Should You Take Your Baby Along?
Summary: Babies must be at least one year old before you try
them in a bike trailer or seat. This page highlights what we believe to be the risks of taking your baby along. We link to an opposing view at the bottom.
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. New York state law prohibits it. The US Consumer Product Safety Commission thinks it is dangerous to take a child under one year on a bicycle, and here is their rationale:
Maurice Keenan, MD, from the American Academy of Pediatrics ,
requested that a minimum age of 1 year be reflected on the label for helmets intended for children under age 5. This would better convey the message that infants (children under age 1) should not be passengers on a bicycle under any circumstance.
The Commission agrees with the commenter that children under 1 year of age should not be on bicycles. Children are just learning to sit unsupported at about 9 months of age. Until this age, infants have not developed sufficient bone mass and muscle tone to enable them to sit unsupported with their backs straight. Pediatricians advise against having infants sitting in a slumped or curled position for prolonged periods. This position may even be exacerbated by the added weight of a bicycle helmet on the infantís head. Because pediatricians recommend against having children under age 1 as passengers on bicycles, the Commission does not want the
certification label to imply that children under age 1 can ride safely.
Source: 16 CFR Part 1203 Safety Standard for Bicycle Helmets; Final Rule, page 11726
That 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. That thought occurs to every bicycling parent, generally before the child is born. We see online postings by some parents who put their children in baby seats of one design or another and take them along on trailers starting as young as five weeks. Others use a baby backpack. At slightly older ages, people use front or rear-mounted child seats. A few (mostly in the UK) use sidecars. Each has its advantages and disadvantages.
A disclaimer: our purpose here is to highlight the risks. We are hearing more now about undiagnosed brain injuries, with symptoms too subtle for doctors to detect in a clinical setting, but very real to families. And that comes to mind whenever someone asks us about babies and biking. We worry about your six-week-old entering the first grade six years from now with a small but detectable mental handicap. That is alarmist; this is an alarmist page!
For an official US Government view, we have excerpts from the Consumer Product Safety Commission's age-related guidelines for ride-on toys.
Trailers may be the safest way to take a very young child along. They are lower to the ground, so when you crash the baby will fall a shorter distance, even when you turn the trailer over. One study reported in a medical journal article indicated after examining data based on very small numbers of crashes that trailers were safer. (You can purchase the article using the link above.)
But an alert reader of this page notes:
As a trained researcher, I found your conclusion that the AMA article "Tykes and Bikes" found that trailers are safer than carriers somewhat misleading. Carriers are indeed involved in substantially more accidents, but there was no weight given to the relative popularity of trailers and carriers, hence no conclusion can be made about relative safety (i.e. carriers may be far more popular). Safety also is a matter of severity of injury, and the article found that trailers have a much higher incidence (33% vs. 5%) of severe injuries (i.e. those requiring hospitalization). This is probably because trailer accidents are more likely to involve cars (33% vs. 9%), although it may also be because children in trailers are less likely to be wearing helmets. In any case, the article concluded that the same number of hospitalizations were required regardless of method of transportation. If carriers are used much more than trailers, then one could conclude that carriers actually are safer in terms of major injuries. Of course, as you say the sample size is too small (and biased) to draw any firm conclusions.
We would recommend that you do two things before using a trailer: ask your pediatrician if the child is ready. Then if you can find one that accommodates your weight and size, ride in a trailer yourself for at least 10 miles, at the speed you expect to travel. At least put a jar of milk in a trailer and ride as you will with the baby, checking the foam level when you stop.
Most parents have no idea how rough a ride it can be in a trailer. The wheels are directly under the passenger, so bumps are transmitted more directly: one inch rise in wheel = one inch rise in trailer. The same analysis applies to a child carrier that is located directly over the rear wheel of a bicycle. We have no idea how hard you can jiggle a baby's brain without provoking injury. Trailer owners report good experience, but it seems difficult to know if a child is suffering harm back there. They normally cry if stressed, but can a baby whose brain is being bruised or neck is being overstressed communicate that? While asleep? We often pass trailers whose occupants are crying, and always wonder: wet diaper, or shaken brain?
Another reader points out that lowering trailer tire pressure can reduce the small vibrations to the infant. Check the manufacturer's instructions for the lower end of the recommended tire pressure range. You could of course fit lower pressure tires if necessary as long as they are recommended for the trailer's rims and don't affect stability. Lower pressure usually means more rolling resistance.
