Urban Tribe - Ride with your kids in front.

Babies, brains and bikes

Posted by on May 16th, 2014 at 1:07 pm

(Photo by J. Maus/BikePortland)

The other day our former Family Biking columnist Marion Rice shared an interesting link. It was to a blog post by Suzanne Zeedyk titled, “How buggies shape babies’ brain”. I expected the post to be about the common question of how young is too young when it comes to carrying babies around in things other than automobiles.

However it turns out the post was about something I hadn’t thought about in all my years of being a dad: How the position of the baby’s face in relation to mine (while we ride) might impact language development. Here’s a salient excerpt from the post:

“Primary teachers have been witnessing a steady decrease in children’s linguistic abilities upon starting school, and they had wondered if the fact that so many strollers are now designed to face outward, rather than toward the adult, might be one of a variety of possible factors contributing to that decrease.”

Family trip to Stub Stewart State Park-10-60

My boy in a trailer at four months, not looking
very stimulated.
(Photo J. Maus/BikePortland)

Put another way, compared to the classic prams of old, many strollers face babies away from their parents, which leads to less interaction and therefore, less brain development. “We found that simply turning the buggy around doubles the amount of conversation that babies experience,” wrote Zeedyk, referring to a study by the National Literacy Trust.

This got me thinking of how we carry around babies while biking. I have three kids, and we started biking around with my two youngest ones when they were only three-four months old. We carried them in their “car” seats in one of two main ways: Either mounted into the front cargo box of a bakfiets, or mounted into a cargo trailer we towed behind us. As our kids have gotten older, we’ve carried them via bicycle in almost every imaginable way: tag-along bikes, rear child seats, front child seats, front-facing in cargo box seats, in a rear bucket, and so on.

When I tweeted the link to that blog post yesterday, it got quite a bit of attention. Several women were already aware of the importance of face-to-face contact while biking.

Dena @bikemamadelphia shared a photo of her Yepp brand bike seat mounted in reverse in the front of her cargo box

And follower Ottawa Bicycle Lanes shared this photo of their set-up:

Baby in a Bakfiets, Ottawa

Now that I know more about this issue, I’ll recommend that people try to set up their bike so that baby can see their face. While the research might be debatable, the fun of having a chat and/or making sweet little faces with a little one while you ride around town is reason enough to do it.

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  • mikeybikey May 16, 2014 at 1:31 pm

    wow, i never thought about it in terms of brain development but we’ve rolled with the rear/parent-facing car seat + bakfiets setup since our son was 10 days old. He is old enough to use the bench now, but we still keep using the car seat setup because we like having him face us among other things. Being able to interact with him face-to-face while biking is a simple pleasure! He gets a kick out of it when I pedal standing up 🙂

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  • Dan May 16, 2014 at 2:09 pm

    How do you focus on the road with such cute kids staring at you like that?!

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    • Aaronf May 19, 2014 at 11:32 am

      I think that this could be a serious concern. For the same reason driving with children can be a dangerous distraction, bicycle trips might not be the best time to log in face time. Pushing a stroller, sure.

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  • 9watts May 16, 2014 at 2:25 pm

    “While the research might be debatable…”

    That was my first thought. I mean it isn’t as if the kid were in the bike facing the wrong/right way all day long. Car-bound kids, on the other hand….

    One would like to see a control group: like kids who never sit in strollers.

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  • Glenn May 16, 2014 at 2:31 pm

    Too late for our bike trailer daughter. She’s a fourteen year old genius now. Had I but known, she’d already have a Nobel. Not too late for the unconceived grandchildren though.

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  • John Liu
    John Liu May 16, 2014 at 2:31 pm

    Facing rearward – sees mommy/daddy, sheltered from wind/rain/bugs, maybe some safety advantage for very young babies (similar to why infant car seats faces rearward).

    Facing forward – exposure to the sights and sounds of the city, develops the inner speed demon.

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  • Alan Love May 16, 2014 at 3:04 pm

    While interpersonal communication might be improved when face to face, there is something to be said about staring out at the world and letting the mind wander. Self-directed imagination is a good thing, too.

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    • Jonathan Maus (Publisher/Editor) May 16, 2014 at 3:13 pm

      I thought that too Alan. But then I wondered whether babies can even see far enough to understand anything at that age… Versus how I know they are very adept at making out the face of their caregiver – even as infants.

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      • Alan Love May 16, 2014 at 3:35 pm

        Serendipitously enough, I know a few things about pediatric vision. Babies don’t really have a “distance” at which they don’t see or don’t, but certainly under 6 months old, a parent’s face (Mom’s for the most part) at close range is one of the most engaging visual targets. After a year, it’s a good thing to get a variety of visual experience. Although studies may point to improved verbal skills with lots of face time, I’d argue that for overall development, a variety of visual stimuli is important. No matter what, being out and about, able to see the world, provides far better stimulation than staring at the back of the front seat of a car.

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  • David Bosch May 16, 2014 at 3:24 pm

    For the few that haven’t already come across this seminal research; “On the benefits of forward-facing for sub-adultage during two-wheeled perambulation”. Putsch, 2013

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  • dwainedibbly May 16, 2014 at 3:31 pm

    Every time I see a parent transporting a small child on a bicycle, it gives me hope for the future of Mankind.

