Don’t send your little Tiger, Eagle or Ladybug off to the playing field this fall without the proper safety equipment. That advice goes for your teenaged athletes, too.
But being properly prepared for fall sports season isn’t just about buying a new set of shin guards or cleats. It’s also about making sure your child is physically ready and able to play his or her chosen sport.
“There’s a sport or activity or level of fitness for every child,” says Dr. Theodore Ganley, director of sports medicine at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine. “But not every sport is for every child.”
Here are five steps to follow to ensure your child is playing it safe:
Get your child checked out first.
About 4 to 6 weeks before the sport season begins, take your child to his primary care provider for a pre-participation physical evaluation. The doctor will take a family history, ask about pre-existing conditions, previous injuries or surgeries, and look for any potential problems that might preclude a child from playing a particular sport.
“That pre-participation exam is very important,” notes Kate Carr, president and CEO of the nonprofit coalition Safe Kids Worldwide. “They’re looking at medical conditions that could be ruled out.”
Use the appropriate equipment.
Check with your child’s coaches or whatever organization is overseeing the sport to determine what safety equipment is required.
“Unfortunately, there’s not a magic brace,” says Ganley, who admits to not having one manufacturer or item that will prevent all injuries.
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Using the proper equipment appropriately is still very important, and the equipment must be in good condition (i.e. toss the battered old football helmet and get a new one ). Parents may soon get help deciphering which products are best thanks to a bill introduced in Congress in May. The House of Representatives is currently considering legislation called the Youth Sports Concussion Act of 2013 to ensure that the latest scientific research is used to inform product safety standards for children’s athletic safety gear and to discourage manufacturers from using misleading claims. (Read the full bill text here.)
And don’t forget to encourage your child to take other preventive steps, such as drinking plenty of water before, during and after playing sports.
Take time off.
The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) strongly encourages parents to make their child take at least one day off per week from a sport to give the body time to recover.
If your child is playing the same sport year-round, it’s time to reconsider. The AAP also discourages year-round participation in one specific sport, recommending instead that children take 2 to 3 months off per year.
Why recovery time is so important: young bones are especially vulnerable to stress, so kids are prone to overuse injuries—that is, damage to a muscle, tendon, ligament or bone that’s caused when the body doesn’t get enough time to rest and recover. Plus, there’s the issue of emotional fatigue; kids may be more likely to burn out on a sport if they never get any time off.
“Kids need a break from the routine of the same sport,” says Carr.
RELATED: The 5 Most Dangerous Youth Sports
Seek care for injuries.
Despite our best efforts to protect our kids, injuries do happen. Sprains and strains account for 451,000 emergency department (ED) visits each year, according to a 2013 data analysis by Safe Kids Worldwide. And every three minutes, a child is examined in the ED for a sports-related concussion.
If your child is injured, don’t blow it off, especially if it’s a head injury. The latest research on concussions emphasizes the need for time to fully recover because they are, in fact, traumatic brain injuries.
“In the old days, you ‘got your bell rung,’” Ganley says. “Now we recognize the features of concussion and the importance of following the guidelines. It’s not an area where you want to cut corners.”
Take time to recover fully.
Some kids can’t wait to get back on the playing field (or court, track or ice) after an injury. But it’s important to make sure they’re really ready to return to playing. Otherwise, they could reinjure themselves—possibly seriously—because they haven’t really given themselves time to fully heal. Parents and coaches also need to make sure they’re not intentionally or unintentionally pressuring a child to return to the sport too early.
“Kids will learn that it’s okay to sit out—in fact, it’s better to sit out if you’re injured,” says Carr.