Portland Century - August 18th

Tips for tackling toddler helmet hesitancy

Posted by on February 27th, 2018 at 10:34 am

Decorations — like these R2D2 stylings for a Star Wars themed ride — make wearing a helmet fun.
(Photos by Madi Carlson)

Our Family Biking column is sponsored by Clever Cycles.

➤ Read past entries here.

There’s no debate about helmet use for kids (heck, even most kids in Copenhagen wear them!). Opinions aside, it’s an Oregon law that everyone 15 years or younger has to wear one. But that doesn’t mean it’s as easy as snapping a buckle.

Getting a helmet on a kid is one of the toughest parts of family biking.

Over the years I’ve developed my own collection of tricks to take the hassle out of helmets. Today we’ll talk about where to buy them, choosing the right one, how to fit them — and of course, how to have fun while doing it.


Helmet fit isn’t exactly the same as helmet comfort, but they’re related. And since they’re going to wear a helmet anyways, it should fit them well. I’m partial to the eyes/ears/mouth helmet fit test and have demonstrated it to hundreds of kids before Kidical Mass rides and bike rodeos:

Covered in yellow puppy stickers and comfortable enough to sleep in

Eyes: When you look up you should see the brim of your helmet. This lets you know it’s positioned level on your head.

Ears: Your helmet straps should form a V right under your ear.

Mouth: When you open your mouth, you should feel the straps against your chin. You can also check proper chin strap tightness by being able to fit only two fingers between your chin and strap when your mouth is closed.

I like the additional step on the City of Portland’s How to Fit a Helmet web page: “When the helmet is sitting on your head (even when it’s not buckled) it shouldn’t move very much when shaking your head ‘yes’ or ‘no.'”

If you’re more of a video learner, here’s a 27-second helmet fit video from Safe Kids Worldwide:

Choosing a helmet

Helmets fit differently, so the best way to ensure a good fit is to bring your kiddo along when you shop. Comfort is important in finding a helmet your tot will want to wear, but depending on age and personality the look of the helmet might also dictate the one you go home with.

Comfy helmet = happy kids.
(Photo: J. Maus/BikePortland)

Here are a few other variables that might steer you to specific brands or styles:

Clasp: all Nutcase (based here in Portland) models and some Lazer helmets have magnetic clasps that won’t pinch skin.

Adjustability: helmet straps will routinely work their way loose. Without fail, I discover my own are loose when conducting my helmet-fit spiel to a group of kids and make tightening my straps part of my fit demonstration. Sometimes dials and buckles bother (or conversely, intrigue) some kids, so keep that mind when choosing. The Autofit® system used on some Lazer helmets hugs the head, avoiding the need to make adjustments.

Venting: Some styles have more vents for better air flow. I’m miserable in the summer with my heavy bike and heavy hair if I’m not in the most vented helmet on the market, but my kids have never complained of hot heads whether in a trailer or pedaling their own bikes. However, if you have a sweaty baby it’s something to consider.

Shape: If your kid will spend any time in a trailer, some brands are flatter in the back (Nutcase and Bern to name a couple) and will be more comfortable. Some trailers boast recessed areas for helmets, but many of us use trailers before the kids are tall enough to reach the recessed area and even so, a pointy aerodynamic shaped helmet won’t recess as comfortably as a smooth one. Related, if you’ve got a tall kid in a front seat with a pointy helmet, you’ll get jabbed in the chest occasionally.

MIPS: Multi-Directional Impact Protection System is available in some helmets. If this is a feature you want, it will help narrow down your choices. When I browsed kid helmets at Clever Cycles last week, shop owner Eva Frazier tipped me off that Nutcase will introduce a MIPS helmet for the 2018 season. Clever currently carries Lazer helmets with MIPS and non-MIPS versions.


Practice practice practice

Skip this section if your kid is happy to wear a helmet (and then color me jealous). In our family, we did a lot of preemptive helmet wearing — that is, putting one on before we started to ride — just to make it a non-issue when it came time to buckle into the bike seat. It made all the difference.

Before getting on the bike, I helped him associate the helmet with his favorite ride-along toy.

