office today with a tanned baby?

As times changed, so did recommendations for us all, to the point that the following paper opines that a tan is considered evidence of skin damage and should be avoided, written by our old friend, Dr. Barbara Gilchrest.

Gilchrest BA, Eller MS. DNA photodamage stimulates melanogenesis and other photoprotective responses. J Investig Dermatol Symp Proc. 1999 Sep;4(1):35-40. Review.

If you remember, Dr. Gilchrest was the one who fired Michael Holick from the dermatology department after he wrote a book suggesting that a little sunlight was good for you. I have lambasted her before.

In contrast, the pamphlet advises that mothers slowly “Lengthen the sun baths gradually until it lasts 1 to 2 hours.”

It adds a piece of advice I thought was discovered recently by Professor Bruce Hollis and that is, “If a nursing mother gets plenty of sunshine her milk will help protect the baby from rickets. . .” Contrast that to modern breastfeeding, where most breast milk contains little or no vitamin D because the mothers have all read the dermatologist’s warnings about sunlight.

Mølgaard C, Michaelsen KF. Vitamin D and bone health in early life. Proc Nutr Soc. 2003 Nov;62(4):823-8. Review.

In the 1931 pamphlet, the U.S. government also warned mothers, “Older children, as well as babies, need plenty of sunlight.” Can you imagine saying that at a PTA meeting, where the discussions too often center on the latest contraption in the schoolyard designed to do just the opposite, prevent sunlight from striking our children’s skin.

AMAThe advice in this pamphlet was written well before the current childhood epidemics of asthma, autism, and autoimmune disorders. Could it be so simple? Could forgetting what our mothers told us have caused so much suffering and death? As moms used to say, “Fresh air and sunshine is what children need to thrive.”

If that is so, then the word “iatrogenic” (caused by doctors) may be appropriate when we discuss the three “A” childhood epidemics. The fact is, when the Council on Scientific Affairs of the American Medical Association (AMA) first warned us about sunshine, they simply forgot to say, “Oh yes, remember to give your children extra vitamin D for what they will no longer be making from the sunshine.”

If the AMA had only done that then there would be no need for studies like the recent one, which found that states where a high percentage of mothers exclusively breastfed their children were states with a high incidence of autism. After analyzing several additional pieces of data, the paper concluded that vitamin D might be related to the autism epidemic.

Shamberger RJ. Autism rates associated with nutrition and the WIC program. J Am Coll Nutr. 2011 Oct;30(5):348-53.

4 Responses to Sunlight for babies: what the US Department of Labor used to recommend

  1. Wight

    You can get the 1931 pamphlet here, as a PDF file , http://tinyurl.com/6ofs445

    • Brant Cebulla

      Thanks Wight!

  2. [email protected]

    In late 1980 my gyneacologist recommended regular sun exposure for me to ensure health while I was pregnant so there were some out there that recognised the importance of the sun to health….just a shame things went to pot in the years since.

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