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Child Bike Seats: How to Choose
From front or rear mounting, to bike compatibility and shoulder straps, we guide you through the features that really matter.
Child bike seats are a fun and easy way to get out and about with toddlers and preschoolers. Small, compact, and available in a variety of mounting styles, bike seats allow parents to keep their kids close and allow for fun conversation en route. The first step in your journey to finding the perfect bike seat for you and your child is determining if your bike is able to take a bike seat, and what kind of mount it can take. If you already know your bike is suitable for a bike seat, you can scroll down Step 3: What to Look for When Shopping for a Child Bike Seat below.
Before You Ride: Is Your Bike Compatible with a Child Bike Seat?
One of the main frustrations parents have with child bike seats is getting them properly mounted. Not all bikes are compatible with bike seats, while other bikes are only compatible with certain types of seats or a handful of brands. Standard city bikes, hybrids or commuter bikes are the most versatile, while specialty bikes, such as carbon fiber frames (any type), road, or full-suspension mountain bikes, are not recommended. Prior to purchasing a seat, you will want to ensure your bike is compatible with your seat of choice.
Step 1: What type of child bike seat are you looking to mount?
Before we dig into the specifics of bike components, it’s important to first determine what type of bike seat you prefer. The requirements of your bike really depend on the type of seat you prefer to mount to it.
Once you’ve selected the type of seat you prefer, you’ll need to examine your bike to determine if the seat type is compatible with your bike. We’ve broken down the specific requirements for the adult bikes by the three main child seat mounting types – front-mounted, rear frame-mounted and rear rack-mounted.
Step 2: Requirements for Mounting Seat Types
Front-mounted seats are suitable for ages 9 months to about 2 years old. With the seat placed between the adult rider’s arm, toddlers often feel more comfortable and carefree in a front seat versus a rear-mounted seat. To determine if your bike will properly fit a front-mounted seat, you need to be able to answer three questions about your bike:
- What type of headset does your bike have (threaded or threadless)?
- Does your bike have space available to mount the seat?
- What is the distance between the seat tube and handlebars on your bike?
While seemingly complicated, these questions can easily be answered with a tape measure and your eyes, no pros needed:)
Front-mounted Seat Example
1) What type of headset does your bike have (threaded or threadless)?
There are two main types of headsets on adult bikes – threaded and threadless. Threaded headsets are tightened with a threaded locknut (hence the name threaded), while threadless do NOT have a locknut and are tightened with an internal bolt (which you can’t see).
Threaded vs. Threadless Headsets for Front-mounted Seat Compatibility
Bikes with threaded headsets are generally very compatible with bike seat mounts while threadless headsets are usually problematic, but adapters to fit threadless headsets are available. The main problem with threadless headsets is the base of the handlebars is too wide for the mounting bracket to fit. Once you have determined what type of headset you have, you next need to measure how much space is available for the seat mount.
2) Does your bike have space available to mount the seat?
Front-mounted seats attach to the bike with mounting brackets that adhere to the bike just below the handlebars. Mounting brackets range from 0.5″ to 1.5″ thick. If the mounting bracket of a bike is 0.75″ thick, you will need 0.75″ of “open space” to adhere the bracket.
The “open space” on threaded headsets is essentially the straight portion of the base of the handlebars (quill stem for you bike pros). On most threaded headsets, the “open space” can increase by loosening the locknut and raising the handlebars. On threadless headsets, it is the space between the bottom of the stem (what connects the handlebars to the bike) and the frame. This portion generally consists of metals rings (spacers) that separate the stem from the handlebars.
Space for Mounting Front-mounted Seats
If your bike doesn’t have any “open space”, your choices for front-mounted seats are limited to the Peg Perego Orion and the Yepp Mini (for threadless only). Peg Perego Orion‘s mount is universal as its mount wraps around the headset with cables. The Yepp Mini‘s standard mount is 1 5/8″ wide for threaded bikes, but their threadless adapter only requires 1/8″ of space.
3) What is the distance between the seat tube and handlebars on your bike?
Front-mounted bike seats take up about 10″ of space between the stem and saddle of the bike. If your top tube (the distance between your handlebars and seat tube) is less than 20″, you will likely have difficulty riding with a front-mounted seat as your chest and knees with both hit the seat. Cruisers, hybrids, or other bikes in which the adult rider is in a more upright position can get away with just needing about 18″. Road bikes and other bikes that put the adult rider in a more forward-leaning position on the bike are not suitable for front-mounted seats as the rider’s chest will make contact with the child bike seat.
