Thursday, July 23, 2009

Biking with your baby or toddler: In praise of a front-mounted seat

(ETA: For an expanded review of the WeeRide Kangaroo seat, see my later post at Hobo Mama Reviews. Links are often affiliate links.)

It's bike season, and my 2-year-old is fascinated with all the Fahrr├Ąder we see on the bike path by our house. (Every word is a contest to see whether English or German will win out in his vocabulary! So far bikes are "faaahhh" combined with the sign language for bicycle.)

I had given away my bike back when we lived up a steep hill with stairs (lazy, lazy, I know), but this summer I knew I needed to restock my wheels and acquire a child's bike seat as well, because Mikko would love riding around with his mama.

I won't recommend the way I chose my bicycle (whatever was at Costco — don't hate). But I do want to plug the adorable bike seat we chose.

It's the WeeRide Kangaroo Child Bike Seat and is in the first four pictures in this article. I've included pictures of various other family-bike-riding options so you can get a feel for what's out there in case you want to go a different route. And I'll explain my decision-making process so you'll understand why I like what we chose.

In bringing children along for bike rides, there are four main options in the U.S.:

     1. Your child is old enough to bike alongside you. We're not there yet.

     2. If your child's a little older but you still want him or her close, a child-size tandem attachment to an adult's bike frame is a nifty possibility. Again, too advanced for us for now. That left us with:

     3. A trailer that's pulled along on the ground behind your bike, or

     4. A child seat that attaches to the bike.

Now, growing up, all I knew about and saw were options #1 (of course, ha ha) and #4, and as far as child bike seats went, they all sat behind the adult rider, so that the child riding there got a great view of the parent's butt.

Not that this is a bad thing — I remember my butt-gazing days fondly, since my dad let me continue riding in my child seat until I was a lanky 5 years old and was forced into retirement.

But when it came time to transport my own toddler on my 18-speed (actually, I have no idea how many speeds it is — did I mention I'm the kind of person who buys the first bike she sees from Costco?), I didn't like the idea of not being able to keep an eye on my little one.

I considered a trailer because I heard trailers have better safety ratings, but it seemed counter-intuitive to me, because how could I check on Mikko's happiness except by stopping entirely? Also, I'm not so adept at maneuvering my bike on its own (getting back into riding a bike's, riding a bike, right? You never forget, right??), so hauling along a trailer seemed chancy at best.

I liked the idea of having my baby on my bike with me instead. From a philosophical standpoint, it seemed more in line with Continuum ideals (no, really, work with me here), because Mikko could witness firsthand how bikes worked and how the adult moved and manipulated the bike. Back in a trailer, it would be more like a stroller ride, with less interaction with the physics and physicality of bicycling. From a practical standpoint, I also thought a compact bike seat would take less effort for getting inside and out and for storing the bike plus accouterments in our one-bedroom apartment.

But having the baby up behind me would be less immediate for him and less reassuring for me since I still couldn't keep an eye on him.

I was happy to see that front-set bike seats were available, which seemed like the best choice. In the WeeRide seat we chose, my arms can go around him as I hold the handlebars, and I can talk directly into the cute little ears peeking out from under his Spider-Man bike helmet (our toddler's head is massive enough that we had to skip to a child-size helmet). We together point out every truck, tractor, bike, boat, dog, and baby, and quite a few of the cars (or "Au-ko"s as he calls them), that goes by. It feels akin to babywearing, to me, because he's right up close at chest level and interacting with the world from the adult perspective, with my input and comfort.

I looked at a few models of front seats (because there are only a few available): The WeeRide Kangaroo Seat, the iBert, and the Discovery 101 by Swedish company Hamax. They all had good reviews, plus a few stinkers, so I just sort of had to try a seat for myself to find out if it worked for us.

We chose the WeeRide Kangaroo Seat because (a) it was the cheapest, particularly since it was eligible for the free Amazon shipping; (b) it allowed for the highest weight limit of the front-seated models (40 pounds); (c) it looked pretty comfy (though if you want even comfier you can go up to the inexplicably more expensive deluxe padded version of the WeeRide) — I liked that either WeeRide had a higher back rest than the iBert and what looked like enough room for my toddler's long legs; and (d) it promised to be easy to remove in a moment if I wanted to ride alone (and it is easy — you keep the bar attached but just unscrew the seat with one big thumbscrew by hand and then screw it back on for next time). The size issue was really crucial for us, because our toddler's so large. I think the front-mounted seats are maybe intended for younger babies, and then they're supposed to "graduate" to a back-mounted version or a trailer. But I wanted to use one for my big guy, anyhow.

