You know the dangers kids face in summertime: sunburns, swimming pools, bike crash ‘n’ burns. But when the weather turns cold and freshly fallen snow beckons, you might forget that winter play harbors a few perils, too. Some tweens are beyond the innocent joys of snowman construction, but they’re not yet ready for heli-snowboarding. That leaves sledding: It’s fast, risky, and you can do it just about anywhere. It’s also a leading cause of snow-related injury in young children. Frostbite is another hazard, even in our mild climate.

The tween factor

So why are pre-adolescents prone to snow-related injuries? In a word: eagerness. “Kids that age have a risk of being so enthusiastic and engaged in what they are doing that they are not paying attention to what is happening to them,” says Dr. Tony Woodward, division chief of emergency medicine at Children’s Hospital and Regional Medical Center in Seattle. “And if they’re not properly supervised or dressed, they run a risk of getting cold and sometimes getting hurt.” In fact, the National Safety Council estimates emergency rooms see 33,000 sledding injuries per year. The majority of those are suffered by kids between 5 and 9 years old.

Oddly enough, the Northwest’s lack of lowland snowfall can lead to more injuries, not fewer. “Sledding around here is a rare activity,” says Dr. Woodward. “It doesn’t happen every day, so kids are so excited to do it and they are taking a lot of liberties, and sometimes that puts them in dangerous situations.” Inexperienced sledders on old, untested equipment can lead to emergency room visits. Parents should check that 40-year-old Flexible Flyer before dispatching their kids down an 8 percent grade on it. Look for loose rails, faulty steering and missing parts. Be sure to familiarize your child with the sled so she knows how to steer, and, more importantly, how to stop. Experts recommend a steerable wooden sled with flexible metal runners for children ages 6 to 10. Snow disks, inner tubes, flattened refrigerator boxes and garbage can lids are not recommended because they are impossible to control.

A test run

Once you have your sled ready, it’s time to check the run itself. Street sledding is extremely dangerous; in fact, it’s illegal in Seattle and many other local cities. Where it is legal, it requires constant vigilance by a team of parents (not just one), and cars are a constant threat. A bucolic park setting seems an ideal place to sled, but beware of dangers such as hidden logs, rocks, streams, ditches and drop-offs. When sledding, the proper position on a sled is sitting, with feet facing forward. A head-first position can lead to serious head and neck injuries; these two parts of the body are hurt most often in sledding accidents.  

Whether on the street or in the park, parents should first walk the course with their child, looking for hazards, keeping in mind that a blanket of snow can make boulders and fire hydrants appear harmless. And while toddlers’ sled runs are generally short and within view of parents, older children can travel farther than expected. If the sled and child careen off course, the best way to stop is to roll off the sled. 

Ice, ice baby

Of course, with snow comes cold and wet weather. Frostbite (and its precursor, frostnip) is not uncommon in near-freezing temperatures. Dad may tempt cardiac arrest shoveling the walkway, but at least he knows what numb fingers can mean. Children are too busy playing in the snow to worry about exposure. As with sledding, parental vigilance is vital. Examine your children at least once an hour while outside; redness or whiteness of the skin, particularly the ears, nose and fingers, is a potential sign of frostnip or frostbite. Dr. Woodward says most cases are treatable at home by applying a warm washcloth to the affected area (do not rub). If the discoloration lessens after 15-20 minutes, you can probably stay home. If not, a hospital visit is in order.  

Of course, proper clothing greatly diminishes the onset of frozen skin. A layered approach works best. A superior base garment is long underwear, made of polypropylene or other synthetic fiber (not cotton, which retains moisture). Follow that with an insulating middle layer such as fleece, and top it off with a waterproof coat. Of course, thick gloves and a stocking cap are mandatory, as are sturdy boots to keep toes warm.

If it’s daytime, consider one more protective element before heading out into the deep, deep snow. “One injury people might not think about in the winter is sunburn,” says Dr. Woodward. “The sun is pretty bright in the winter and if you don’t have good sunscreen on your face or lip balm you’ll end up with sunburn.”

Derek Blaylock lives in Seattle with his wife and two young sons.

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