Trailer arrangements can be better if you support the child's head on both sides with padding so it cannot bobble around too much, particularly when they doze off and you are not aware of it. But seated upright or reclining in a trailer the baby also needs a pillow behind them to provide clearance for their helmet in the back. Without the pillow their chin is forced down toward the chest by the thickness of 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 rougher ride than you will be on your bicycle, where your wheels are not directly under you.
Trailers with low-mounted hitches are generally more stable than the ones that attach to the seatpost, and most of them are made that way now. But they do turn over. Unless the wheels are shielded they can snag on obstacles as you pass. Any trailer can be turned over by hitting a bump or big pothole too fast with one wheel. Some of them turn over with surprising ease if one wheel rides up on something like a curb, or if you unexpectedly have to take a turn too sharply. The better brands test that on new designs to make sure they meet the requirements of the ASTM standard described below.
You might also want to make sure that the trailer is constructed to protect the child in a rollover, which some users report is a common occurrence for them. Does the trailer have protection for the child's bottom when a rock or obstacle passes between the two wheels? It can be tricky to avoid that. particularly if you are distracted by traffic or fail to see the obstacle in twilight. See below for a discussion of dirt and grit protection.
Steve Grant asked six trailer users with three different brands how often they had tipped their trailer over. Half had tipped, half had not. An interview with one mom revealed that her Chariot Cheetah had tipped over three times. Two were due to turning too sharp, to the right, at very low speed. The rear bike tire caught the tow bar with sufficient force to tip the trailer. (The back of the wheel is coming upward when it contacts the bar. Nubby mountain bike tires would increase the lift.) The third tip was due to going over a large rock with one of the trailer wheels. No harm done in any of the events. It is interesting that none of these turnovers was due to cornering too fast, but that can provoke a tipover too. One father who tows his kids to daycare every day says that when they turn over his kids laugh. He puts the trailer upright and they go on their way.
ASTM has published a trailer standard that covers some of those points. If you buy a new trailer, be sure it has a label stating that it meets the ASTM F-1975 bicycle trailer standard. The standard addresses rollover tendencies with a static test and a dynamic one where one wheel of the trailer is towed over an obstacle. A well-designed trailer and hitch will at least minimize the tendency to crash from those causes.
A reader who has a stable trailer and strongly disagrees with the above cautions on tipping and rough ride contributed this:
"Unknown to riders sitting high above the ground, bike wheels throw up a surprising amount of dirt and grit, even on apparently dry pavement. On gravel, this becomes a veritable shower. Adding moisture makes it even worse. We've been amazed at the amount of crud plastered on the front and even the top of our trailer, despite having full fenders on the towing bicycle. All this debris will fly into the face of an infant in a [forward facing] trailer unless the front covers are in place. Infants may lack the communication skill to report this bombardment, and recognition of the problem may not come before the first eye injury. In addition, breathing swirling street dust cannot be healthy."
We would only add dog manure to the list of materials commonly found on trails that can be thrown up by the towing bike's rear wheel.
Your mileage will vary. Your trailer's design may be optimal, your riding style careful, the surfaces of the streets or trails may be very smooth, and your child may have a vibration-resistant brain. Nobody can judge any of that but you. Nobody has measured the risks scientifically, either. This page is just designed to give you an idea of the possible pitfalls.
Child carriers are child seats mounted in front or in back of the adult rider. Most carriers in use in the US are rear-mounted. The front mounted ones let you look at the child while riding, but obviously they also let you fall on the child when you crash. They balance better than the rear-mounted carriers, but many parents find that front-mounted seats also obstruct their legs while riding.
At about the age of one year 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 usually goes to sleep frequently. When that happens, pediatricians usually advise that the parent must stop and wait for the child to finish napping. Most parents don't have that much patience, or may be unaware that the child is napping. 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 if that is healthy for the child. They give good advice, and can take into account the stage of development your own child has reached.
Parents sometimes 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 one inch bump, the tire indents a little but essentially the wheel suddenly rises one inch, and the axle rises one inch, and the baby rises one inch. The
bicycle saddle you are sitting on, on the other hand, is located well forward of the rear axle, so it rises much less than an inch. (If the abstract principles are not clear, think of a very long bicycle with a ten foot distance between the rear wheel and the saddle as the rear wheel rises one inch. The saddle will rise very little. Or better yet, you can measure the effect using a real bicycle.) In motion that makes the shock to a child carrier much sharper than it is at the saddle. In addition, the saddle you sit on is normally padded and partially suspended on rails that have some spring to them. And the rider normally compensates for bumps automatically 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. In fact, their weight will dampen the shock you feel at the saddle.
