Trailers, bike seats and helmets make for a safe ride for the youngest members of the family.
As enthusiastic as new parents may be about hitting the bike trails, it is important to remember that babies should be at least a year old before riding in either a bike seat or a bike trailer, according to Erin Peterson, family safety programs coordinator for the Minnesota Safety Council in St. Paul.
"You want to make sure the child has the neck muscles necessary to hold their head up and to support a helmet," said Peterson. "It's always a good idea to check with your pediatrician to see if being on a bike is appropriate for your baby's age and size."
Baby bike seats, which generally accommodate children weighing up to 48 pounds, can be somewhat of a challenge to the parent cyclist. Peterson suggests parents make initial trial runs with the child in the seat on a quiet bike path to gauge how they do and how the child is doing.
"Having your child in a bike seat can definitely impact your balance when you're biking, since your center of gravity will shift," she said. "You need to have good strong biking skills and stamina."
While little ones might initially like the idea of a bike ride with a parent, sometimes the reality of being confined to a seat and wearing an unfamiliar bike helmet take some getting used to. If the first couple of runs are less than successful, wait a few weeks and try again, Peterson suggests.
Most kids tend to prefer riding in a bike trailer. Trailers also are less constricting and easier for a parent to maneuver while pedaling; they do add additional weight, but the balance issues are eliminated. Trailers all have safety straps, and children still must wear a helmet when they are riding.
Erik Saltvold, owner of Erik's Bike and Board stores in Minnesota and Wisconsin, said many families tend to prefer bike trailers since the overall length of use with the trailer tends to be longer than with a bike seat.
"Trailers can carry up to 100 pounds and there are some models which can fit two children," he said. "Bike trailers hold their value pretty well and can typically be used up until the time the child is ready to ride a bike on their own."
Since bike trailers tend to be low to the ground, Peterson suggests attaching a 3- to 6-foot flag to the back of the trailer for better visibility to motorists, although she says the best safety strategy is to stick to bike paths as much as possible.
Families looking for secondhand child seats or bike trailers (new models typically cost more than $300) can often find them at garage sales, but Peterson said those purchases should be carefully considered. A check on the U.S. Consumer Products Safety Commission (CPSC) website can determine if the seat or trailer has been subject to a recall.
"Make sure to look for signs of wear and tear or missing pieces. Find out if the sellers still have the owner's manual," she said. "If you're buying a used helmet, make sure it has a CPSC sticker on the inside. Find out the history: If the helmet has been in an accident, it is a better idea to buy something new."
Young children aren't the only ones being taken for a ride these days. Pets are getting into the act, too, which is why Erik's Bikes and Boards sells a doggy trailer -- virtually identical to a child's trailer, including safety restraints -- that can hold dogs weighing up to around 30 pounds.
Just as a parent wouldn't want a squirmy child in a bike seat, an overactive dog in a trailer could be hazardous, too.
"You need to have a pretty mellow dog who would go along with it," said Saltvold. "A hyper dog would probably freak out."
The only difference between the four-legged riders and the two-legged ones? Dogs don't need a helmet.
Julie Pfitzinger is a West St. Paul freelance writer.
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