You Need Enough Space on Top Tube to Use Front-mounted Seats
Photo Source: Dutch Trading Company (Brighton UK)
REAR FRAME-MOUNTED SEATS
Rear seats are suitable for ages 9 months to 45 lbs. All rear seats are larger than front-mounted seats and offer more features such as the ability to recline, suspension, and adjustable shoulder straps and footrests. The majority of newer rear bike seats on the market are frame-mounted, meaning they attach directly to the frame of the bike versus to a bike rack positioned over the rear tire. Adhering the seat to the frame allows the seat to have suspension (slightly bouncing when going over bumps) and is more cost effective as it does not require a separate purchase of a rack. To determine if your bike will properly fit a rear frame-mounted seat, you need to be able to answer two questions about your bike:
- Does your bike have cables on the seat tube (the portion of the frame between the seat and the pedals)?
- Is your saddle (seat) set really close to the frame of the bike?
Rear Frame-mounted Seat Example
1) Does your bike have cables on the seat tube?
Like the Thule RideAlong shown above, the vast majority of frame-mounted seats adhere to the seat tube of the bike (the down tube on the bike frame between the seat and the pedals). In order to properly mount, the seat tube on the bike needs to be clear of any cables as well as any low mounted frame tubes (see bottom right picture). If your bike’s seat tube is not clear of cables you will need to look at using a rear rack-mounted seat. In addition, carbon fiber frames are NOT suitable for any rear-mounted seats.
Interfering Cables for Rear Frame-mounted Seats
2) Is your saddle (seat) set really close to the frame of the bike?
If your saddle is set to its lowest position on the frame or within an inch of touching the bike frame, you may have trouble mounting a rear frame-mounted seat. While every brand varies, all brands need about two inches clearance below the seat for the seat and mounting poles. If your seat is low on the frame, Thule offers a low saddle adapter for the RideAlong. The low saddle bars are longer than the standard bars and allow the seat to be positioned further away from the adult rider’s saddle.
REAR RACK-MOUNTED SEATS
Rear rack-mounted seats mount to a rack adhered to the frame of the adult bike over the rear tire. Bike seats generally DO NOT come with the rear rack and the must be purchased separately. If you already have a rack, ensure the rack’s weight capacity is at least 60 lbs. (or more depending on your child) before mounting a bike seat to it. To determine if your bike will properly fit a rear rack-mounted seat, you need to be able to answer two questions about your bike:
- Does your bike have eyelets for mounting a rack?
- Does your bike have disc brakes?
Rear Rack-mounted Seat Example
1) Does your bike have eyelets for mounting a rack?
Eyelets on your bike are necessary for mounting a rack. Without eyelets, you can’t connect a rack to your bike, and therefore can’t mount a rear rack-mounted seat. While there are two sets of eyelets on the frame of a rack-compatible bike (two near the rear tire axle and two near the top of the rear triangle), the top eyelets are easier to spot and essentially guarantee the lower eyelets are on the bike. As shown in the image below, the top set of eyelets are found at the top of the rear triangle of the bike frame and are generally covered by a black plastic plug. If your bike has these top eyelets, it is rack-compatible.
Eyelets for Bike Rack Mounts on Adult Bikes
2) Does your bike have disc brakes?
If your bike has eyelets, you will also need to determine if your bike has disc brakes or not. Bikes with disc brakes have a large rotor around the tire’s hub and are only compatible with disc-brake specific bike racks, such as the Topeak Explorer with disc-brake mounts.
Disc Brakes vs. Non Disc Brakes
Step 3: What to Look for When Shopping for a Child Bike Seat
Now that you know your bike is compatible with a child bike seat, here’s what features to look for when shopping for a child bike seat: 1) mount type (outlined above), 2) child’s age and size, 3) shoulder straps design, 4) reclinable seats, 5) seat shape, 6) suspension, 7) adjustable footrest, and 8) availability of accessories.
1. Mount Type: Front Mount vs. Rear Mount
If you are unfamiliar with the various types of bike seat mounts, please review Steps 1 and 2 above.
Our Top Picks by Mount Type
2. Size and Age of Child
Front-mounted seats are much smaller than rear-mounted seats. Front-mounted seats are best suited for kids aged 9 months to 3-years-old or 33 pounds. In some states, however, it is illegal to ride with a child less than 12 months old in a trailer or a bike seat, so be sure to refer to local laws. The larger/older a child gets the more personal space they take from the rider, which is why it is best for larger/taller kids to ride in rear seats. In most states, it is also illegal for any child to ride on a bike without a helmet. As a result, if your child in unwilling to keep a helmet on their head, it is best to hold off on riding with them.
