A reader contacted us with a dilemma — she is about to have her first child, she doesn’t own a car, and she travels primarily by bike. In preparing for her new life as a parent, she had some questions.
Is it safe to ride with a newborn? Is it legal? Are there important age benchmarks she should know about? She was particularly concerned about the impact of vibration on a child’s brain development.
“It’s not about crashes at all, it’s about the potential for repeated mild trauma to the brain because of bumps associated with everyday road conditions.”
— Dr. Tord Alden, Children’s Memorial Hospital (Chicago)
Unfortunately for this mom and many others, there is a distinct lack of information, research, or even observable norms with regard to child bicycle safety in the United States. Child carrying devices for cars are heavily regulated, tested, and their use and effectiveness researched. But bicycles are a whole different beast, and standards developed for carrying children at freeway speeds, in heavy car traffic, in enclosed vehicles with serious shock absorption simply don’t apply.
The law is not entirely clear either. Here in Oregon, children under 16 are legally required to wear a helmet. For more on that law, I asked Caroline Forell, a lawyer at the University of Oregon. She responded,
“ORS 814.485 doesn’t say anything about how they go by bike – in a seat, in a trailer or in a bakfiets, etc. – but it does specify that the child must wear state-approved protective headgear when they are carried on a bicycle.”
She adds that if a parent is caught carrying a helmetless child by bike, he or she “can be fined twice; once for the failure to have protective headgear on their child, and another time for endangering their passenger, by not having them wear the protective headgear.” (ORS 814.485 and 814.486, respectively.)
This brings up a dilemma: It is legally required to put a helmet on your infant (no matter how small) but no helmets on the market are sized for infants. Not only that, but it may not be safe to put a helmet on them to begin with.
I posed this dilemma to Dr. Tord Alden of Children’s Memorial Hospital in Chicago. He explained that having infants wear a bicycle helmet when they are reclined in an infant seat pushes the head forward, flexing the neck and tweaking the spine out of alignment, which puts the baby at risk for cervical trauma and even airway blockage in extreme cases.
The Bike Helmet Safety Institute (BHSI) (the helmet advocacy arm of the Washington Area Bicyclist Association) provides a comprehensive resource of arguments for universal helmet use, including a page on bicycling with young children. Voluntarily acknowledging that the issue is an “alarmist” one, BHSI recommends that parents do not take children under one year of age on a bicycle, primarily because of concerns about crashes.
Dr. Alden thinks the real issue is elsewhere, however. “I know biking is safe,” he told me in an email.
“It’s not about crashes at all, it’s about the potential for repeated mild trauma to the brain because of bumps associated with everyday road conditions. What is undocumented is what is happening to the brain during the bumps. Think of the movement of a bobble head doll in slow motion — that’s what may be happening to the brain in the skull inside the infant’s head after some big bumps.”
“Neurodevelopment is critical during the younger years. An infant’s brain is a bunch of neurons, uninsulated wires, if you will. During the first year the infant is developing the myelin sheath, which insulates the neurons and sets the stage for all the development and learning that the brain does next. If you had to pick a time when it is most important to protect the brain from excess vibration or bumps and jostling about it would be during that first year after birth.”
But when exactly is it safe to ride with your infant? And what do parents do in countries where family biking is the norm?
For perspective on those questions, I asked two biking dads from Europe.
Micon Schorsji, a dad in Holland, said that the conventional wisdom over there is that it’s probably not a good idea to take infants by bike until at least nine months old. “I remember that with both our daughters, we had done some trips by bike when they were younger than nine months. We used a Baby Bjorn carrier. But of course you are not very flexible with a baby attached to you and it felt a bit dangerous, so we used this carrier more for walking. Sometimes you do see parents moving their infants in a car seat installed in a bakfiets, but it’s a rare sight.”
Mikael Colville-Andersen lives in Denmark with his two young children and is author of the blog Copenhagenize (where he frequently speaks out against helmet laws).
“There are roughly 35,000 cargo bikes in Copenhagen alone. 25% of all families in Copenhagen with two kids have one.”
— Mikael Colville-Anderson, Copenhagenize.com
In Denmark, Colville-Anderson said, children must by law be secured on a bike, but laws do not mention age. “You simply don’t think it about it,” he said, unlike in the United States where bicycling is seen as a dangerous sport. “There are roughly 35,000 cargo bikes in Copenhagen alone. 25% of all families in Copenhagen with two kids have one. So the preferred way of transporting babies is in a cargo bike or, when they can sit, in a bike seat.” These bikes, he added, generally have wide, soft tires which absorb impacts and vibration better than the bikes U.S. riders are used to.
Colville-Anderson added that safety doesn’t stop with a helmet, citing a new study that found that you inhale more carcinogenic particles inside a car than on a bike path adjacent to car traffic.
Meanwhile, in Portland, parents continue to navigate carfree transportation with the help of the limited information and cultural knowledge out there. Jeff Cropp, a carfree dad with a four month old, is still waiting a few months. “We have chosen to hold off until Colin is at least six months old, and probably more likely in the range of 9 to 12 months.”
“We’d love to start riding as a family sooner,” he added, “particularly since it would be the easiest and most convenient way to get places outside of our immediate neighborhood. However, there are too many unknowns about whether riding in a bicycle at this young of an age would be detrimental to his physical health.”