By Margot Gilman
Kids who don't use or wear protective equipment are obviously more at risk for sports injuries (a huge problem, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics, with 3.5 million children sidelined due to injury each year). But failure to wear the right body armor isn't the only thing that could send your little athlete to the hospital. Keep clicking to discover seven other things that raise the odds of your child getting hurt playing sports. Photo by Thinkstock
1. Your child is a one-sport wonder.
With younger and younger kids becoming involved in team sports-soccer teams for three-year-olds and travel teams for seven-year-olds aren't uncommon-more who show early promise are being encouraged to perfect their skills by playing that single sport year round. But according to an ongoing study at Loyola University's Health System, kids who train more than 75% of the time in one sport have double the rate of injury, including serious stuff like spinal stress fractures, compared to those who don't specialize. Why? "The repetitive movements cause stress to the growing body," says Neeru Jayanthi, MD, the medical director of primary care sports medicine at Loyola and senior author of the study, adding that the risk is particularly high in younger kids. He recommends parents introduce their children to a variety of sports at a young age, but delay specialization until late adolescence.
2. Your child gets too little sleep.
You already know that kids who don't get enough ZZZs don't perform well in school. But according to a new study currently under review at the Journal of Pediatrics, adolescents who get eight hours or more of shuteye each night are 68% less likely to get injured than athletes who rest less. "Lack of sleep has been shown to affect motor function, mood and cognitive function, all of which could influence a young athlete's performance," says study author Matthew D. Milewski, MD. For safety's sake, see that your sporty kids sleep eight hours or more a night, he says.
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3. Your child's team, or their opponents, don't always play by the rules.
Whether it's an accidental elbow to the ribs in basketball or a pitcher intentionally aiming a ball at a batter, the more often game rules are broken, the greater the risk of injury. Researchers at Nationwide Children's Hospital's Center for Injury Research and Policy recently analyzed data from the National High School Sport-Related Injury Surveillance Study and found that about 6% of injuries in nine sports are related to activity that's not supposed to occur. The rate's even higher in girls' basketball and girls' and boys' soccer. As a parent, insist of your children's coaches that the rules be enforced, and that the kids are educated about the dangers of foul play.
4. Your child's school doesn't have a certified athletic trainer.
Nearly 50% of high school athletic departments employ someone to provide medical assistance to players at practices and games and advise on the proper use of safety equipment and weather and field conditions. And they're finding that trainers don't just treat injuries; they also prevent them. According to a study presented at the American Academy of Pediatrics National Conference last year, overall injury rates were 1.7 times higher among soccer players and 1.2 times higher among basketball players in schools without athletic trainers. "If there's no budget for a trainer, find a physician or trainer to volunteer to cover a few events at school," suggests study author Cynthia R. LaBella, MD.
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5. Your child doesn't play enough sports just for fun.
Another problem that stems from early sports specialization is the lack of time it leaves for unorganized free play, such as pick-up games. Researchers at Loyola Health University System found that young athletes who focus on a single organized sport suffer more injuries than those who engage in free play and multiple organized sports, even when the total number of hours spent playing sports was the same. If you worry that anything less than an all-out effort will deny your kid the sports success he deserves, Dr. Jayanthi points out that another study he's working on is finding that successful college athletes didn't quit all other sports until late adolescence.
6. Your child consumes sports and energy drinks.
Tooth decay isn't a sports injury the way a sprained ankle is, but for young athletes hoping a drink can improve performance and energy levels, it can be an unfortunate side effect. A recent study in the journal General Dentistry found that these beverages' high acidity levels cause irreversible damage to teeth, eroding enamel and making them prone to decay. And that damage can be evident after only five days of exposure. Many people assume sports drinks are "better" than soda or fruit juice. In fact, 62% of U.S. teens drink at least one sports drink a day, according to a Journal of the American Dietetic Association study. If you can't convince your kid to give up these drinks entirely, Jennifer Bone, DDS, a spokesperson for the Academy of General Dentistry, recommends telling your child to rinse his mouth with water or chew sugar-free gum after drinking. "Both tactics increase saliva flow, which naturally helps to return the acidity levels in the mouth to normal," she says.
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7. Your daughter doesn't get enough vitamin D.
You probably encourage your children to drink milk for strong bones. But researchers at Children's Hospital Boston wanted to see whether that advice is well-founded. A study of girls aged 9 to 15 who participate in at least one hour a day of high-impact activity found that calcium and dairy intake in general wasn't associated with lower rates of stress fractures, common sports injuries, but vitamin D levels were. The mean intake of vitamin D among the girls with the fewest injuries was 663 IUs a day, compared to 107 IUs in the group with the most, says study author Kendrin Sonneville, ScD, RD. "Parents should make sure their daughters get adequate amounts of D (some experts recommend 800 to 1,000 IUs), especially if they play sports," says Dr. Sonneville. There are only a few foods that are good sources-salmon, fortified dairy products and cereals-so vitamin D supplements are often recommended.