At the Bicycle Helmet Safety Institute, we get many inquires from parents with babies aged about 6 weeks to 14 months about when it is safe to put a helmet on the child and take them for a bike ride. The question often reaches us as an inquiry on where to find an extremely small helmet.
Nobody we have met in the injury prevention field recommends taking an infant of less than 12 months in a bicycle child seat, trailer, sidecar or any other carrier. Nobody. And we do not either.
That statement explains why you will not find a child helmet on the market sized for a tiny tot. You certainly do not want to ride with a bare-headed child, and in some places it is illegal. In fact, several states have laws against taking children under one year of age on a bicycle, even with a helmet. Parents love their babies and love their bicycles, so it is natural to want to put the two together. Some parents put their children in baby seats or take them along on trailers starting as young as five weeks. Some people use front or rear-mounted child seats. A few (mostly in the UK) use sidecars. Each has its advantages and disadvantages.
Trailers are perhaps the safest way to take a very young child along. They are lower to the ground so if you crash the baby will fall a shorter distance, even if you turn the trailer over. We would recommend that you do two things before using a trailer: ride in a trailer yourself for at least 10 miles, and take your baby and the seat to a pediatrician to ask if it is OK. Most parents have no idea how rough a ride it can be in a trailer.
Trailer arrangements can be better if you wedge the child’s head in on both sides so it cannot bobble around. But when seated upright in a trailer the baby also needs a pillow behind them to provide clearance for their helmet in the back. Without the pillow their head is forced down by the back of the helmet. Even if you use a child carrier that keeps the baby perfectly stable, the child will be subjected to a rough, rough ride.
Trailers with low-mounted hitches are generally more stable, but the wheels can snag on obstacles as you pass, and many trailers can turn over with surprising ease if one wheel rides up on something like a curb, or if you just have to take a turn too sharply. Any trailer can be turned over by hitting a bump too fast with one wheel — ask the manufacturer. You might also want to ask if the trailer is constructed to protect the child in a rollover, which users report is a common occurance. How about protection for the child’s bottom when you hit a rock that passes between the two wheels?
Child carriers are child seats mounted in front or in back of the adult rider. The front mounted ones let you look at the child while riding, and let you fall on the child if you crash. They balance better than the rear-mounted carriers, but many parents find that front-mounted seats also obstruct their riding. At about the age of 1 the neck development of some babies approaches the point where they can tolerate the weight of a helmet while awake. But a baby seated upright in a child carrier seat will go to sleep frequently. When that happens, the parent must stop and wait for the child to finish napping. Most parents don’t have that much patience. It is common to see parents still riding, with the child’s head lolling around with every bump and wobble of the bike. Ask your pediatrician: that is not healthy for the child! Parents often have no idea how many jolts and shocks are delivered to the child’s body in a normal, slow, careful bike ride.
Rear-mounted child carriers are located directly over the rear axle of the bicycle. When you hit a 1-inch bump, the tire indents a little but essentially the wheel suddenly rises 1 inch, and the axle rises 1 inch, and the baby rises 1 inch.
The bicycle saddle, on the other hand, is located well forward of the rear axle, so it rises much less than an inch. In motion that makes the shock to a child carrier much sharper than it is at the saddle. In addition, the saddle is normally padded and partially suspended on rails that have some spring to them. And the rider normally compensates for bumps without it even registering by placing more weight on the pedals. Babies in child carriers can?t do that. They take every jolt and jiggle.
If you are a hard core cyclist, nothing in the stuff above will likely deter you. And we may be just way to cautious, but that’s your judgment to make, and we wanted you to know the down side, since you already know the up side to any family activity. We do hope you will wait until your child is at least 1-year-old or robust enough to handle the bumps. And we would just repeat the best advice to anyone considering taking a child on a bike: consult your pediatrician first. You owe that to the child.
(Reprinted with permission from the Bicycle Helmet Safety Institute.)