Before you ride with a baby seat, you may want to check out this medical journal article. It can prepare you to avoid the most common hazards. It has ten basic rules for
using child seats.
More than a third of the injuries to children in baby carriers occur when the bicycle falls over while standing still. Typically the bicycle is leaning against something, and the parent has put the child in the carrier, then turns to put on their own helmet, put the groceries in the panniers, unlock the chain, make an adjustment, put on sunglasses or something else normal. One wiggle and the child can be crashing to the pavement. On the road or trail, the same wiggle might send the bicycle careening into another rider coming the other way, or into something even more solid like a car. A Japanese survey published in the Daily Yomiuri reported that 49 percent of injuries occurred when children fell off their seats as bikes driven by their parents were being parked, 17 percent were injured when children fell off bicycles while in motion, and 13 percent were hurt in collisions with cars, other bicycles or pedestrians.
With a child carrier, a baby's weight is located entirely above the center of gravity of the bicycle, and the rear-mounted ones put the weight far back where it exerts extra destabilizing leverage. The ASTM child carrier standard requires the manufacturer to put a label on the carrier that says it will affect the stability of the bicycle. Be sure your carrier meets that ASTM child carrier standard, since it requires a shield to prevent the child from getting fingers and toes in the spokes of the rear wheel, and requires testing for fatigue resistance of the materials. You may also want to look at
this page by Ottawa's Citizens for Safe Cycling. They present seven problems with child carriers and conclude that "child-mounted seat carriers are potentially very hazardous." And finally, this medical journal article has some sobering injury lists. Ask other parents, and you will find that many have used child carriers without problems, though. It's still your call.
Sidecars are more often seen on motorcycles than bicycles. They change the handling characteristics of the bicycle, although with a hinged coupling the bicycle can still lean almost normally on turns. Here are some comments from two experienced users.
Some More Cautions
The final question is what will happen when you crash. Certainly with your precious cargo you will be as careful as a bicycle rider can possibly be, and that will reduce the risk considerably. You will ride reasonably, be extra alert for cars, be ready to swerve to avoid other riders, watch for bad pavement, compensate for side winds, watch out for overhanging tree limbs, avoid turns on patches of wet leaves, gravel, sand or ice, be careful in wet spots or rain, test your brakes carefully before every ride, inflate your tires before every ride to the correct pressure and inspect them for nicks or sidewall bulges, inspect your bike periodically for cracks in the frame or any component, avoid rocks or other obstacles, watch out for dogs, warn roller bladers before passing them, deal with bees or other stinging insects, and ... did we miss some?
The normal risks of cycling, which are manageable under normal circumstances by normal careful riding and wearing a helmet, are considerably worse with the extra distraction and destabilizing weight of a child and child carrier, or even with a trailer. Nobody offers safety training for users of trailers or child seats, so you just gear up and ride. We are not telling you to leave the child at home, but are suggesting that some thought is useful before you go.
The answer to the question "at what age is a child ready to be taken cycling" might be "at the age when you are ready for the child to crash if that should happen." And at the age when you are ready to explain injuries to the baby's grandparents or your non-bicycling neighbors, who will probably think after a crash that you were crazy to take your baby on a bicycle.
We may be just way too cautious, but as the parent, that is your judgment to make. We wanted you to know the down side, since you already appreciate so well the up side to any family activity. We do hope you will wait until your child is at least one year old or robust enough to handle the bumps.
We would just repeat at the end the best advice to anyone considering taking an infant or toddler on a bike: take child and helmet to your pediatrician first.
a British page with similar cautions to ours.
Consumer Reports trailer buying advice.
Our page titled Bicycle Helmets for Babies? about small helmets.
Our page on child safety stuff with more links.
And the other side
Since there is always another side, Momentum Magazine has an article in their Jan/Feb 2011 edition titled "Bicycling With Newborns." When we looked on the Web site, the article was not free on the Web, and you will have to subscribe to see it. It made us wince.
This page was last revised on: March 21, 2011.