Now that we've used it for a couple months, I can give the WeeRide a big thumbs up. Mikko thinks it's awesome, which of course is the most important. Here are some other notes about it:

     • My 25-month-old fits well enough at around 3 feet high and 35 pounds wide, though he's definitely on the big end of the allowed size; his legs have to be very bent to fit in the stirrup-like foot holders, even at the lowest setting, but his shod feet do fit inside.

     • I would definitely revamp the safety harness if I could, because the chest loops keep falling down, thereby allowing the straps to slip off his shoulders. I've had to prevent that by using a hair clip or buttoning a cardigan so that it keeps them up. I would never recommend that as appropriate safety gear for, say, a car seat, and it makes me sad that I have to jury-rig any sort of safety equipment. I console myself that I ride only on bike paths and in the daytime, at a slow pace (not for safety reasons, but just because I'm slow), and of course both Mikko and I wear appropriate helmets.

     • The WeeRide gives little hands a nicely padded resting place, when I can get Mikko to leave them there. We did go through a minor phase where he really wanted to hold the handlebars without my hands on them at the same time — that didn't last long, since I rather insisted that I needed to use them. Fortunately, I can usually remind Mikko to put his hands back up on the rest, and he'll comply for the next several minutes, so it must be pretty comfy.

     • I was worried that biking around the seat would be awkward, that I would be in an exaggeratedly bowlegged position, but that's not the case. I definitely have to turn my legs out a little wider than if the seat weren't there, but it's only a slight adjustment to riding normally, and I'm 5'9".

     • As I mentioned, getting the seat itself on and off is a cinch. Installing it in the first place took maybe 20 minutes, and I didn't have any problems getting it to fit my Costco bike. I've heard all of the front-seated models don't work with drop handlebars, only upright, so if you already have a (good) bike, that will affect your options.

     • The added 35 pounds of child weight plus the seat means that I don't go all that quickly, and hills would be a chore. Fortunately, I'm able to ride along a nice, level stretch of waterfront. I don't know if a trailer would be a lot easier or not, but presumably so, because of the benefit of added wheels. I haven't felt thrown off balance by by the weight, because I think it's well centered. I do try to be very cautious when putting Mikko into the seat not to rely on the kickstand to hold him and the bike up but always to steady the bike myself until I get on.

     • A front-mounted seat will get you a lot of smiles. Everyone we pass thinks we're absolutely adorable. What can I say? They're right.

So that's that. We're enjoying our bike rides, and we go a little farther each day. In researching this post, I found a couple good articles that might help you if you determine to go the trailer route: "Baby on Board: Bicycling With Your Child" from Mothering and "Cycling with a baby (and a small child)," a very hands-on article by Myra VanInwegen describing how best to arrange the interior of a trailer to make it safe for a very young baby, or a two-seater trailer to fit both a young baby and a toddler. Most cycling safety articles, and most bike seats, caution against using them before your baby is one year old (and therefore can stand the neck strains of a typical jolting bike ride), but if you're an avid cyclist like Myra, you might find that sort of wait interminable. I give no express recommendations on this — please consult whatever professionals you feel might be able to help you make decisions on an appropriate age to have your baby start riding along — but if you are bringing a little baby on a bike ride, I think Myra's idea to use a car safety seat secured within a trailer makes the best sense. (Just to point out, she offers other articles of interest to family and women riders as well.)

In reading about trailers, I realized that my idea of a front-mounted seat works best for a family like ours that has only one baby or toddler at a time and doesn't need to haul a lot of gear. If you have two young children who are not yet ready to ride on their own or on a tandem, then a double trailer might be preferable. Another option for carrying two would be to put one bike seat on your bike, and one on an adult partner's (either life or riding!). You could also buy one rear-mounted seat for the older child and one front-mounted seat for the younger (picture of a man doing just that above), which would be sort of like double slinging! If you use your bike as your main transportation and need to carry groceries or similar along with your baby, you'll need to consider that as well. To manage multiple kids and cargo, you could always go whole hog and get a Dutch Bakfiets, which look way cool and like such a better arrangement than a rear trailer. For us, since we ride (so far) only for our own amusement and plan to space our kids rather far apart, I suppose Mikko will have graduated to a tandem by the time we need to worry about the next kidlet joining Mama and big bro on a bike ride along the beach.

One note about cost: You can often find bikes and bike accessories, including various seats and trailers, for free or low cost by asking around or checking out groups like Freecycle or Craigslist for your area. Also check consignment and thrift shops. Just make sure that whatever you get is in good working order for safety's sake, and add in the essential safety gear depending on your riding habits (helmets for all riders for sure, plus lights and reflectors in case you're out after sunset, and a bell to warn pesky pedestrians on the bike path that you're coming through).