Practice with a ride-on toy. I didn’t start biking with my first baby until he was one, but when he was eight months old we got a helmet and a horribly loud ride-on toy. He adored everything about that little truck–beeping, blinking, dials, buttons — so much so that he didn’t object to donning his helmet to play with it.

Practice together in the house. Wearing helmets together in the house is a wonderful way to get used to feeling the weight of a helmet on your head and get proficient at adjusting straps when you’re not in a rush to get out the door and on the bike. There’s a chance this practice might start with only you wearing your helmet around the house before your tot is ready to join you.

Practice with toys. I’ve made helmets, balaclavas, and mittens for my kids’ stuffed animals just to help get them in the mood. I’m not very crafty and have found paper and tape or cut-up mateless socks do the trick.


Art-loving toddlers and older kids might enjoy personalizing their helmets.

Pipe cleaner helmet antennas are weatherproof and long lasting

Stickers! I first saw Fun Reflector reflective sticker sets (based in Beaverton) years ago at Clever Cycles and have purchased several there and ordered even more. Even regular stickers will do the trick for making a helmet fun, but these bike-specific stickers are strong and stand up to the weather. Other sticker operations can make custom vinyl stickers (I order these each time the kids go up a bike size to ensure they will use the new, bigger bike). If you’ve used a local print shop for this, I’d love to hear your recommendations in the comments.

Pipe cleaners! I’ve run a lot of helmet decorating stations at street fairs and love making helmet antennas out of pipe cleaners. Simple antennas are pretty fun, but flowers and coils are great, too.

Especially decorative helmets

I’m sure I don’t know all the cute helmet options out there, but here are some I’ve come across:

A friend’s Wipeout Dry Erase Helmet

Wipeout Youth Dry Erase Helmet by Triple Eight is made to draw on! I saw these at REI a couple years ago, but they might only be at big-box stores now.

Another brand you’ll find at big-box stores are Raskullz which feature mohawks and amazing animal looks. (Note that as of today they are among the bike brands owned by Vista Outdoor, a company that has come under scrutiny for their support of the National Rifle Association.)

Two models of Lazer helmets (P’Nut and Nut’Z) have an optional Crazy Nutshell snap on cover. I know several little fire fighters who rarely take off their helmets they love them so much.

This one is probably more for the adults as I know a few fashion-conscious grown ups who have ordered YAKKAY helmets and covers, but since their small is listed as 51-54cm (the same size as Nutcase youth small) they seem worth mentioning here.

I’m giving up!

So what happens when you’ve tried every trick in the book and nothing seems to work? There’s a very good chance that as soon as you start moving, the uncomfortable helmet will be forgotten.

There are also times when you’re far from home and the helmet suddenly becomes unbearable. If you’re also a baby-wearer and bring your carrier with you everywhere, it might be easiest to remove the helmet and strap the fussy toddler to your back and walk the bike a bit. Or, leave the toddler seated on the bike without the helmet and walk the bike (I don’t know if this follows the letter of the law, but I’ve done this many times). Just know we’ve all been there and it won’t last forever and you’ll both be helmeted and rolling again soon.

Free and cheap helmets

There are three sources for reduced-price kid bike helmets listed on the PBOT Bike Resources on a Budget page:

Doernbecher Children’s Hospital Safety Center
700 SW Campus Drive Portland, OR 97239
Monday – Friday; 9:30am-3:30pm (or by appointment)

Randall Children’s Hospital Safety Center
501 N Graham St. Portland, OR 97227
Monday – Thursday 9:00am-12:00pm (or by appointment)
503-413-4600 – please call before visiting to ensure they are open

Bikes for Humanity PDX
3354 SE Powell Blvd. Portland, OR 97202

And coming up Saturday, March 24th you can get free bike helmets for low-income children at the Brian Duncan Bicycle Helmet Giveaway hosted by Portland Police Bureau: Youth Services Division and Alberta Abbey.

The legal stuff

Per Oregon Revised Statute (ORS) 814.485 anyone under 16 is required to wear a helmet on a bike. Helmets generally fit babies starting around age one. For advice on whether you should ride with kids younger than that, see this 2009 BikePortland.org post by Marion Rice, Carrying your infant by bike: How young is too young? (I plan to revisit that topic soon!)

