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Every day, an average of more than 500 children with bike-related injuries are treated in U.S. emergency departments, according to an analysis of injury data from 2006 to 2015. Those wearing helmets were significantly less likely to have head and neck injuries, the study found. And although children tend to wear helmets more consistently than adults, many still ride without one, according to research from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Along with advocating for safer, more bike-friendly streets, it’s important to choose a helmet that will help protect your child from injury in a fall or a crash. Here’s what you need to know about how to buy a bike helmet for a kid, experts say.
Find the right fit
When you’re choosing a helmet, focus primarily on ensuring the correct fit. “A poor fit will impact the protection a helmet can provide,” says Angela K. Lumba-Brown, a pediatric emergency medicine physician at Stanford Health Care in California and an expert on brain injury. “It can also make a helmet uncomfortable and therefore less likely to be used.”
The best way to find the right size is to take your child into a bike shop and have them try on helmets with a sales associate who’s familiar with the options, says Brad Bowman, product manager at Gregg’s Cycle, a chain of three bike shops in Washington state. If you choose to buy online, Lumba-Brown suggests measuring your child’s head with flexible measuring tape about an inch above the eyebrows before choosing a size.
Helmet sizes are measured by head circumference, and helmets usually come with adjustable dials to accommodate a range of circumferences. For example, a 3-to-5-year-old child might wear a helmet with a 50-to-52-centimeter (19 to 20 inches) circumference. Bowman suggests choosing one that fits snugly but also allows for a bit of growth.
Once a sales associate helps you identify the right-sized helmet, adjust the dial until the helmet feels tight but isn’t causing the child discomfort. “After you dial in the fit, if you pull up lightly on top of the helmet, it shouldn’t come off their head,” Bowman says. To further test fit, Lumba-Brown recommends having the child gently shake their head back and forth to determine whether it falls off without the chin strap in place.
Next, secure the chin strap. While the strap should be snug, you should be able to fit a few fingers between the child’s chin and the strap, Bowman says. Keep in mind that the chin strap’s function isn’t to keep the helmet on your child’s head while they ride, but to keep the helmet on if they happen to fall.
Balance features and price
Most helmets come equipped with a hard outer shell and shock-absorbing foam on the inside. Some helmets also contain a retention system designed to minimize rotational impact, a type of force that can lead to concussions.
You should also consider ventilation, one of the features that Consumer Reports assesses in our helmet testing. Good airflow can be especially helpful for older kids, Bowman says, because they may be more aerobic in their cycling exercise.
If you have younger, squirmy kids, ease of adjustability is critical. The dial on the back of the helmet should be large enough to grab and easily turn.
The kids’ helmets in the Consumer Reports ratings range in price from $20 to $90. But don’t get too hung up on price. All helmets sold in the United States have to meet standards set by the Consumer Product Safety Commission, says John Galeotafiore, associate director of product testing at Consumer Reports, so inexpensive or poorly-rated ones should still offer minimum levels of protection. Counterfeit helmets that don’t meet federal safety standards are sometimes available for sale online, however, CR has found. So consider buying from your local bike shop or a trusted online retailer, such as REI or Performance Bicycle.
Once you choose a helmet, keep an eye on how it fits over time. Bowman recommends replacing your child’s helmet when they grow out of it. You can tell a helmet is getting too small if you have a hard time getting it all the way on or if the helmet exposes the child’s entire forehead or is tilted backward. “You want the helmet to sit just above the eyebrows,” he says.
Helmets should always be replaced after an impact, even if you don’t see any visible damage. And if your child is older and not outgrowing helmets more quickly, they should still be replaced every five years because the protective foam can become brittle over time.
Encourage consistent use
As a rule, enforce helmet-wearing even when your child is riding on the sidewalk or in a driveway. “Bike injuries don’t just happen in a direct collision with a car,” Lumba-Brown says. “The child can get out of control when they make a quick turn.”
One of the best ways to help kids understand the importance of wearing a helmet is to wear one yourself, Lumba-Brown says. A CDC study published in 2016 found that 90 percent of children reported always wearing helmets when their parents always wore helmets, too — but that number dropped precipitously among kids whose parents didn’t wear helmets or wore them inconsistently.
It can also help to involve your child in the helmet-shopping process so they can choose a color or style they like, Bowman says. “Deferring to the child and what they’re excited about and what they will actually wear can be a really beneficial thing in getting them to use it,” he says.
Along with ensuring proper fit and habitual helmet-wearing, Galeotafiore says there’s one rule to follow when you’re gearing up for a bike ride: Don’t pinch your kid’s chin. “You want to make sure with any helmet, you never cause the buckle to pinch the skin,” he says. “Otherwise, they’re never going to want to wear the helmet ever again.”
Copyright 2022, Consumer Reports Inc.
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