A Canadian study suggests young children should wear helmets while tobogganing, but concludes there's no clear answer about what type of headgear works best.

The study by the Children's Hospital of Eastern Ontario (CHEO) Research Institute in Ottawa tested ice hockey, bicycling and alpine skiing helmets to determine whether any served as sufficient protection for young tobogganers.

Tobogganing and skiing are among the most dangerous activities linked to concussion — a common brain injury seen in hospital emergency departments.  

Dr. Michael Vassilyadi, co-author of the study released Friday, said many children with underdeveloped skills are unprepared to protect themselves when they unexpectedly fall or run into objects or other people while participating in winter sports.

Vassilyadi, a neurosurgeon, and his team evaluated ice hockey, alpine ski and bicycling helmets in crash-test experiments at different speeds for front and side impacts.

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There's an opportunity for someone to develop a winter helmet that manages both high and low velocity impacts to take children from the skating rink to the toboggan hill, said Blaine Hoshizaki. (CBC)

The study aimed to mimic what could happen to a child falling or sliding into objects on a hill while tobogganing.

"The ice hockey helmet was the most protective at lower-velocity impacts and the bicycle helmet more effective at the high-velocity impact," the study's authors concluded in the Journal of Neurosurgery: Pediatrics.

All helmets protective

The findings about the different velocities and directions on impact prove hockey helmets are designed for multiple impacts, whereas bicycle helmets are meant for a single impact.

Alpine ski helmets generally had the poorest results in the crash tests.

"This research study does not take a stand about the 'best' helmet," Vassilyadi stressed. However, he added: "A hockey helmet is likely the best for younger children when tobogganing as presented in this study."

"If your child is skating, it's probably better to wear an ice hockey helmet," said study co-author Blaine Hoshizaki, director of the Neurotrauma Impact Laboratory at the University of Ottawa.

If children are tobogganing "at high velocity on big hills, then a cycling helmet may be more beneficial."

For more protection, hockey helmets can be worn with a toque, and a facial shield or cage can easily be attached, he added in a release.

"The bottom line is that all helmets are protective and young children should be wearing helmets during winter activities."

The study's authors didn't consider some of the other priorities that parents take into account when buying helmets, such as cost, comfort and ventilation.

Pediatric society urges head protection

The dummy used in the experiments represented the head and neck of a six-year-old, but other factors such as the rigidity of the neck could make a difference, the researchers said.

Only one model of each type of helmet was tested, but the study's authors said they expect the trends would apply to other brands.

Annick Girard of Montreal has an assortment of hockey, ski and bicycle helmets for her children, who started wearing them when they were young.

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Sandrine Girard-Bissonnette said a helmet saved her life during a skiiing accident and she now always wears one during winter activities. (CBC)

"You still have to give them the rules, to think about what they're doing because the equipment alone will not do it," Girard said.

Her teenage daughter, Sandrine Girard-Bissonnette, said a helmet saved her during a skiing accident.

"It's worth it even though sometimes people can tease me," Sandrine said.

Hoshizaki said there's an opportunity for someone to develop a winter helmet that manages both high and low velocity impacts to take children from the skating rink to the toboggan hill. One exists in Sweden but is not available in North America.

Earlier this week, the Canadian Pediatric Society urged mandatory helmets for skiers and snowboarders of all ages to reduce the risk of injury, disability and death on the slopes.

On Thursday, four sports organizations announced they'll receive $1.5 million in federal funding for new education programs designed to reduce concussions and other brain injuries in children and youth who play team sports

The tobogganing study was funded by ThinkFirst Canada, a national non-profit organization dedicated to the prevention of brain and spinal cord injuries.

Source: CIHI

With files from CBC's David MacIntosh