I’m just gonna put this general statement out there right off the bat: Biking with babies in North America is a contentious issue. It just is, I accept that. And, to each their own. It is even a bone of contention in my own extended family! We all have our reasons or justifications, experiences, and cultural backgrounds to draw upon to inform the decisions that are right for our own families. We all love our children and are trying to make the best choices possible for them. So, ultimately, my sage advice (and disclaimer, really) is to just do what feels right for you when biking with babies; as with all parenting decisions, they are yours to make.
Biking with Babies
This series will examine biking with a baby from a very young age (Part 1), when they can sit up (Part 2), through to toddlerdom (Part 3). I am not going to examine the ins-and-outs of riding with small children – I’d like to keep this practical – I will, however, link you to some great articles that already explore the issues at hand, ones that I used to help inform my own decisions and glean helpful tips from.
Cycling with Small Infants
When I decided to write this post, I did a little crowdsourcing on social media where there is a most excellent community of family cyclists. Even these committed folk, likely seen as “hardcore” outsiders to your Average Joe, expressed a wide range of ages for starting out, ranging from a few days old to 9 months. This variation is a reflection of our climate in Canada (where most of us have winter), what kid-toting gear was available, cultural norms and pressures, and – most importantly – parental discretion.
In North America, it seems that we have two options for transporting wee babes: bike trailers or the much less common bakfiets style bikes. In Europe, some people click on their infant bucket-style car seats to a front or rear rack on their ‘regular’ bike and in other parts of the world, babies are often just worn right on the parent. I have a friend who “biked with a brand-new baby in [her] [E]rgo [carrier] and one behind [her] in a seat which was standard Japanese practice” and “[i]t was glorious!” when she lived in Japan. Pregnant with number three, I’m curious to see what her set-up ends up being now that she and her family are back in Calgary! I know that she is currently searching for a used Chariot…
Bike Trailers with Babies
There are heaps of choices for bike-mounted trailers for babies and kiddos, with Thule Chariot carriers being the predominant brand in Calgary. There is an argument about their safety when pulled in traffic, largely due to visibility concerns, with trailers being behind your bike and low to the ground. Check this out if you need some reassurance in that department. But, the people who argue against trailers are often pro bike-mounted kid seats, which is not an option for a small infant. Those seats are really only marketed for 9 months and up, in general (although you could likely start using them at an earlier age, depending on the size and strength of your own kid as they all develop at different speeds).
The beauty of the trailer is that it is low to the ground and the kid is in a bubble, protected against the elements. This bubble also serves as a roll-cage for your precious cargo. An important consideration since there is no way you will find a helmet that will fit your days or weeks or even months old babe (and I believe that an ill-fitted helmet is more dangerous than no helmet at all). You can flip a trailer (I’ve yet to do it and my husband has only done it when it was empty), so it’s a good idea to check your sped and tame your riding style a bit. But, like I said: roll bar, plus they’re in a 5-point harness inside. Trailers are an excellent choice and if you are at all like me, you will get a lot more use out of them than just as a bike trailer: we walk, jog, ski, and bike with our trailers. I’d say their major downside is price, so start hunting early on your local used goods network, like Kijiji or Craigslist. I have experience with (now Thule) Chariot and Burley and would highly recommend both.
The infant in a bike trailer isn’t quite that simple though. You can’t just clip baby into the 5-point harness from day 1 as they are much too small:
Most of us go against Chariot’s recommended uses and use their infant sling product while cycling (against their explicit directions). You can change the angles on it as baby grows by adjusting the straps. It works like a charm, in my humble opinion. It is suspended, a little bit softer, and you get the benefit of good-quality trailer suspension to help even out the bumps in the road.
In Europe, a lot of families seam to use a hard foam shell sling, like the Weber, and we tried that out with our second born. It’s pretty great, too, and gave me an even greater sense of security as I could rationalize my mama bear instincts that it was made out of helmet material. We have a friend who has been using it in her Trio for the past year or so with her third and we hope to pass it on to another family soon. They’re not cheap either and have to be special-ordered from Europe, so make sure that you order it months in advance if you want to go that route. Either sling is great in a double trailer as it helps to give babe some protection from getting elbowed by an older sibling! Of note: Chariot used to sell this shell on their website way back when, as it is what a lot of European families use for baby transport; but, I figure they stopped selling it due to a combination of liability and demand issues.
Some people strap in an infant bucket-style car seat to a trailer. If you want to go this route, you may have to do some sleuthing: definitely seek out the most narrow-profiled (European-style) car seat that you can, especially if you want it to fit in to a single trailer. And, you likely won’t want to be clipping and unclipping the bucket from the trailer as to get it secure you will have to do some strategic strapping.
Trailers are a very popular first choice for cycling with young infants, often the first step for biking families, including ourselves. One friend commented that his friend gave birth Thursday and had baby in a Chariot for the school commute Tuesday! No pressure! I was not that ambitious (I had some pretty epic births, with the first one leaving me unable to walk properly for months, so I will give myself a lot of credit), ha. Maybe you will be as lucky as that momma or you’ll just take the plunge when you feel ready! Ready for us (mostly me) was around 4 months old with my first and 5 weeks old with my second (and, honestly, it would have been earlier as she was a very robust baby, born at almost 9 lb 4 oz and sturdy, but I got a wicked sinus infection so wasn’t up to doing much of anything). I am also very lucky in that I have very decent – no, excellent – bike infrastructure by North American standards around where I live and need to go and this hugely affects my decision.