    To the next person here who finds out that they’re having twins: Want to do a little study? 🙂

    I’m not a parent. Seems like you’d want the little spuds where you could keep an eye on them, which would mean in front of you. If that’s the case and they’re facing rearward towards you, it would give you an even better view than if they were facing forward, away from you. I guess, given all of that, it’s a little amazing that there aren’t more options for transporting little kids so that they’re facing the parent’s face. Anybody in the Portland bike accessories industry listening? Anyone? Anyone?

    I just had a thought: if I’m not a parent, does that make me a paren’t?

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    • Alan Love May 16, 2014 at 4:40 pm

      I’ve got 1 year old twins, but they will unfortunately not be able to be randomized into two groups. Both will be crammed onto the deck of my longtail (wrapped with a Hooptie, of course) once they are capable of non-squirmage while riding. Yes, they will only get to see my sweaty back, but their 4 year old brother will be sheparding them while making fart jokes. Howz that for language development?

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      • L May 17, 2014 at 7:50 am

        Language development plus spelling skills = shepherding not sheparding.

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  • J_R May 16, 2014 at 3:52 pm

    When our kids were 6 months to about 2 put them in their car seats in the trailer and they slept while we rode. While sleeping, they didn’t see much of our faces or anything else.

    At 3 they were riding on the back of the tandem – with a child stoker kit consisting of extended pedals, extended handle bars, back rest and two chest straps. They saw our backs not our faces. They did see lots of activities around them and really enjoyed being on “the big bike” where we could travel further and see more.

    I’d be much more likely to attribute the linguistic abilities of children to 1) the amount of time kids spend with their parents 2) the amount of time spent by parents reading to and with the kids and 3) the amount of time not spent in front of the TV rather than whether they face forward or backward in a stroller.

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  • Chris I May 16, 2014 at 4:10 pm

    That’s it. I’m getting a Bullitt.

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  • AG May 16, 2014 at 4:59 pm

    I have serious doubts that a child’s language development can be adversely affected by riding facing forward on family bike trips. Research I’ve read recently suggests its more likely from parents constant attention to their smartphones and other screens. The study mentioned in particular that the intimacy during feeding time is being disrupted while parents are checking Facebook. So putting away the electronics and paying attention to your child will increase those language skills.

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  • Derek May 16, 2014 at 6:31 pm

    Seems like reaching to me. I’d blame it on more obvious things like being plastered in front of screens (ipads,iphones,televisions, computer gaming) by both parents and kids

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  • Dan May 16, 2014 at 6:54 pm

    I wonder if riding with an empty kids bike seat on the back would get more cars to pass at a safe distance?

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  • OnTheRoad May 16, 2014 at 7:08 pm

    How would riding in the rear child carrier be much different. Great view of mom or dad’s back. Kinda like being the stoker on a tandem. Granted the overall sensory experience would be more stimulating, but visually, not so much.

    What’s that old saying, unless you’re the lead dog, the view never changes.

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    • OnTheRoad May 16, 2014 at 7:10 pm

      This was in response to Alan Love at 3:35. Somehow didn’t get nested.

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  • GlowBoy May 17, 2014 at 9:14 am

    Unfortunately they appear to have stopped making it a couple years ago, but our Chariot Sidecarrier is perfect for interaction with the little one. Although you have to turn your head to the side, you can still make a lot of eye contact and talk to each other far more easily than when the kid is behind you (we also know what it’s like to have the kid behind you, thanks to our trailerbike and our Madsen rear-bucket cargo bike).

    One of my best memories is of riding home from a trip to Trader Joe’s when my older one was then a toddler – in the Sidecarrier munching crackers next to me, and every couple of minutes sharing a handful with me while I pedaled.

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  • Ted FLetcher May 17, 2014 at 7:48 pm

    Our daughter is now 54 and rode on a seat on the bar of my bike until her brother joined us on that seat and she reverted to climbing onto the rear carrier after we were mounted. This didn’t slow her conversation at all. Her conversation did sort of stunt her brothers conversation development as she generally managed to defeat his arguments. After tyre maintenance became difficult (with the load causing numerous blowouts) and our daughter started riding her own bike his comments started to be more directed to me instead of around me as we generally rode in single file his language developed pretty well (he’s now 50).

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  • Shane May 19, 2014 at 9:41 am

    Yeah, not sure the time spent on the bike facing away from parents would really be any less beneficial than facing them…though we certainly loved looking at this cute little thing when we rode:

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  • Jeremy Cohen May 19, 2014 at 1:21 pm

    I rode my first kid (now 8 years old) in a trailer most of the time, and she continues to talk NON-STOP. The younger kid (now 3 years old) spent her time in a mini-yepp in front of my handlebars. I prefer the front seat because I could talk to her without turning my head and yelling, but I can’t imagine what direction she faced made much of a difference in language acquisition. In any event, her proximity to me was much better than if we were in a car seat in a car (facing either direction, using mirrors to make sure she was awake/not choking, etc…) This seems like a non-issue as there are so many more relevant and pressing issues for parents to worry about instead of the “harm” that may come from walking with your baby facing out. This sounds like a problem for Portlandia, not Portland.

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