Parents may overlook injury risks of sledding and winter sports

University of Michigan

Injuries from winter activities aren’t uncommon, yet many parents don’t consistently make kids wear helmets or discuss safety ahead of time.

  • Author
    Beata Mostafavi

children running in woods with sleds behind them in green red and blue
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Snow days bring many families to ski slopes and sledding hills for winter fun, but they may also come with injury risks for kids.

And parents may not always consider these risks, a new national poll suggests.

Just three-quarters of parents say their child consistently wears a helmet when downhill skiing or snowboarding, and two in three parents report their child never wears a helmet sledding, according to the University of Michigan Health C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital National Poll on Children’s Health.

Parents are also less likely to talk to their child about safety rules when sledding compared to other winter activities.

“Activities like sledding and skiing offer families an exciting way to enjoy the winter months outdoors,” said Mott Poll co-director Sarah Clark, M.P.H. “But parents are responsible for taking the right steps to minimize injury risks for their children.”

The poll report was based on responses from 1,992 parents with at least one child aged 3-18 in October, 2021.

Many parents overlook sledding risks

Three-quarters of parents polled say their child will experience winter weather, either living in a place that has frequent or occasional cold and snow or when visiting cold-weather places. And sledding was the most common winter activity these parents expected their child to participate in.

But sledding injuries, such as fractures, strains, and sprains, aren’t uncommon, with 220,488 patients treated in U.S. emergency departments for sledding-related injuries between 2008 through 2017. Nearly 70% of these patients were children ages 19 years and younger.

Several severe sledding accidents have also been in the news over recent years.

SEE ALSO: Sledding Safety: The Risks Inherent to Sledding and How to Limit Them

Still, some parents may not consider sledding as dangerous as other winter sports, Clark says. Just one in six parents polled discussed safety rules about sleding with their kids, such as how to avoid collisions and getting off the sled safely at the bottom of the hill.

“Because sledding is so common, parents may overlook important safety concerns,” Clark said. “However, to avoid injuries, parents should ensure the sledding area is free of trees or other objects and has a flat runoff area at the bottom of the hill. Parents should also make sure children understand strategies to avoid collisions with other sledders.”

Head injuries are the biggest concern if a child falls or collides with another sledder or object. Although only a third of parents report their child wears a helmet when sledding, this may increase over time, Clark notes, similar to the increase in helmet use when skiing. Currently, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that parents consider having their child wear a helmet when sledding.

“Activities like sledding and skiing offer families an exciting way to enjoy the winter months outdoors … but parents are responsible for taking the right steps to minimize injury risks for their children.”
Sarah Clark, M.P.H.

Fewer parents polled expect their child will participate in downhill skiing, snowboarding or snowmobiling. Most of those who did say their child wears a helmet when snowmobiling (83% at all times, 10% some of the time) and downhill skiing or snowboarding (73% at all times, 12% some of the time.)

Among parents of younger children ages three to nine, nearly all say their child always has adult supervision when snowmobiling, downhill skiing or snowboarding but less often for sledding.

For older children ages 10-18, parents report more supervision for snowmobiling compared to downhill skiing or snowboarding.

“Very young children need supervision at all times during winter sports activities, either from a parent or another trusted adult,” Clark said. “This allows parents to ensure children are following safety rules, and to decide to leave if the area is getting too crowded or if other people are acting unsafely.”

With older children, parents need to use their judgment on whether the child is mature enough to practice safety strategies, Clark notes. If children do not have adult supervision on site, parents should ensure children have a cell phone and that a parent will be available to respond quickly should there be an injury or other emergency.

helmets and winter sports percent of parents reporting child helmet use during outdoor winter activities. snowmobiling skiing/snowboarding always sometimes never 83% 10% 5% 73% 12% 14%
C.S. Mott Children’s Children’s Hospital

More winter sports safety guidelines from the pediatric trauma injury prevention program at Mott:

Sledding, Skiing and Snowboarding Tips

  • Thoroughly check your surroundings to make sure the sledding hill is free of collision risks, such as light posts, trees or rocks.

  • Parents should not allow children to sled where the hill ends in a street, parking lot, pond or fence or without adequate runoff space that allows the child to slow down and get off the sled.

  • For younger children, parents should both describe and demonstrate the process for getting up the hill, ways to avoid collisions and for quickly moving to the side once they are at the bottom of the hill. They should also talk about what do in the event of a fall.

  • Children should never ride a sled that is being pulled by a motorized vehicle, including all-terrain vehicles, snowmobiles, tractors and dirt bikes.

  • Choose sledding hills that are snowy rather than icy, which can cause sleds to spin out or overturn. The steepness of the hill should also be appropriate for the child’s age and experience.

  • Sled during the daytime or in well-lit areas at night so hazards are visible.

  • Children should wear a fitted winter sport helmet or at least wear a bike helmet. Remember, sledding is often just as fast as or faster than riding a bike. Make sure heads are protected.

  • Kids shouldn’t race each other or lie on top of each other or parents while sledding.

  • Avoid scarves, accessories or loose clothing that could get caught in a sled or pose choking hazards.

  • Always supervise younger children.

  • Older children allowed to go sledding, skiing or snowboarding with other children should have a cell phone and one of the parents should be available to respond in case of an injury.

  • For downhill skiing or snowboarding, parents may consider enlisting the help of ski facility personnel to ensure their child’s helmet, boots and other equipment are the correct size and worn correctly.

Snowmobile Safety

  • An adult over age 21 must actively supervise anyone under the age of 16 on a snowmobile.

  • Drivers under 16 years old must take the appropriate safety training course and carry their certificate with them at all times. Learn more about online snowmobile safety courses.

  • Whether children are snowmobile drivers or passengers, they should always wear appropriate safety gear, including goggles and helmets that meet motorcycling requirements.

  • A snowmobile should never pull people or anything behind the vehicle.

  • Check the weather forecast and the trail conditions, travel at safe speeds, and have adult supervision.

  • Stay alert. Watch for obstacles such as fallen trees, rocks, ditches, fences, open water (even if frozen.)

Get more winter safety tips from Mott.

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