Baby’s First Bike Tour: At What Age?

Luke in the Chariot

A tiny Luke in a very roomy Chariot trailer.

Any bicycle-loving parent will be familiar with the debate that is currently happening in our home: when can we take baby Luke on his first bike ride in a trailer?

If you’re from a country where cycling isn’t a mainstream form of transport, the idea of putting an infant in a bicycle trailer may be shocking. Internet searches reveal plenty of people concerned about harm to the baby from vibrations and the risk of accidents but little in the way of actual data to back up these fears.

One American website suggests two ways of checking to see if your child is ready to ride in a trailer. It starts off sensibly enough:

We would recommend that you do two things before using a trailer: ask your pediatrician if the child is ready.

Put a check mark beside point one. We’ve done that. But then, they recommend this….

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.

We find this ridiculous. How are we going to find a trailer big enough to fit an adult? Even if we could, how is that in any way comparable to what a baby would experience?

As for the froth on a bottle of milk, well let’s just say it’s not quite the scientific indicator we were hoping to find when looking for data on babies and cycling. How much froth is too much? And how would we compare that to the vibrations experienced by a baby in a carrier or a stroller or even in a car? Car rides are not always perfectly smooth and safe affairs.

We don’t have a car, so we can only make some comparison with what we see when we take Luke for walk in his stroller or sling. Even when walking slowly and despite our best efforts, Luke’s head inevitably bounces a bit as we go over curbs and uneven sidewalks. These sorts of small bumps happen to any baby unless they are confined to the house and yet we see no warnings about taking baby out for a walk.

The Dutch Way

Let’s move away from the American view to the Netherlands, where we live. Here, there’s still no data on babies and cycling (at least none that we’ve found) but the risk assessment is quite different.

First of all, concerns about traffic and being hit by a car are negligible. The safety record is exceptional (according to some statistics, we’re more likely to drown than die cycling) and we can go almost everywhere on exceptionally smooth, separated cycle paths. Most paths in our area are far less bumpy than the sidewalk!

The Weber baby seat

The Weber baby seat.

It’s common here to see young babies travelling by bicycle.

They’re usually in a car seat, which is then mounted in the box of a cargo bike or a bicycle trailer. They may also be in a special sling or seat for babies, such as the Weber baby seat seen in the photo to the right.

As far as we know, there has been no elevated rate of shaken baby syndrome here, despite all the parents who regularly cycle with their babies.

We wanted to be sure, however, so we asked 3 paediatricians, several nurses, 2 midwives, a children’s physiotherapist, several keen cycling parents and a few people working in the bike manufacturing industry for their opinion.

There was no particular concern about taking a young baby on a bicycle, starting from about 6 weeks old, with these caveats:

  • The baby should be in a car seat mounted in a bakfiets, or in a high quality trailer.
  • Routes should be chosen to avoid cobblestones and other rough surfaces.
  • Speed should be moderate.

In addition:

  • Hold off on longer trips.  Our doctor recommended waiting 3 months before doing any long bike trips, to make sure the baby’s back develops properly. Note: she was not overly worried about vibrations to his brain; an oft-cited fear when parents talk about the effects of cycling too early. She said it was okay to start with short trips at an earlier age as long as we picked smooth bike paths and not bumpy cobblestones.
  • Don’t put a helmet on a very young baby. If the helmet doesn’t fit properly or if the baby isn’t strong enough to hold up his head with the weight of the helmet, the helmet will do more harm than good.
  • A lot depends on your local conditions. Do you have a good bicycle trailer that absorbs shocks? How are the cycling facilities? Is the baby happy being on the bike?
In particular, we received some valuable first-hand experience from the Hopkins family (read their tips for touring with babies and tour journal).
Tallin & Zali

Tallin & Zali in their bike trailer.

We went on our first bike trip with Tallin when he was 7 months old. Zali will be 5 months old when we head off in June to Sumatra. However, we had them both in the Chariot on smooth roads at around 8 weeks old, in the infant sling. We also removed the padding from our carseat and this adds extra support for their head. So, in short, they were both around 8 weeks old and we stuck to smooth roads. Every time we ride they fall asleep with the motion. – Christine Hopkins

What We Decided

After much debate, we tried a first ride with Luke in his bike trailer when he was 7 weeks old, with the infant sling (not officially recommended for cycling). We decided to do this based on two main factors:

  1. Luke is very big and strong for his age. He holds his neck well and – at 7 weeks old – was as big as an average 3 month old boy.
  2. We have a very good trailer and excellent, smooth bike paths in our area.
When we set out, we went very slowly (about 10km/hour), picked only smooth bike paths and cycled less than 10km in total.
In the chariot

On the road with baby in tow.

Dad pulled the trailer and mum rode alongside to watch Luke’s head and see how he was enjoying the ride. Our impression was that he was comfortable, stable and not suffering any more vibrations than when we walk his stroller over some of the sidewalks in our area.

At 8 weeks old, we took Luke on a 40km bike ride. Again, we went very slowly (the ride took us 6 hours to complete, including a stop for coffee) and picked our paths carefully.

Our plan from here on in is to take a day trip each weekend, as long as the weather is nice. We’ll build up to a camping trip late next month or in early June. We hope to take a longer bike tour in July.

Obviously this is a decision that will be different for every parent, depending on the conditions in your area and your baby.

What do you think? If you’ve cycled with a baby, we’d love to hear your experience. How did you decide when was the right time to ride together?

Further Reading

We found these articles interesting.