Thanks for reading. We’ve had a great response to this column! Feel free ask questions in the comments below or email me your story ideas and insights at madidotcom [at] gmail [dot] com.

— Madi Carlson, @familyride on Instagram and Twitter

Browse past Family Biking posts here.

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  • Avatar
    J_R February 27, 2018 at 10:47 am

    We actually wore out helmets at the dinner table to get the kids used to wearing them.

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    • Madi Carlson (Columnist)
      Madi Carlson (Columnist) February 27, 2018 at 1:47 pm

      What a funny image!

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        Stephen Keller February 27, 2018 at 5:24 pm

        With some of the strong and diverse opinions around our dinner table, helmets aren’t a bad idea.

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    Dan A February 27, 2018 at 11:06 am

    Another note on fit: Lots of kids’ helmets don’t have a way to adjust the circumference fit. I strongly suggest paying extra if necessary for this feature – it has made our kids’ helmets last considerably longer than they would have otherwise, and they won’t flop around on their heads if the crown can be adjusted.

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    B. Carfree February 27, 2018 at 11:35 am

    Thank goodness for pink helmets and helmets with pictures of flowers on them. My two granddaughters loved the appearance of their helmets, which they helped pick out, and for them looks are very important. The only downside is that I have to wear a helmet when I ride with them, a daily occurrence.

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      colton February 27, 2018 at 12:42 pm

      “The only downside is that I have to wear a helmet when I ride with them”

      Have to, or choose to? Perhaps you should simply model appropriate behavior for them and explain that they are only required (unlike you) to wear a helmet until they are 16. If you don’t believe in the value of a helmet, why model the opposite?

      Conversely, if you believe that helmets offer your granddaughters some protection that is worth it, why would you do something different when they aren’t looking? Eventually they will see through the hypocrisy.

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        Dan A February 27, 2018 at 2:55 pm

        It’s not hypocritical to say that kids need to wear a helmet and adults don’t.

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        B. Carfree February 27, 2018 at 4:05 pm

        I’m not strongly anti- or pro-helmet. They’re tools with limitations like any other. The only difference is they have the ability to inflame passions on both sides and are required equipment for people under the age of 16.

        I wear mine with the kids because they would think it unfair that they legally have to wear one and I don’t. I’m just avoiding the issue until they are old enough for the discussion. At this point, I do want them to wear helmets because at their skill level falling off is a very real risk. I’m about as likely to fall off my bike as I am to fall down while walking.

        I don’t generally wear my helmet around town. Like I said, falling down independent of some motorized assistance is too unlikely to fret over, and if there is an assistant a piece of Styrofoam isn’t going to do much good other than reminding me which end is up as I fly through the air so I can stick the landing (yeah, actually happened that way once). When I go out for a joy ride, I’ll wear one because I’ll sometimes push towards the edge of my skillset, where a deer hopping out or a peacock fluttering down from a nearby tree could cause an unplanned landing.

        Now, there is one aspect of helmets that I am passionate about. Why do we not require helmets for motor vehicle occupants? Motor helmets are proven effective and motorists are 12% more likely to suffer traumatic brain injury per hour than cyclists. In fact, 9000 deaths from traumatic brain injuries occur annually among motorists.

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          Phoenix March 1, 2018 at 12:53 pm

          not likely to fall down you say? how about likely to be hit by a car while riding? You don’t wear protective gear because you might make “a mistake,” but because those around you over whom you have no control might/will eventually. For me it’s simple: if you like where your brain is & how it functions (such as it may), then wear a helmet.

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    rainbike February 27, 2018 at 11:51 am

    Whenever I ride past a kid who is wearing a helmet, I give them a thumbs-up and say something like, “That’s a cool helmet”.

