The Long and the Cold of It Some Common-sense Tips to Keeping Children Safe During Winter

Every child has the right to feel protected and safe, and it is everyone’s job, whether on their own initiative or through teaching youngsters the basics of safety, to help minimize their risk of harm.

As the weather turns freezing cold and the snow begins to fly and accumulate on surfaces, the number of childhood injuries begins to increase in emergency departments across Western Mass. Children are more vulnerable to injury during the winter months when playing outdoors, from frostbite to a host of sports-related injuries.

When sleds, toboggans, snowboards, skis, and snowmobiles come into play in the winter, so do injuries, especially to the head. According to the National Pediatric Trauma Registry, nearly 50{06cf2b9696b159f874511d23dbc893eb1ac83014175ed30550cfff22781411e5} of winter sports activities carry some risk of head-related trauma. Other common injuries when enjoying a little outdoor fun include fractures, bruises, and abrasions, as well as cuts and sprains.

However, with a healthy dose of planning and supervision when it comes to winter-related injuries, parents can help keep their children safe and warm when venturing out into a winter wonderland of health and safety risks.

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends that you begin by setting reasonable time limits for children on outdoor play to prevent hypothermia and frostbite. Also, make sure you have them come indoors periodically to warm up. And when it comes to wintertime play, don’t forget the importance of helmets. Traumatic brain injury is the leading cause of death and disability in children and young adults. Helmets can reduce head injuries by 50{06cf2b9696b159f874511d23dbc893eb1ac83014175ed30550cfff22781411e5}, especially in skiing and snowboarding sports. Also, consider having your children wear a protective helmet when skating, sledding, and snowmobiling.

Thin ice is another potentially lethal environmental hazard, especially in a warm winter such as we are currently having in Western Mass. Children should be warned never to go out on the ice unless they are with an adult who is sure that the ice is safe. In addition, children should be warned against the temptation to go onto the ice in an attempt to rescue a pet or even another person — such attempts usually lead to multiple victims rather than a successful rescue. If a shore-based rescue is not feasible, then it is best to call 911 and wait for qualified help to arrive.

The AAP has established some clear guidelines for parents to be smart when it comes to protecting their children from the elements and other associated risks of winter:

What to Wear

Dress infants and children warmly for outdoor activities. Several thin layers will keep them dry and warm. Don’t forget warm boots, gloves or mittens, and a hat. The rule of thumb for older babies and young children is to dress them in one more layer of clothing than adults would wear in the same conditions. Also, avoid dressing children in winter clothing with drawstrings, which can pose a strangulation hazard. And make sure scarves are tucked inside the child’s coat to prevent accidental choking.


Hypothermia develops when a child’s temperature falls below normal due to exposure to colder temperatures. It often happens when a youngster is playing outdoors in extremely cold weather without wearing proper clothing, or when clothes get wet. As hypothermia sets in, the child may shiver and become lethargic and clumsy. Speech may become slurred, and body temperature will decline in more-severe cases. If you suspect your child is hypothermic, call 911 at once. Until help arrives, take the child indoors, remove any wet clothing, and wrap him or her in blankets or warm clothes.


Frostbite occurs when the skin and outer tissues become frozen. This condition tends to happen on extremities such as the fingers, toes, ears, and nose. They may become pale, gray, and blistered. At the same time, the child may complain that his or her skin burns or has become numb. If frostbite occurs, bring the child indoors and place the frostbitten parts of the body in warm (not hot) water. A temperature of 104 degrees Fahrenheit, about the temperature of most hot tubs, is recommended.

Warm washcloths may be applied to a frostbitten nose, ears, and lips. Do not rub the frozen areas. After a few minutes, dry and cover the child with clothing or blankets, then give them something warm to drink. If the numbness continues for more than a few minutes, call your doctor.


Sleds should be structurally sound and free of sharp edges and splinters, and the steering mechanism should be well-lubricated. Be sure to use steerable sleds, not snow discs or innertubes. Also, slopes should be free of obstructions such as trees or fences, be covered in snow, not ice, not be too steep, and end with a flat runoff. Children should sled feet first or sitting up, not lying down head first, so as to help prevent head injuries. Keep your sledders away from motor vehicles and crowded areas, and supervise them while they are sledding.

Skiing and Snowboarding

Children should be taught to ski or snowboard by a qualified instructor in a program designed for children. Never let them ski or snowboard alone.Young children should always be supervised by an adult. Older children’s need for adult supervision depends on their maturity and skill. If older children are not with an adult, they should always be accompanied by a friend. Equipment should fit the child properly, and skiers should wear safety bindings that are adjusted at least every year. Snowboarders should wear gloves with built-in guards. Eye protection or goggles should also be used.


The AAP recommends that children under age 16 not operate snowmobiles and that children under age 6 never ride on them. Goggles and a safety helmet approved for use on motor vehicles should be worn.

Also, around the home outdoors, clean gutters and roofs (and don’t forget the awnings, too) of heavy snow and icicles that could fall down and injure a child or anyone else. And keep driveways and walkways cleared of ice and snow to prevent slipping hazards.

A Few More Tips

Additional household safety tips include:

  • Keep children away from open flames associated with candles and kerosene lamps, and place them out of their reach.
  • Never place a space heater in a child’s room.
  • Install carbon-monoxide detectors in your home to help protect you and your children from dangerous fumes associated with fireplaces, gas heaters, and other non-electric heating sources.
  • Install fire alarms and practice family fire drills so everyone knows how to escape safely from a burning home.
  • And, while it may sound funny, don’t forget to apply sunscreen on your child’s exposed skin. The sun’s rays can still cause sunburn in the winter, especially when they reflect off snow.

Ida Konderwicz, RN is pediatric trauma coordinator at Baystate Children’s Hospital. Dr. Richard Gabor is chief of the Pediatric Emergency Medicine Department at Baystate Medical Center.