Whatever you choose, happy riding! Be sure to wave at all the motorcycles and trucks — we do! (If you're really lucky, they wave back.)

There are too many photos to list all the credits here, at least while my toddler continues to pester me to stop writing and do something fun like take a bike ride. Do me a favor and click on any of the photo links if you wish to trace them back to their respective copyright holders.


platespinner said...

Thanks for a really interesting and informative post. We just put our 15 month old in a trailer on the back of a bike for the first time on holiday and she seemed to really enjoy it. I drive to work with her in the car three days a week and I have been wondering whether or not to get a bike for the trip (about 4 miles so I do feel quite bad about driving). My only issue when we used the trailer was not being able to see her without craning right round (rather dangerous as wobble-inducing) so I like the idea of the front seat. My issue with cycling to work is the busy roads and lack of cycle lanes. I will have to make a decision before winter comes and puts me off...

Lauren Wayne said...

Totally! One of my fears (entirely irrational, I know) with the trailer idea is that my baby would have fallen out a mile back and I wouldn't have noticed. :)

You might consider the front seat, then, especially if you're biking in narrow areas, because a trailer is going to add width. I do understand the fear of biking in traffic with a baby, though. I haven't been brave enough yet to venture off the bike paths and sidewalks here. I would guess just be as visible as possible and take it easy. The good news is that I've found, as far as crossing the street goes or maneuvering around construction, people are much more courteous to a bicycle with a baby attached than otherwise.

Oh, your comment about winter reminded me: One pro of the trailer vs. the front seat is weather protection. If it's quite cold or there's a lot of precipitation where you are (UK, right? so, yeah), that could be a factor. I know I have to put a sweater on my guy even on some summer evenings because of the wind chill, and we're not into our rainy season again yet. But maybe you won't be biking on horrible days, anyway. (If it makes you feel less guilty, I won't be either...)

Good luck figuring it out! Babies do love bicycles, don't they?

twistedxtian said...

I know this is an old post, but I figured since you linked to it on Twitter today, it'd be okay to comment. :)

Does Mikko move around much? I'm just thinking in terms of balance, does it throw things off? My son will be 17 months in the spring and I'm not a fan of the behind-me seats. The trailer seems like a valid option but like you, I have the irrational fear that he'll fall out or a car won't see it and turn in tight behind me and hit it.

Lauren Wayne said...

Absolutely! :)

Mikko's not too wiggly a kid, but he is (was, at the time I wrote this) a typical toddler. If he gets antsy and tries to take his feet out of the footrests or take over the handlebars, I simply slow down and remind him that he needs to do X (put his feet back, put his hands on the handrest, etc.) before we can continue riding. I haven't had any situation where it was dangerous, and he's learned quickly that we have to ride a certain way.

I feel like I have better balance with him in front than behind (and, yeah, the trailer thing scares me), because it just feels more natural for me to balance something that's in front of me between my arms rather than hanging out behind me on the back of the bike. I'm not the most coordinated person, and I haven't had any problems feeling tippy with him in the seat.

Caveats: I ride pretty slowly, on mostly level and straight trails. YMMV, literally (ha), if you ride on hills or steep curves or whatever.

Danielle said...

I totally agree with having them up front. It's so nice to be able to interact and engage while on the go. We were fortunate enough to get our hands on a new cargo trike a few months ago and, so far, it has been amazing!

Here's a link to one of our latest adventures with our new trike:

Jenn @ Monkey Butt Junction said...

I know this is an older post, but I just have to comment. We went with the iBert seat and I love it. The interaction during our rides is fantastic because he is right up front with me. My son is 16 months old so doesn't have a huge vocabulary yet but we have great chats about the doggies and the cars and the ducks that we see. It is such a wonderful bonding experience.

Lauren Wayne said...

@Danielle: I am so jealous of your awesome cargo trike. :) That would be so great for urban living all around.

@Jenn @ Monkey Butt Junction: Yea! I think the iBert is so stinking cute. It was really the size/weight issue that ruled that out for us. I love the chatting about things you pass; they're so excited to share the adventure with you!

Anonymous said...

When your child outgrows the Weeride (my child outgrew the footholders at 3y on this seat!) - you might want to look at the WeeHoo I-go tag seat.
It is fantastic - although your child sits behind you - it's not right up at your butt - and the really great thing is it can be used from 2y - 9y of age - and the child gets an interactive experience as they are able to pedal their wheel if they wish (or rest if they don't want to).
This is a very happy experience for the child to know they are able to help propelling you both forwards - and they are not just passive in their bike journey.
It really fits with the "attachment parenting" and "gentle parenting" ideals I think - in that it allows the child to feel useful.

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