Another reason families choose trailers is that your cargo is quite inconspicuous. One Twitter acquaintance exclaimed that she “rode with both [of her] kids around 9 months old in the [C]hariot. Was more worried about judgy onlookers than the kids’ safety!” Aside from going against the tide, many places in North America have helmet laws, at least for the 18 and under crowd and since helmets don’t exist for wee babes, you’re unable to comply, even if you believe in helmets (like I do, at least in North America where infrastructure is sub-par on-the-whole). Not to mention that their little necks likely don’t have the strength to handle the weight of a helmet on their head.
Here’s a link to a fantastic Canadian-Dutch perspective on cycling with young kids: Baby’s First Bike Tour: At What Age? They support smooth, short, around-town type trips from a very early age and were off touring on shorter distance trips by 7 weeks post-partum (with their kiddo who was clocking in at more like a 3 month old).
Bakfiets Style Bikes with Babies
For the earliest stages, a rear-facing infant bucket-style car seat in a bakfiets is touted as the crème-de-la-crème of transporting little ones around. I think I agree, but I have no personal experience with it as we didn’t get our CETMA Largo bakfiets until our youngest was about 18 months. The only real advantage I could see the trailers having over the box bike, is possibly the suspension that they have. But, the advantage of you actually being able to see and hear your small infant right in front of you tips the scales, in my humble opinion, and is just awesome. So, if you have a bakfiets, great! If you have the cash for one and are waivering, just go for it! And, if you don’t have the cash but really think it’s the best choice for your family, then figure out budgeting and start saving (I highly recommend You Need A Budget, affectionately known as YNAB).
But, how to secure the car seat in a bike?
Check out Dina Driscoll’s post over on her blog, bikeMAMAdelphia, and how they secured their bucket in their Urban Arrow bakfiets two different ways: ties with a blanket as a pad and a Stecco Baby Mee.
There are also some really clear photos of how Arleigh Jenkins of Bike Shop Girl installed their bucket in her Bullit bakfiets. I like how Arleigh used foam to dampen the vibrations that may be felt in the box (and the fact that her wife is a pediatrician adds cred to it all, right?).
The Dutch recommend having the handle of the bucket set facing upwards to create a sort of roll-bar for your babe.
What the Blogosphere Has to Say
- Totcycle’s “Baby on a Bicycle?” (2009) I think I agree with most everything I’ve ever read by Totcycle. There’s something about our degrees of common sense that just jive well. This particular post is a great one, I especially love when they recommend waiting until 4-6 months old, but actually couldn’t hold out past 7 weeks! Classic. I’m sure many a cycling parent can relate. This author is not only a bike enthusiast, but also a pediatrician (granted not your pediatrician). Interestingly, he references the head wobble as the issue; whereas, Travelling Two said the developmental concern pointed out in the Netherlands is the spine itself (and not the brain). But, I suppose the wobble can affect the spine, too. Colloquially, people seem to refer to brain damage (and not spinal damage) as the big fear in North America.
- Bicycle Dutch enlightens us on the Dutch perspective with “Cycling with a Baby” (2013) and this is my other favourite article.
- “Portland’s Family Biking Guide” brochure presents simple, practical options for a wide range of biking ages (but it kind of waffles on the baby stage).
- Pedal Adventure’s post on “Cycling with Newborns” (2011) showcases Jen’s no-nonsense approach to cycling with an infant in a trailer, starting at about 8 weeks old (for them).
- Young German’s post written by American expat in Germany on “German Bike Culture: Biking with Babies” (2013) check out the baby protector for if you are baby-wearing and biking!!!
- A brief Momentum Mag post on “How to Bike with Newborns” (2011) best illustrates the age ranges people start biking with infants, check out the comments, too.
- Copenhagenize schools us on Danish practices in “Baby Bike Kid Bike” (2009).
- According to this Globe and Mail article (2011) “Statistics Canada does not collect data on how many parents bike with their kids. But it does monitor cycling fatalities involving young children. According to StatsCan, no children aged zero to four died from being on a bike with their parents from 2001 to 2007.“
- An interesting test by a Dutch bike maker, WorkCycles. He stands by bucket seats nice and low in a bakfiets.
Biking with Babies
Two of my biggest tips for no matter which method you choose: use the widest tires that your bike can fit and lower the pressure.
Good luck figuring out something that works for you and your family! I know that we have debated and tested out a bunch of different options and were happy with our choices in the end. And, I have to say that one of perks about biking in Calgary with all of our decent (and growing) infrastructure, is that I don’t have to be a distracted driver (because, what parent isn’t distracted when driving small, screaming children).
Please share your biking with babies details, below: What age did you start? With what tool (trailer, bakfiets, babywearing)? How’d it go?!