Our son was 7 months old and we were still new at taking him out in the baby seat on the back of our tandem bicycle. Toby hadn't stopped screaming since we put his little helmet on, but we thought that the movement of the bike and the fast-moving scenery would distract him. After four blocks we couldn't bear it any longer, and I got off to ply the baby with a biscuit. It was then that I noticed I had caught the delicate skin under his chin in the supposedly "pinchless" clasp of the helmet.
The problem had an easy fix, and its consequences were minor, except for the pangs of guilt I felt until the red mark on Toby's throat faded. But there are other, more serious issues to consider when biking with your baby. How she rides, what she wears and what you take along are all important if your family wants to enjoy the third most popular sport in the U.S.
Take a seat
For biking babies and toddlers, the two main modes of transport are seats mounted on the back of a grown-up's bike and trailers that mom or dad can tow. "The most important feature in a baby seat is that it have an integrated rack," says Don Marino, a product manager for PerformanceBike catalog. These seats have a custom rack that mounts on the bicycle, onto which the baby seat can easily be locked or removed. Marino says this type of seat is safer than the kind that is attached to the bicycle permanently with a complicated assembly of rods, nuts and bolts. "[The integrated rack is] more rigid, the seat will tend to sway less, and the chance of misassembly is lower," he explains. It's also more convenient. "You can take it on and off very quickly so you don't have to constantly travel around with the seat on the bike," says Marino.
Steven Selbst, M.D., chairman of the department of pediatrics at AI DuPont Hospital for Children in Wilmington, DE, advises parents to buy a seat that's sturdy and keeps little feet away from the rear wheel, to prevent spoke injury. Children should be at least 6 months old before riding on a bike, and should be able to sit unsupported, recommends Selbst, who does not advise biking with baby in a backpack.
Carrying your tot on the bicycle with you has its advantages. Your child is within arm's length, giving both of you a sense of security. However, the added weight can take some getting used to, and the arm-waving and leg-thrashing of even a little tyke can make your bike unstable. A trailer you pull behind you may be heavier, but it won't affect the stability of your bicycle.
Your baby also has more arm-and legroom in a trailer, and you can carry quite a bit of cargo with you. If you choose to tow a trailer, make sure it has a tall flag that alerts other traffic to your presence. "The main problem with trailers is that they're not as visible," says Selbst. It's also important to take into account the broader wheel base of the trailer. "They do widen the profile of your bike a lot," says Marino. You'll need to make wider turns and keep farther away from other obstacles than you would on your bicycle alone.
No matter what mode of transport you choose, everyone in your biking party should wear a helmet. "Children are eight times more likely to have an injury if they're not wearing a helmet," points out Selbst. Look for a helmet that's American National Standards Institute (ANSI) approved, or that has the Snell Seal of Approval, and adjust it to fit snugly on your child's head.
How can you convince your stubborn baby or toddler to wear a helmet? Practice wearing it around the house or outside before you even attempt a ride. The old "bait and switch" tactic worked wonders for us. Toby was so preoccupied with a new toy I had bought him that he didn't even notice my putting the helmet on his head. We made a game of putting helmets on each others' heads, and soon this crucial piece of safety equipment became a fun part of play. Most importantly, lead by example. Parents who ride without helmets while expecting their children to wear them will find themselves fighting a losing safety battle.
Garb and gear
Headgear having been decided, what else should you and your child wear on your outing? While cool exercise gear may be suitable for you, remember that you'll be exerting yourself a lot more than your passenger. You may be breaking a sweat, but baby could be quite cool in the breeze. Dress her in layers, making sure no straps or laces can dangle near spokes. No matter what the temperature, sunscreen is a must for the whole family. New research also suggests you might consider putting sunglasses on your child, says Marino. "[PerformanceBike] is planning on carrying a good children's sunglasses selection with ultra UV blockage," he says.
A well-stocked diaper bag or backpack will also make for a more enjoyable outing for all. Clipping toys to the bike seat safety bar, or to the straps in a trailer, provides boredom-fighting activities. A distinct advantage to trailer travel is the great capacity for toy storage. Snacks that are easily grasped by little hands can provide a diversion for those still not sure if they love biking as much as their parents do.
Bring drinks for everyone, and stop halfway for a break if you're planning a longer ride. You may well need a rest, and babies new to bikes will also enjoy a change of scenery. If bike travel is a sleep-inducing activity for your little one, consider a bike seat that reclines slightly to prevent him or her from slumping forward. A pillow or well-placed teddy bear provides comfy support for trailer nappers.
Good equipment and proper gear aside, the most important thing to have is patience. There were many times when we had to turn back after only a mile because Toby was too fussy to ride. But with regular, progressively longer outings, using tried and true distraction techniques, we enjoyed more and more successful trips. Now, when I hear the shouted strains of "Someone's in the kitchen with Dinaaahhhhh..." from the trailer, or feel from behind me in the baby seat little creeping fingers, it's almost enough to make me forget about that pinched chin so long ago.