A beginner’s guide to cycling with babies, toddlers and children
15 July 2021 | Celia Topping
As far as environmentally-friendly transport goes, you can’t get better than a bike! By using a bike instead of a car or public transport, you’re minimising the use of fossil fuels, and cutting your carbon footprint, which is vital in the global fight against the climate crisis. Plus, it’s a great way to keep fit and healthy.
Teaching the next generation how to ride a bike is an important step in our journey towards net zero – but why wait until they can ride a bike themselves? The school run, the weekly shop and trips to the park, pool and playdates can all easily be done with a little passenger in tow. Read on to find out how you can get on the road safely with your precious cargo, from as young as 6 months old!
How to cycle with children: getting the right kit
It’s pretty nerve-wracking taking your little one out on a bike seat for the first time. But seeing their face light up with the joy of travelling with you on a bike is well worth a little anxiety. Plus, it means you can get out and about without using a car – and it’s so much quicker (and more fun) than walking. Fresh air, no carbon emissions, and a chance for some family frolics. What’s not to like?!
Generally, a child is old enough to travel in a bike seat once they can hold themselves upright, without support. This is from around the age of 6 months, but it varies from child to child. The upper limit is based around weight, rather than age. Once your child is about 20kg (age 4-5), it’s usually time to find another mode of transport. See our trailer recommendations below, or they could probably start to ride a bike themselves.
Here are a few top tips for riding safely with your child on board:
- Firstly it’s important that you’re confident on your bike. If you’ve not cycled for a while, have a little practise before loading up your child.
- The balance shift with a child on board is quite different to riding solo, so take this into consideration. So maybe practise first with a sack of spuds!
- Mounting and dismounting can be tricky. Remember, you can’t swing your leg over if you’ve got a child on the back! Practise this before strapping your child into the seat.
- Leaning the bike against a wall before you start to buckle/unbuckle your child is a good idea for extra stability.
Choosing the best bike seat for your child
Buying something as important as a bike seat shouldn’t be taken lightly. It’s a good idea to try some out before you buy, to make sure your child is happy, comfortable – and most importantly, safe.
There are 2 main types of bike seats available – front-mounted, and rear-mounted. The rear-mounted ones either attach to the luggage rack, or are cantilevered to the seat post. The front-mounted ones either attach to the front steerer tube, seat tube, or directly on the top tube.
Best front mounted bike seats
Having your bike buddy up front, between your arms, feels close and cosy. It’s the best position for your child to get a good view of the road ahead, and for pointing things out along the way. You can also keep communication going easily in this position, and keep a rucksack on your back – which isn’t so easy with a rear-mounted seat.
The downsides are that your front-facing passenger will feel the full force of the British weather – although some bike seats come with a windshield, for protection. You’ll also find you need to alter your cycling position slightly, so your legs turn out a little wider, to accommodate your little companion. Here are our favourite front-mounted child bike seats:
- Thule Yepp Mini: cute and colourful, this robust seat fits to your bike’s handlebar stem using the adapter supplied. It’s easy to attach and detach, so you don’t have to keep it on if you’re not being a taxi!
- Bobike Exclusive Mini: this is the seat of little Princes and Princesses, and it has tonnes of extra features – including a little handlebar, so they can play at steering. Windshields are also available. These seats can’t be ordered within the UK, but are easily accessed from The Netherlands.
- Oxford Little Explorer: for slightly older children, this seat puts them at the heart of the action, and is the nearest they’ll get to actually riding a bike. It’s the most basic of seats, with literally just a saddle attached to the top tube, a 2-point seat belt, and foot straps. Great for short journeys to nursery or school, but not if they need a nap!
Best rear-mounted bike seats
Rear-mounted child bike seats tend to be the go-to bike choice for Brits. Maybe because they feel a bit safer with your child secure behind you. They’re great for longer journeys, and some models have a reclining feature, so junior can nap comfortably while you pedal along. Many models are quick release, too – which is great for parents who may need to switch the seat between 2 bikes. Here’s our top 3 list:
- Hamax Siesta: excellent for snoozy toddlers and children, as this seat reclines 20 degrees, with added head space to allow for the helmet. It also comes with 2 brackets if you need to use it on 2 bikes.
- Bellelli Pepe: made from non-toxic plastic, this lightweight seat comes with a buckle that can be fastened and unfastened quickly with one hand. Its slightly reclined angle offers ergonomic comfort for your child.
- Yepp Junior Bike Seat: this seat is very much for older kids, from 5 upwards. They may be able to ride their own bike – but for the school run and short errands, this is a safe option without looking too babyish for your too-cool-for-school youngster.
Choosing the best bike trailer or cargo bike for your family
Cargo bikes and trailers are becoming increasingly popular for families with 2 or more children. And with many cargo bikes coming with an electric-assist option, they’re even good in hilly areas. Maybe even more than child bike seats, it’s a good idea to try out a few trailers or cargo bikes before you buy, as handling them is quite different to cycling solo. Your local bike shop should let you have a try of their stock. Here are some of our favourites:
- Christiania: the original classic cargo bike, born in Copenhagen’s bohemian enclave of the same name. It may look like a huge box on wheels, but it’s remarkably light and maneuverable. The 3-wheel design makes it very stable when cycling, as well as when loading and unloading the kids/shopping. There are 2 or 4-child options, with room for a baby seat, and an e-assist is also available.
