Bike Helmets: Finding the Right Fit
Follow these tips to make sure your child’s helmet is safe.
By Katie Sweeney
A bike helmet can literally be a lifesaver for a child—dramatically reducing the chances of a head or brain injury from a bike, scooter or skateboard accident. But did you know that a helmet has to fit right to do its job? If it’s too small, too loose, or not positioned correctly, it may not protect your child.
Why wear a helmet?
According to Safe Kids Worldwide, more than 240,000 children and teens 19 and under were seen in emergency rooms for bike-riding-related injuries in 2014. Another 140,000 youth were seen for skateboard and skating injuries.
The most serious risk: a brain injury. Each year, 26,000 children go to emergency rooms for a traumatic brain injury related to bicycle riding.
Fortunately, bike helmets reduce the risk of head injury by at least 45%, brain injury by 33%, facial injury by 27% and fatal injury by 29%.
For that reason alone, all riders—including adults—should wear a helmet. But for kids, it’s also the law. In California, anyone under 18 must wear a helmet while riding a bicycle, skateboard or scooter, or while roller skating. If they don’t, their parents can be fined.
Tips for buying a helmet
- Have your child try it on. A helmet is like a pair of jeans; two helmets the same size can fit differently.
- Check for certifications. The label should show certification by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC). This means the helmet has been tested for safety and meets the federal safety standard.
- Do not buy a used helmet! If it’s been in a crash (and you won’t be able to tell), it will not protect your child.
Getting the perfect fit
A bike helmet needs to fit right now—do not buy one your child will “grow into.” Here’s what to look for:
Size and position
The helmet should:
- Fit snug all around. It should not move side to side or front to back on your child’s head.
- Sit level and low—but not too low. There should be room for only one or two finger widths above the eyebrows. The back of the helmet should not touch the top of your child’s neck.
- Be comfortable. It should feel snug, but it shouldn’t be so tight that it hurts.
Side and chin straps
- The left- and right-side straps should form a “Y” and meet right below the ear. (It’s easier to adjust these straps when the helmet is off.) Roll the little rubber band as close to the side straps as possible to prevent slipping.
- Tighten the chin strap until it is snug. Only one finger should fit under the strap. (Note: Your child must use the chin strap! Otherwise, the helmet will come off in a fall.)
- Yawn. Opening the mouth wide should cause the helmet to pull down on your child’s head. If it doesn’t, readjust the chin strap.
- Look up. Your child should see the front of the helmet visor. If not, unbuckle the side and chin straps and readjust.
- Shake. When your child shakes his or her head, the helmet should not move or slip. If it does, readjust the sizing pads or universal fit ring.
- Look around. Your child should be able to see straight ahead and side to side.
When should you replace a helmet?
Always replace it after it’s taken the impact of a crash—or even been dropped hard onto the pavement. A helmet only protects from one impact. If in doubt, swap it out.
As your child grows, recheck the fit and size up as needed. It’s also a good idea to replace any bike helmet after five years. Sunlight and weather can cause components inside to wear out over time.
What if my child won’t wear a helmet?
For older kids and teens, this can be a challenge. But don’t give up. According to Safe Kids Worldwide, more than half of those under 19 who were killed in bicycle-related incidents in 2014 were 15 to 19 years of age. Almost all of them were boys.
Here’s a tip for getting through to teens: talk technology.
Have them take out their cell phone (or your phone). Ask them if it has a case on it. Why is the case there? What is it protecting? If it makes sense to protect the computer inside your phone, why wouldn’t you protect the computer inside your head?
And if logic doesn’t prevail? Insist on the helmet. Your child’s brain is worth it.
It’s easiest if kids get used to helmets from a young age. And don’t forget to set a good example. Children mirror their parents. If you wear a helmet while biking, your child will be much more likely to want to wear one, too.
Have a safe and happy ride!
Special thanks to Helen Arbogast, DrPH, MPH, CPSTI, Manager of Injury Prevention at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles, for contributing to this post.