Use your head on the slopes

Or at least cover it—with a helmet designed for winter sports


Cindy Richards and Lenna Silberman Scott


The snow has fallen, the kids are eager to hit the local sledding hill. You hand them coats, snow pants, scarves, gloves and helmets. OK, maybe you don’t hand your kid a helmet. But according to safety experts, you should.

Every year, too many kids sustain preventable head injuries while sledding, skiing, snowboarding and ice skating.

The American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons recommends kids wear helmets while sledding to prevent the more than 8,000 sledding-related head injuries incurred by children each year. The Consumer Product Safety Commission predicted in a 1999 report that if kids under 15 wore helmets while skiing and snowboarding, it would prevent or reduce the severity of 2,600 head injuries annually.

Meanwhile, a study published in the July 2004 issue of Pediatrics, the journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics, found that ice skaters are at greater risk of head injury than roller bladers, even though roller bladers are more likely to wear helmets.

And it’s not just that one hit a child may take. Medical literature on the effect of repeated minor concussions in children makes the case for protective head gear even stronger. “When you build one head injury on top of another it might have impact on memory and learning performance in the long term,” says Dr. Karen Sheehan, medical director of the Injury Prevention and Research Center at Children’s Memorial Hospital and mom of a 5-year-old.

So, the bottom line is clear: Kids should wear helmets. The problem, as always, is in the details—specifically, how do you convince your child to wear a helmet? 

The other kids don’t Kids don’t want to be different, so it can be tough convincing your child to put on a helmet when no one else is wearing one. Try and find a sledder, ice skater or snowboarder wearing a helmet.

But that’s starting to change, says the Snowsports Industry of America, the trade association of ski and snowboard manufacturers. The number of winter sport helmets sold grows each year. Between 2002 and 2003 more than 637,000 winter helmets were sold.

That’s up 100,000 from a year earlier, although it’s still a far cry from the 12 to 15 million bike helmets that the Bike Helmet Safety Institute estimates are sold each year.

And the National Ski Areas Association recommends skiers and snowboarders use helmets designed for winter sports, rather than having a bike helmet serve double duty. That means choosing a helmet that covers the back of the head, is insulated for warmth and designed with a hard outer shell and inner liner to withstand multiple impacts, according to the assocation’s Web site,

It also means choosing a helmet that has passed a safety test by either the Consumer Products Safety Commission, American Society of Testing Materials, Snell Memorial Foundation or the American National Standards Institute.

Dr. Cynthia LaBella, director of sports medicine at Children’s Memorial Hospital, agrees that sport-specific helmets are safer. “We’ve come a long way with respect to preventive equipment. Having a helmet that fits properly and is designed for the right sport is pretty effective at reducing injuries.”  

But no helmet is more effective at injury prevention than a watchful parent, LaBella notes. “Make sure the slope doesn’t end in a tree, road, river, light post or other obstacle.”

Parents have another role to play—that of a good role model, says Sheehan: “The best way to get kids to wear helmets is for parents to wear them. Establish a family rule.”

Sheehan and LaBella agree that it is easier to establish behaviors when children are younger. “If you get your kids wearing them when they are young, they keep wearing them,” says Sheehan. Both doctors also suggest incentives for wearing helmets can help with older kids.

No excuses “It only takes one fall, or getting hit once to cause permanent, severe damage, and you never know when that might happen. You don’t have control of others,” says Josh Willey, spokesman for,, a Web site that promotes safety awareness among snow sports enthusiasts and encourages the use of helmets for skiing and snowboarding.

The Web site dispels some common excuses used by both kids and adults to avoid helmets:

n My hat doesn’t fit with my helmet. Ski helmets have liners that are warmer than any hat, so hats are unnecessary.

n It’s not cool. Helmets come in a variety of shapes, styles and colors. And all the best skiers, snowboarders and racers are wearing helmets these days. “Just watch the X-games or sports on TV, some of the guys doing the most amazing aerial stuff, they’re all wearing helmets,” Willey says.

n I’m a beginner and going only on small hills. Beginners ski, snowboard and sled where there are many other beginners—so they are more likely to lose control or forget how to stop before running into someone else.

n I’ve never had a problem before. “The risk of head injury is just as high for experts as it is for beginners. The reality is, accidents can and do happen regardless of age and ability,” the site says. 

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