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    Andy K February 27, 2018 at 1:00 pm

    Great write up! Knowing the exemptions is just as important as knowing the law. You are not required to wear a helmet if it violates your religious beliefs or practice. This applies to people of all ages. See ORS 814.487

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      Eric Leifsdad February 27, 2018 at 1:42 pm

      I religiously believe that we shouldn’t sweat it if a kid wants to ride around without a helmet or you forgot to bring it. https://www.oregonlaws.org/ors/814.487

      I also teach them that they should think about whether they’re doing something that might lead to falling on their head and maybe a helmet is a good idea. I don’t wear a helmet when riding in traffic because I believe it puts me and my kids at too much risk of drivers thinking they don’t need to be careful (including myself.) What’s with these people in the Netherlands and elsewhere who ride with no helmet like it’s some kind of normal and safe activity?

      Too bad giro is in the gun business but maybe not surprising what with the fear mongering around bike helmets (monger means sell.) I’m sure other brands have easily adjustable suspension to help fit kids growing heads (not to mention hood or not.)

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        Greg Spencer February 28, 2018 at 11:19 am

        What church do you go to? Sign me up. The obsession with bike helmets in this country drives me crazy. We bought helmets for our kids when we moved to Oregon, but I don’t wear one myself, neither does my wife, and we often forget to remind the kids about it when they’re with us. One of the most annoying things in the world are motorists who shout out their windows about our kids not wearing helmets. Please mind your own business. The biggest danger to kids’ safety is car traffic — not the lack of helmets. When I was growing up, I rode bikes everyday without a helmet. I never hurt my head, and didn’t know any kid who hurt their head riding a bike. But of course helmets are the law now, even though obesity and type-II diabetes overtook head injuries as childhood health threats ages ago. Agh!!

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    • Madi Carlson (Columnist)
      Madi Carlson (Columnist) February 27, 2018 at 1:48 pm

      Thanks for bringing that up! I have to admit I didn’t know of this exemption before reading about helmet laws last week.

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    Gary February 27, 2018 at 1:21 pm

    If your child is obsessed with Elmo (which in our case occurred after watching just one episode with grandma :-/ ), the “Bicycle” episode of Elmo’s World prominently features a helmet that Elmo can’t ride without. Our toddler has never objected to a helmet, and I can’t help but think it has something to do with watching that quite a few times 🙂

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    • Madi Carlson (Columnist)
      Madi Carlson (Columnist) February 27, 2018 at 1:50 pm

      This is probably the best advice ever. I tried to shield my kids from Elmo, but somehow they found him, too! My second kid’s first word was “pothole” and his second was “Elmo.”

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    Rain Waters February 27, 2018 at 1:46 pm

    Shop, fit, convince, pinch, heal, indoctrinate, reinforce for 2 hours. Load, drive, unload. Ride for 30 minutes. Load, drive, unload. Upload image of PC hellmented new cyclist to FB. Receive official goodhousekeeping seal of approval. Nice.

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    mikeybikey February 27, 2018 at 1:51 pm

    We (the parents) don’t wear helmets nor did we give helmets any additional thought or attention when the kids starting riding in a childseat on the bike. We always address bicycle helmets in a very matter of fact manner and not unlike the way we address carseats and seatbelts in a car. This means that we basically ignore them completely until the split second they go on and the buckles are fastened. 99% of the time that alone is enough. When there have been complaints, we simply remind them its the law and its designed for their safety and then we move on and start the ride or drive. If a little more help is needed, we might play them some music or even tell a story from their life. So my advice is don’t overcomplicate it.

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    John Lascurettes February 27, 2018 at 3:21 pm

    I’m less worried about the kids than I am the parents that don’t seem to know how to fit the helmets on their children right in the first place. So many kids have the helmet on the back of their crown like it’s a yarmulke — with no protection for the front of their skull (nor face) and likely to fall off with any kind of collision.

    My kid was such a little helmet cop when he was on the tagalong that he’d yell at people on Sunday Parkways that weren’t wearing their helmet. “Hey, you need a helmet!” It was a hard thing to explain to him that not all adults are required to wear one. We always wore ours in his presence on bikes just to reinforce the habit though. I will sometimes go without when tooling around the neighborhood, but wouldn’t if we was along for the ride. I never leave my helmet off for my commutes.

