How to find the best bike for your young child

Published on Wednesday, 31 July 2019
Last updated on Tuesday, 31 December 2019

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Whether your toddler is just finding their balance or your five-year-old is cycling off to school, a bicycle is a brilliant way to build skills and get from A to B.

Safety comes first, though, so as well as getting your child a good helmet, it's important that to buy them a bike that's not too big, not too small, but just right. As with shoes, you should avoid the temptation to buy a bike they can 'grow into' and, instead, focus on getting the right fit.

How, then, does bike sizing work?

If a '12 inch bike' seems extremely small, then keep in mind that children’s bike sizes are based on wheel diameters, not bicycle height, and they're measured in inches or centimetres, depending on where the bike was made.

To help you choose the right bike, here is a general bike size guide:

Age Height Wheel diameter
18 months – 5 years 85 – 110cm Balance bike
2 – 4 years 85 – 100cm 12 inch / 30cm
3 – 5 years 95 – 110cm 14 inch / 35cm
4 – 6 years 100 – 120cm 16 inch / 40cm

You'll notice an overlap in ages, because when it comes to finding the correct bike size, your child's height and leg length are more important than how many candles they blew out on their last birthday cake.

As well as considering their age and height, you also need to think about how confident and skilled they are when riding.

Bike Exchange says that as bikes get larger, they get heavier, trickier to manoeuvre and harder to balance, so the best thing is to use the general age and height recommendations above, then get your child on the bike. Once aboard, they should be able to:

  • Comfortably stand over the bike with both feet flat on the ground
  • Easily reach the pedals from the seat
  • Reach the handlebars comfortably, with their arms slightly bent

What else should you be thinking about when buying a kid's bike?

As well as looking at age, height and wheel size, the experts recommend that you think about:

  • Brakes – What type of brake is best for their age and ability? Rear coaster brakes (back pedal brakes) are safest for young children and common on smaller bikes. However, hand braking is an important skill to learn as they gain the strength and confidence to safely squeeze the hand lever. When they’re ready for hand braking, look for a 'short-reach lever,' designed for little hands.
  • Materials – Is the bike made of steel or aluminium? Both materials are highly durable, but if you can afford the extra cost, aluminium is lighter and won't go rusty. According to CHOICE, a US product tester also found that aluminium wheel rims are safer than chrome-plated steel rims because they pull up more quickly after braking.
  • Seat and standover height – Does your child fit within the maximum and minimum height? When standing over the bike, there should be an inch or two of clearance.
  • Chain guard – Does the guard cover the chain wheel and upper run of the chain to protect little legs?
  • Pedals and handlebars – Do they have a good grip, with tread on both sides of the pedals and secure handgrips?
  • Gears – How confident is your child? For beginners, it’s best to keep things simple with a single gear.

Remember too, that although you can buy your child's bike online, second-hand or from a general retailer, specialist bike shops are a good place to get expert advice and lots of choice.

How do bikes differ age-to-age?

Depending on your child's age, size and ability, there is a bike to take them from toddling to wobbling to whizzing away at full speed!

Here are some differences between bikes:

  • As the name suggests, balance bikes are a great way to help toddlers and preschoolers find their balance on a bike. They don't have pedals, so children push along with their feet and build up motor skills and confidence as they go.
  • 12-inch bikes are designed for two- to four-year-olds and usually come with trainer wheels, a rear coaster brake and maybe a handbrake too. While you're looking for the right fit, your child will probably have design on their mind – so expect a glittery purple bike, a red racer or their colour of choice!
  • 14-inch bikes are similar to their 12 inch counterparts, except that they're designed for three- to five-year-olds with a bigger tyre. The larger wheel provides greater stability, smoothness and speed, but whether you up-size depends on the fit, style and price you're after (12-inch bikes are more common).
  • As your child's legs and arms grow, so too will their bike. 16-inch and 18-inch bikes are generally made for four- to six-year-olds and will likely still have trainer wheels, rear coaster brakes and handbrakes.

Bikes go up and up in size from there, offering a whole range of features for older kids, teens and adults. Plus, there are fun accessories, like baskets, tassels and spokey dokeys to get little ones interested in the riding experience.

Are training wheels a good idea?

Smaller bikes generally come with training wheels, which can be lowered, raised, or removed depending on your child's ability.

Training wheels provide stability, build confidence and can help learners get those pedals turning. However, they can also teach bad habits, affect braking effectiveness and make it harder for children to move away from stabilisers.

Bike Exchange says, 'If you do use training wheels, start them level with the ground and gradually raise them as your child becomes more confident, to the point that they can almost do without them. When the child is confident enough, they can then be removed'.

A bicycle gives your child independence, exercise and an exciting new skill. Focus on finding the right bike for them, then get ready for a 'wheelie' fun time together.

Bike Exchange

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