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Kids and Toddler Bike Helmets: How to Choose

Each year in the United States, about half a million kids are seriously injured in bicycle-related accidents.   In most cases, a properly fitted helmet could have eliminated or minimized head injuries sustained during the accident.  Luckily, most parents understand the importance of helmets, but what they may not realize is the importance of fit and what to look for when shopping for a new one.  Here are the nine main features to look for in a helmet.

 1. CSPC/ASTM Safety Certifications

The first thing you should look for when purchasing a helmet is the CPSC (Consumer Product Safety Commission Sticker) inside the helmet.  The CPSC determines the safety standards by which all helmets must comply.  CPSC does not have a standard sticker, so they vary from helmet to helmet.  All helmets sold in the US must comply with CPSC standards and be labeled with a sticker.  All helmets sold in the US are “safe” in terms of providing protection, but only if they are properly fitted and adjusted to a child’s head.  We found higher-end helmets to be “safer” due to their higher level of adjustability, higher comfort level (kids didn’t mind or wanted to wear them) and their ability to stay adjusted.  

CPSC also certifies helmets for biking for kids ages 1+ and 5+.  The 1+ certifications are for really small toddler/ 12mo+ baby helmets (16 CFR 1203).  They offer more coverage than the 5+ helmets, but generally max out at 50cm and are too small for most toddlers and preschoolers.  Toddler and preschoolers will, therefore, need to look for a helmet with a 5+ CPSC certification (or rather, not look for one certified for 1+).

CPSC stickers3

Helmets also have to be certified for a specific sport.  All helmets that are certified for bikes are also certified for bicycling (including low-speed, motor assisted), in-line skating and scooters (including low-speed, motor assisted).  BMX and downhill mountain biking have additional ASTM (International Safety Standards) they must meet in order to be sold specifically as such.  Additional information about CPSC standards can be found here.

Skate CPSC

As a side note, skateboarding has a different certification than bicycle helmets.  Not all “skate” style helmets are actually certified for skateboarding.  Some helmets, however, are dual-certified for bicycling and skateboarding (according to ASTM standards).  These helmets are generally “skate” style helmets and are classified as “multi-use”.  This chart copied from clarifies the various standards.

helmet chart certification

2.  Size

Helmets are generally not “one-size-fits-all.”  Be sure to measure your child’s head prior to purchasing a helmet to ensure the best fit.  To measure your child’s head, use a soft tape measure and measure the circumference of their head one inch above their eyebrows (the thickest part of their head).  Determine your child’s helmet size based on their circumference.  If you are unable to measure your child’s head, use the 50th percentile head circumference chart below as a reference.  Keep in mind, however, that as the measurements for the 50th percentile, approximately half of the kids will have a head larger or smaller that what is listed.

50th Percentile Head Circumference in cm
Age Girl Boy
12 mo. 45 46
18 mo. 46.5 47.5
2 yr. 47 48
2.5 yr. 48 49
3 yr. 49 49
3.5 yr. 49 50
4 yr. 49.5 50.5
4.5 yr. 50 51
5 yr. 50 51
6 yr. 51 52
7 yr. 52 53
8 yr. 53 54

3.  Construction

There are two main types of helmet construction, in-mold and hardshell.  Both types of construction provide adequate protection in a crash, but in-mold helmets are lighter, more durable and allow for more vents. Determining a helmet’s construction type is as simple as looking for a gap between the outer shell and the protective foam.  Non-skater-styled-helmets with hardshell construction also generally have a thin layer of tape around the mid-section of the helmet to cover the rough edge of the plastic shell.  If left out in the heat, these plastic shells are also prone to warping and cracking.  While unsightly, issues with the hardshell are only cosmetic as they as CPSC tests them with and without the plastic casing.

Hardshell helmets are typically sold in big-box stores with brands such as Schwinn, Rascals, Bell and Giro.  In-mold helmets are more likely to be found in bike shops and some sporting good stores.  In addition to their hardshell helmets, Bell and Giro sell many higher-end in-mold helmets at bike shops and sporting good stores.