Rear-mounted seats are much larger than front-mounted and much more accommodating to the size and age of a growing child. The weight recommendations for rear-mounted (both frame and rack) seats vary greatly but generally max out at 48 pounds. The shoulder straps adjustability of rear-mounted seats it worth taking note of for taller/older kids.
3. Shoulder Strap Design
For optimal safety, shoulder straps on child bike seats should remain firmly on the shoulders of a child. While all bike seats have shoulder straps, the design and functionality of the straps vary greatly. Throughout our testing, we have found straps systems with simple, “pull-down-to-tighten” straps (Hamax Caress) far easier to use than straps that require rethreading straps through a slide buckle (Yepp Maxi).
Height adjustable straps that adjust vertically to properly position the shoulder strap just below the shoulder of the child (much like car seat straps), provide a tighter, more secure fit. Some seats, such as the Thule RideAlong and the Hamax Caress, offer easy sliding adjustment systems (that lock into place), others require rethreading, and some provide no height adjustment system. For our European readers, the Polisport Guppy series is another standout series.
4. Reclinable Seats
Kids often fall asleep while riding in child bike seats. The ability to recline their seats can prevent their neck from flopping around during a ride, providing a much more comfortable (and safer) sleep and ride. Front-mounted seats DO NOT recline as they would interfere with the space of the adult rider. Many higher-end rear seats, both frame and rack-mounted, offer reclinable seats.
Many Rear Mounted Seats are Reclinable
5. Seat Shape
Seat Back Height: The shape of the seat itself can make a significant difference in the comfort level of the seat. With front-mounted seats, seats with a low back, like the iBert Seat, force the shoulder straps to originate low on the child’s back, which causes the straps to slip off the shoulders during use. The lower back also prevents kids from being propped up by the seat when they inevitably fall asleep in the seat. Seats with a taller back, such as the BoBike Mini City shown below, help keep the shoulder straps in place as well as support a child’s body when they fall asleep.
Front Mounted Seats with High Backs are Safer and More Comfortable
Helmet Pockets: A helmet pocket is an additional comfort feature to look for in a seat design. Recessed helmet pockets prevent a child’s head from being pushed forward by the seat, making the ride and the helmet much more comfortable. Recessed helmets pockets are available on the Hamax Observer and BoBike Mini City (front-mounted seats) and for rear seats, the Hamax Caress and Polisport Guppy Series.
Bumpers: Bumpers are designed to prevent fingers from being squished along a wall, pole of other objects and are an additional safety feature available on the Thule RideAlong.
Helmet Pockets and Bumpers Make Rides More Comfortable
Suspension on a bike seat helps to cushion the child from any bumps that come up through the bike. Whether going down a curb or riding over a speed bump, suspension helps to provide a more comfortable ride. Suspension is not available on front-mounted seats but is a feature on several rear frame-mounted seats, such as Thule RideAlong, and a couple of rear rack-mounted seats, such as the Topeak Baby Sitter and the Hamax Caress.
Rear frame-mounted suspension systems have several names, but they all essentially rely on the metal mounting bars that attach the seat to the bike frame to flex under additional stress. The bars generally flex 1″ to 3″ inches to absorb the impact from the curb, speed bump etc. Rear rack-mounted seat suspensions are created via springs in the mounting bracket of the seat. Spring systems offer less flex and only flex about 1″ to 1.5″.
Suspension on Rear Frame-Mounted Seats vs. Rear Rack-Mounted Seats
7. Adjustable Footrest
Footrests help to properly support a child’s feet and legs on front and rear-mounted seats. Footrests on rear-mounted seats also help to protect the child from the rear wheel. On front-mounted seats, kids’ legs are generally not long enough to reach the tire, BUT their feet are long enough to reach the handlebars. In addition to interfering with steering, young toddlers can also switch gears by pushing on the shifters with their feet. Well-designed footrests offer tool-free height adjustments while comfortably keeping the child’s feet secure with wide, locking straps.
Adjustable Footrests Provide Additional Safety for Child and Parent
8. Front-mounted Seat Accessories
Keeping your kids comfortable during rides is an added bonus for everyone. Happy kids make for happier rides. While testing, we found that front-mounted seats with handlebars made for a more comfortable ride for child and adult. The kids felt more secure having something to hold on to while adults found less “grabbing” of their handlebars from the kids. Several front-mounted seats also offer windscreens which help to significantly reduce the wind on a child’s face during a ride such as the Thule RideAlong Mini and the Hamax Observer.
What bike seat is best for my family?
Now that you’re in the know about Child Bike Seats, check out our Bike Seat Ratings & Comparison Charts to view and compare the top-rated child bike seats.
By: Natalie Martins
Last Updated: January 21, 2017