This winter, an estimated 60,000 kids ages 5 to 14 will visit the emergency room with injuries from winter sports. The right equipment can help keep your child out of the hospital, but don't forget the basic precautions: dressing in layers, staying hydrated, having adult supervision and getting proper training.
No matter what the sport is, it's important to wear sunscreen (even in subzero weather), drink plenty of water and dress for changing weather conditions. If your child '- or you '- becomes distracted or irritable, or begins to hyperventilate, it may be a sign of hypothermia or altitude sickness. It may also mean she's too tired to participate safely in strenuous activities. Either way, send her indoors to rest and warm up. Follow our sports-specific advice to stay safe whether you're hitting the slopes or on the ice.
Skiing: Helmets are a must for skiing, and a bike helmet won't do the job. Buy or rent a ski helmet '- look for a seal of approval from the Snell Memorial Foundation or the American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM International) '- and have an expert fit it correctly. Many ski resorts require helmets for kids under 16, but it's important for adults to gear up too. According to a Safe Kids Worldwide study, kids really do learn safety habits by watching adult role models. "Do as I say, not as I do" is not an effective way to teach safety. "Practice what you preach" is.
First-time skiers should take lessons from an accredited instructor and should master an easy slope before trying a more advanced one. Of course, pay attention to posted warnings and obey the safety rules of the ski area.
Sledding: The American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons recommends bike helmets for kids under 12. Teach kids to sit upright on a sled and face forward: Think bobsled, not luge. Inspect the hill first to make sure there are no hidden obstacles and that the foot of the hill would not lead sledders into traffic, water or crowds. Also inspect the sled for worn, damaged or loose parts, which could cause a problem at the worst possible moment. And although this may seem like common sense, never tow an occupied sled with a motor vehicle! The rider could fall off at high speed or be overcome by carbon monoxide fumes.
Ice Skating: Helmets for ice skating are up for debate among safety experts, but keep in mind that beginners are likely to fall down a lot. For hockey, of course, it's essential to wear a helmet and protective padding for the knees, elbows, shoulders, shins and mouth.
Before skating outdoors on a pond or lake, check with the local recreation department or park authority to make sure the ice is safe. Even if it is, teach your kids what to do if they fall through the ice. They should stretch their arms out wide and kick like they're swimming. That will keep them afloat as they call for help and try to crawl backward onto solid ice.
Snowmobiling: Everyone on a snowmobile should be wearing a helmet specifically designed for high-speed motor sports '- not a bike helmet, since snowmobiles can go up to 90 miles per hour. Safe Kids recommends that no one under 6 be allowed on a snowmobile and that no one under 16 drive one. As with skiing or sledding, stick to designated, patrolled areas or scout out the terrain ahead of time.
Snowboarding: This fast-growing sport is the leading cause of serious winter sports injuries among kids ages 5 to 14. Kids should wear snowboarding helmets as well as wrist, knee and ankle protection. With images of extreme tricks and aerial stunts on TV and in magazines, make sure your kids are realistic about what they can do or could try to do. It's especially important to start with lessons, stay within skill levels and stick to supervised facilities.
You know your own kids better than any experts do. It's up to you to decide whether your child has the maturity and judgment to participate safely in a sport. For more information to help you make that call, visit usa.safekids.org.
Marisa Peacock is a spokeswoman for Safe Kids Worldwide on sports and recreation safety.