- Bakfiets Long: there are a lot of options available with this cargo bike, for kids, dogs, babies and whatever else you want to carry! With only 2 wheels, it doesn’t have the stability of the Christiania, but feels much more like riding a normal bike. It does have kickstands though – so once you’ve stopped, it’s easy to put these down for balance while loading/unloading.
- Thule chariot cross multisport: this trailer offers the best of all worlds. You can use it on the road, off the beaten track or even unhook it and use it as a buggy – which is ideal if the little ones have fallen asleep. You can stroll with it, or take it for a run. Heck, you can even ski with it!
How to teach a child to ride a bike
Learning to ride a bike is one of those rites of passage that every child should have the pleasure of going through at some stage. The right age depends on your child, but usually around the age of 4 is a good starting point.
Cycling gives your child a sense of freedom and independence, and is a healthy way to make any journey enjoyable. Learning to ride a bike is a skill they’ll keep forever, and can be the route to miles and miles of fun adventures.
The main ways to get your budding biker onto 2 wheels is by using stabilisers or a balance bike. Cycling means mastering a range of skills: balancing, pedalling, steering and braking, so which option is better?
The 2 smaller wheels either side of the rear wheel allow a child to pedal off almost immediately. But there’s no balance required, because the stabilisers offer that security. When you decide to take off the stabilisers, your child will need to unlearn the way they’ve been cycling for the last few months – which is a bit counter-intuitive. Plus, they’re not great on uneven ground, and can easily tip up.
A bike with stabilisers can be the cheaper option, though – because you can move from stabilisers to non-stabilisers on one bike, rather than needing 2.
Balance bikes are widely accepted as the preferable option while learning to ride these days. This is because your child is immediately learning how to balance, lean into turns and keep upright. There seems to be a very natural progression from walking on a balance bike, to running and gliding as their confidence grows. The skills your child learns on a balance bike are quickly and easily transferred to a pedal bike.
You could take the pedals off a regular bike and lower the seat, to create a balance bike which can then transform into a bike when the time is right.
Top tips for parents teaching their child to ride a bike
There are some key points in helping your child learn to ride a bike. Running alongside holding the bike or the handlebars isn’t ideal, as you’re taking control instead of your child, and they’re not learning to balance. Here’s how to do it the right way:
- Support your child from behind, under their armpits, so they have control of the bike but you can stay with them, in case they lose balance. You can hold firmly at first, and take a lighter hold when they’re getting more comfortable.
- Once you feel they’re balancing well, loosen your support, but keep running with them, so you can hold them again if they wobble too much.
- Encourage them to turn the pedals forward, round and round. If they continue to pedal backwards or don’t pedal, they might not be quite ready yet. Try again in a few weeks.
Once they’ve mastered the pedalling and balancing, it’s time to teach them how to start and stop. Begin by showing them where to have the pedal when starting, and support them in the same way as above.
Of course, learning to stop is also a key skill! Show your child the brakes, and let them walk the bike around, trying the brakes out, before giving them a go while cycling. Again, support is essential. Keep close at all times. A fall at this stage can put some little ones off riding again.
The most important thing to remember here, is that this should be a fun experience for you both! Learning to ride a bike is a momentous occasion for any child, and is a significant part of growing up. These are the moments they’ll remember and cherish. So keep calm, be patient, stay upbeat, don’t rush, and enjoy it.
Try not to get too frustrated if your little one isn’t quite getting it– just keep encouraging them, and relax. Maybe the first ride can be to the local ice-cream shop for a big reward. Have fun!
Bike safety on the road
Once you’ve taught your child the basics of cycling, it’s quite a different story for them to start cycling on the road. Many schools offer Bikeability courses, which tend to start in the 5th or 6th year.
A good starting point are tag-along bikes, such as the Burley Piccolo or the WeeRide co pilot tagalong, which give your child the experience of riding a bike on the road, without the risk of going solo.
Traffic awareness, and the ability to cycle safely on a road, only really comes around the age of 8 to 10. At this point, your child is ready to be chaperoned on roads.
- Before you hit the road, make sure your child is primed to obey your directions. And of course, they must know their left and right turns!
- Choose the quieter routes first, so your child gains confidence.
- Your child should be cycling about 50cms from the kerb.
- Ideally have an adult in front and behind – but if you’re on your own, cycle a bike length behind, and a little further out, to keep cars at bay. Where necessary, you can cycle alongside, for added protection.
- Keep the communication going, along with encouragement and praise.
Children’s bike safety equipment
Your child’s essential safety kit should start with a well-fitted helmet. Don’t buy a second-hand helmet, as you don’t know how many knocks and bashes it’s had. Instead, it’s best to get one fitted by an expert in a bike shop. In the UK, it should be EN 1080 European Standard-approved.
It’s also wise to buy reflective/high-vis clothing and strips for your child and their bike. Some parents play even safer with knee and elbow pads, but this can interfere with the pure joy of riding. You may want to consider letting them wear fingerless gloves though, as this protects their hands if they have a fall. Most kids fall off their bikes at some point – it’s all part of the learning process!
Ideas for family bike rides
Bike rides with the family are a great way to explore, keep fit and have fun together. Here's our top pick of family cycling activities to do any time of year:
- 50 top bike rides around the country that are perfect for all the family
- Some fantastic family trails chosen by the National Trust
- For Londoners, choose one of these great places to go on a long bike ride
- The National Cycle Network can give you even more cycling tips for a family day out.
So get your helmet on, pack your lunch boxes and get out there. Happy cycling!
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