What You Need to Know Before Cycling with Your Toddler

Bike-mounted seat or bike trailer? Here are a few key things to consider before cycling with your child

By Wendy Glauser
From the print edition, Summer 2012

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Illustration by Ryan Snook

Toronto mom Oona Padgham loved cycling with her son when he was a toddler, ferrying him around in a bike trailer. “On a bike, you can engage with the people and sights around you,” says Padgham. For those who are thinking of trying out two-wheel transportation with toddlers, we asked the experts about the pros and cons of bicycle-mounted seats and bike trailers, and the safety issues with each.

Getting Started
Once your child has reached his first birthday, he probably has the neck strength to support a properly fitted helmet (a must!) and the upper body strength needed to support himself through the jostling he might experience while riding with you. If you are unsure, check with your child’s doctor.

You should also be a confident and experienced cyclist, especially when traffic is involved. So get out on the road a few times by yourself before bringing your toddler on board.

When you are ready to roll, consider buying your equipment from a reputable bike shop, says Todd Litman, executive director of the Victoria Transport Policy Institute, a B.C.-based research organization that promotes non-motorized transportation. Most will let you take a test spin with a trailer or try a bike with a seat attached (sans child) before you buy. Make sure you are confident about attaching the trailer or seat. “Anyone with basic mechanical skills can install one using the instructions,” he says. “But if you are not sure, ask for help and be willing to pay if requested.”

Bike-Mounted Trailer
Specifics: Carries one or two children totalling 75–125 pounds, depending on the model.
Pros: Litman prefers trailers, mounted to the bike’s rear axle or frame over bike-mounted seats. “They often have fully enclosed protection,” he says. If the trailer tips, toddlers are protected by its rigid metal or alloy frame. Kristen Gane, manager of programs at Safe Kids Canada, adds that trailers have the benefit of being lower to the ground should something happen. “The child has less distance to fall.”
Cons: The biggest safety issue with trailers is “they can be more difficult for cars to see,” says Gane. Trailers are also prone to going over a curb if the rider doesn’t keep in mind the need to make wider turns and look out for hazards beyond the bike’s two wheels. From a parent’s perspective, “it’s a little disconcerting at first to have your child so far away from you,” says Padgham.
How to Ride: Install a tall orange safety flag behind your trailer. “Anything that heightens visibility is a good thing,” says Gane. If riding with a trailer made to carry two children, consider any possible behavioural issues beforehand, especially if there’s an age gap. Remind kids not to poke or tease each other—a distracted parent may not pay proper attention to the road.

Front- and Rear-Mounted Seats
Specifics: Depending on the model, front-mounted seats usually hold children up to 30 pounds and rear-mounted seats hold children up to 40 pounds.
Pros: Olena Russell, a mom of two from Victoria has used both front- and rear-mounted seats with her children. “The front seat has the advantage of having your child between your arms while you ride, which provides him with a feeling of safety,” she says. “Plus, when riding in traffic, the other vehicles can see you and your child, as he is at least at the window level of most cars.”
Cons: Generally, front-mounted seats are slightly more stable than rear-mounted seats, says Gane because they are closer to the centre of gravity for the bike. However they have a shorter use period, as children need to be small enough for you to see over their head, plus it may be tougher for taller adults to pedal if their knees hit the seat.
How to Ride: Seats should have a footrest, seatbelt system and a heavy-duty plastic frame. One with a high back and sides may protect your child’s spine more effectively in case of an accident. Gane also has this tip: “Place a bag of potatoes or something heavy in the seat first to get used to the extra weight.”

Is Second-Hand an Option?
“I would be a little reluctant,” says Gane, of using second-hand equipment. “You don’t know how it has been used or if parts are missing.” If you do buy used or accept hand-me-down equipment, download any instruction manuals from the manufacturer’s website, and have the item inspected by someone at a bike shop to ensure it’s in good shape.

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