Though most states require kids to wear a helmet when they ride a bike, it falls to parents to enforce this rule and to apply it to any sport in which kids—even little kids—can reach a high speed. "A good rule of thumb is if your child is on anything with wheels, he or she should wear a helmet," says Cheryl Wu, M.D., a pediatrician in New York City. This means mandatory helmet-wearing while riding a scooter, skateboard, bicycle, tricycle, or rollerblades.
The fit of the helmet is critical: A well-fitted helmet sits just above the eyebrows and the fastening straps create a V-shape that surrounds the ears and then is fastened under the chin, says Lisa Pardi, R.N., M.S.N., injury prevention coordinator for Akron Children's Hospital in Ohio. "It should be snug enough that it will not rock back and forth on the child's head. Use the pads provided with the helmet to snug it up and try tightening the chin strap," she says. To test the fit, have the child shake his head back and forth, suggests Tracey Fejt, R.N., injury prevention coordinator at Cardon Children's Medical Center in Mesa, Arizona. "The helmet should not move, and you should be able to get just one finger between the child's chin and the strap," Fejt says.
Final check: Make sure the helmet sports an American Standards Testing Materials (ASTM) label. This indicates that the helmet has been tested and suits Consumer Product Safety Commission standards for safety.
Start a new tradition: Visit your child's pediatrician just as winter gives way to spring. This way your child's health-care provider can examine your child's bones and joints, check her heart rate and pulse, and test her reflexes to pick up on any problems that may put her at risk of injury, suggests Keith Gorse, Ed.D., a clinical coordinator and instructor in the undergraduate athletic training program at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh.
After a long winter, playgrounds can look a bit worn. And this isn't just an aesthetic issue. Safety is at stake, especially underneath the slide area, which is the one place where the 'landing' cushioning lessens over time. "If it looks like there's a dip underneath a slide or if there's a hole because the gravel or sand is gone, urge your child to skip it," says Susan Cooper, M.Ed., a child safety expert in Orange, California. "Your child can hurt her tailbone or even break her arm if she goes down head first."
How much padding is enough? According to the Consumer Product Safety Commission, there should be at least 9 inches of wood chips, mulch, or shredded rubber, sand, or pea gravel that extends 6 feet in all directions from play equipment. For swings, be sure surfacing extends, in back and front, twice the height of the suspending bar, says Lisa Pardi.
Just because the sun isn't at its summery brightest, there's no reason to forgo applying sunscreen of SPF 30 or higher. "Most spring sports and activities take place outdoors, usually during the hottest time of the day," Dr. Wu says. "That's why it's extra important to apply sunscreen and reapply it as well, especially if you're spending all day basking in the sunshine." Use a sunscreen that protects against UVA and UVB rays, and reapply after 30 minutes.
As tempting as it is for your kids to hop aboard that old red wagon and pull each other around the backyard, steer your little ones away from this activity until you check its safety. "Wagons can be dangerous when one kid pulls another in it," Dr. Cooper says. "They can easily tip over and cause injuries—they're like a skateboard out of control." In fact, any equipment that's being pulled out of storage should be checked for stability and to make sure it's in good working order before anybody uses it.
With a rush back outdoors, it's often easy to forget to drink water. Provide your child with water plus a banana to balance electrolytes, suggests Dr. Wu. That's a better option than a sports drink, which often contains a lot of sugar, she says. Keep in mind that symptoms of dehydration include dizziness, headache, nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain, muscle cramps, and lethargy.
How much water is enough? That depends on your child's age, size, and activity level and what the temperature is outside, says Karen Judy, M.D., pediatric program director and vice chair of education at Loyola University Medical Center in Chicago. Basically, parents can tell whether their children are getting enough fluids if the youngsters are urinating at least four to six times per day, and the urine is clear and pale yellow, she says.
If your older kids are starting to do peewee football or baseball, get them mouth guards, especially since the Academy of General Dentistry estimates that wearing mouth guards prevents more than 200,000 injuries a year. Your options: an off-the-shelf mouth guard, a mouth-formed protector, or a custom-made one.
Don't forget the other parts of the body that might need protecting depending upon the sport. If your child is just discovering the fun of doing wheeled activities like skating, wheelies, and skateboarding, for instance, it's important to protect his or her wrists. "There's a high risk of the child's falling onto his outstretched hand," says Greg Canty, M.D., medical director for the Center for Sports Medicine at Children's Mercy Hospitals and Clinics in Kansas City, Missouri. "Wrist guards may also help prevent a broken arm and ensure a spring that's filled with fun without a cast."
Shin guards and appropriate footwear are particularly important for small soccer players. Make sure the guards cover the entire shin and that shoes with cleats don't pinch.
As soon as your child is old enough to articulate his or her pain threshold, encourage her to 'listen to her body.' Pain isn't something a child should push through, says Dr. Wu. "When something starts to hurt, it's the body telling us that something isn't right and a young athlete should point out any pain to her coach and parent," she says. "A lot of times it's just lack of stretching, overuse, or cramping. But sometimes the pain can be caused by a sprain, an inflammation, or even a stress fracture."
During the warm weather, dress your children in light, loose-fitting clothes to help them stay cool as the day (or sport) heats up. Layers are always a good idea. And encourage your kids to take advantage of shaded areas whenever possible.
Be aware that children are more prone to getting overheated than adults, says Dr. Judy, pediatric program director at Loyola. Signs include weakness, fatigue, headache, nausea, vomiting, pale skin, dizziness, impaired judgment, cramps, fever, and sweating. If heatstroke progresses, the child may be confused, drowsy, or combative, she says.
"Seek medical care immediately if you have any concerns about a heat-related illness," says Dr. Canty.
In addition to helmets and protective padding, consider protective eyewear for your children, says Scott Lambert, M.D., professor of ophthalmology at Emory University and member of the advisory council for the Pediatric Cataract Initiative. Here's why: Trauma to the eye may cause minor temporary injuries but can also lead to long-term vision problems including bleeding in the eye, cataracts, or, in some cases, blindness. "Tennis balls, baseballs, and basketballs aren't the only dangers to eyes," he says. "Pokes and jabs from other athletes may also lead to eye injuries."
If your child wears glasses, remember that traditional glasses and sunglasses don't provide sufficient protection. Lenses can break and cause shards of debris to fly into a child's eye. Protective eyewear is available with or without a prescription in a variety of styles and sizes.
It's not being a pushy parent to confirm that any adults who are watching your children or in charge of sports activities—whether babysitters, coaches, or teachers—are schooled in first aid and CPR. If your children participate on sports teams, make sure their coach warms them up before practice and has them cool down and stretch afterward. And if temperatures get high in your area, ask the coach about policies regarding practicing in the heat.