4. Adjustability

Adjusting their child’s helmet is just as essential as making sure they are wearing one.  A poorly adjusted helmet can fall off or move around, thereby greatly reducing the helmets ability to offer protection during a crash.  Helmets should be placed on top of the head (not leaning forward or back) and remain in place when a child shakes his head. The ease of which a helmet adjusts is generally in line with the price of the helmet.  Top-end helmets have dial-in or self-adjusting systems that allow the helmet to be adjusted to fit the child’s head.

Most skater-style helmets, as well as low-end bicycle style helmets, do not come with a dial adjust, but rather different pads of various thickness.  Prior to wearing the helmet, parents are required to insert the thickness of pad necessary to achieve a snug fit.  Unfortunately, many parents fail to adjust the helmet, thereby leading to a poorly fit helmet that rarely stays in place.  Furthermore, re-adjusting the pads as a child grows is rarely taken into consideration or the thinner sized pads are lost, as a result, I caution against “pad adjusted” helmets.

Locking sliders below the ear also help to ease adjustability compared to simple sliders that are either hard to adjust or continually need re-adjusting.

 5.  Buckle

While buckling your child’s helmet, far too often kids are accidentally pinched by the bucket.  Once pinched, kids are hesitant to wear their helmets which can lead to battles.  To prevent pinching, several different companies and developed “pinch free” buckles.  Some consist of a plastic guard underneath the buckle, while high-end helmets actually use a non-pinch magnetic closure bucket.  As far as we know only the Lazer and Nutcase brands use the magnetic buckle, Uvex uses their own unique latching system, while the rest use some version of the standard buckle.

6.  Number of Vents

Helmets are hot.  Vents increase air flow, cooling the head, leading to a more pleasant ride.  Bicycle style helmets generally have more vents than skater-style helmets.

Air channels between the vents in the foam also greatly increase the cooling abilities of the helmet.  Often times, the pads have to be removed to see the channels as they run under the pads.

Giro Dime vents2

7.  Reflectors

Increased visibility is always an added bonus when it comes to kids on bikes.  As a result, many companies have begun to add reflective tape and/or LED lights to their helmets.

8.  Visors

Keeping the sun out of kids eyes will certainly make for a more appealing ride.  Most bicycle style helmets have built-in or clip-on visors while most skater styles have no visor.

9. Skater-style Helmets vs. standard

Skater-style and standard styles helmets each have their pros and cons. Skater-style helmets are generally heavy, lack a visor, have less vents and are less likely to have dial-in adjustments.  They do however, also offer more coverage, can be dual-certified and tend to fit odd-sized heads better. Standard bicycle helmets are lighter, have more vents, are more adjustable and can be harder to fit odd-shaped heads.

10. Warranty

Warranties on helmets range from 30 days to lifetime.  Helmets manufactured by major bike companies, such are Giro, Uvex, Specalized, Lazer etc. are much more likely to come with longer warranties that are easier to redeem.

11.  Use with Bike Trailer or Bike Seat

If you plan on riding with your kids in a trailer, a helmet with a flat, smooth back will help to prevent it from sliding forward during a ride.  The Baby Nutty, Lazer Bob and Specialized Small Fry Toddler are certified for ages 1+ and have a flattened back to prevent a child’s head being pushed forward in a trailer or seat.

13. MIPS

Helmets that incorporate MIPS (Multi-directional Impact Protection System) are arguably the safest helmets on the market and have shown to decrease brain injury by 30%.  As shown in the video below, the standard helmet is designed to protect the brain from direct impacts (hitting the ground with a strictly downward motion), while the MIPS helmets are engineered to protect against multi-directional impacts (hitting the ground while in a forward, downward motion). MIPS is available on the Lazer P’Nut and Nutz and the Giro Scamp (Toddler), Dime (youth skater-style) and Raze (youth bike).

What helmet will work best for my child?

Now that you know what to look for, check out our Helmet Comparison Charts for help finding the best helmet for your child and your budget.

By: Natalie Martins

Last Updated: January 21, 2017