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    canuck February 28, 2018 at 6:27 am

    I’m not a parent, so take this with a grain of salt. But if wearing a helmet even reduces the possibility of serious injury by 1%, why wouldn’t you wear one? You’re a parent, isn’t it worth even that 1% to be around to watch you kids grow up?

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      Dan A February 28, 2018 at 11:28 am

      Ever see an adult wear a helmet while playing soccer? Do all of those people not want to watch their kids grow up?

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        Kyle Banerjee February 28, 2018 at 3:19 pm

        There is no potential to bang your head on concrete in soccer.

        Talk to some ER physicians or cyclists outside the activist community — you’ll find there’s no controversy over helmets.

        Helmet controversy is this community’s answer to those who find climate change and vaccinations confusing.

        What is true is that a lot of people — especially kids — do not wear helmets properly. In such cases, the helmet will provide dramatically less (and possibly zero) benefit.

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      Greg Spencer February 28, 2018 at 11:33 am

      People believe bike helmets enhance safety because bike helmets are compulsory and they’re a cultural norm. It’s not because there’s evidence they do any good. I love my kids more than myself, and I protect them and nurture them accordingly. They eat well, get tons of exercise and we rarely travel by car. Hurtling down the highway at 60 mph amid other motorists doing the same — that’s frightening to me, and I have nightmares about having my family taken from me in a traffic accident. I do not fuss about bike helmets. You might not agree with my approach to safety and parenting, but don’t tell me I don’t love my kids.

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    Steve Scarich February 28, 2018 at 7:37 am

    I would be interested to hear others experiences of kids’ helmet law enforcement. Over here in Bend, my impression is that there is zero enforcement. I see kids riding around all the time without helmets, although I would guess that about 2/3 do wear them. I was even witness to two helmetless kids running into the side of a van in a parking lot. I went over to observe the whole scene (two cop cars and EMS). No injuries and the kid’s parents were called and came to the scene. Then, after all was said and done, the kids were allowed to ride home without helmets, and no mention was ever made by anyone at the scene about helmet use. Clearly, at least in Bend, cops are instructed not to enforce the law.

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      Greg Spencer February 28, 2018 at 11:51 am

      No Portland cops have ever said anything to us about helmet-less kids. That gives me the feeling that it is a low priority.

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    chris February 28, 2018 at 10:40 am

    I can’t tell if you’re being ironic about the “horribly loud” ride on toy for an 8 month old. Most of my kids toys have 2 volume levels. My 8 month old is certainly louder than any of his toys, his sound levels sometimes remind me of my punk rock days when I got stuck in front of the loudspeaker.
    Great column, I look forward to taking my little guy on rides soon.

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    Gary February 28, 2018 at 11:55 am

    LOL. Yep, he hadn’t seen a second of TV in his young life until grandma ruined him 😉 His first word, within about a week, was literally “Elmo.” We definitely keep the habit in check, and all in all it’s been pretty positive–coinciding with his two favorite episodes, he’s obsessed with his balance bike (which started very young) and tools/building things.

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      Gary February 28, 2018 at 11:55 am

      Oops, meant to reply to Madi above.

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    Clark in Vancouver February 28, 2018 at 1:58 pm

    Just for the record there is debate about helmet use for kids. The same lack of evidence for their necessity and the same imaginary need as the adult ones.

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    pdxhobbitmom February 28, 2018 at 8:22 pm

    I really appreciate your column, Madi. There is nothing simple about biking with kids. I love hearing specific ways you have tackled the ridiculous challenges that parents face with creativity and a great attitude!

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    Clark in Vancouver March 1, 2018 at 9:42 am

    This brings up another topic which is that most of the bikes sold in North America for kids are unstable by design. They’re mini versions of mountain bikes basically which are a specialized type of frame for a sport. That’s why these kids look so wobbly like they’re going to fall over.

    What we should have available are stable frame bikes like they have in Europe. These things (like the adult versions) basically balance themselves.


    And why doesn’t Brooklyn Bikes, Simcoe and Brodie make good kids bikes? The only one in this continent I know of are Linus with their Lil’ Roadster.

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