Wednesday, August 12, 2009

American Parents: Crazy, or just insane?

As we prepare for baby number one at our home, I'm utterly shocked by the amount of stuff that people say you shouldn't do with your kids. Don't let 'em crawl around in that dirt. Don't let 'em play with that stick! Lock your dog up! Don't put 'em in a jogging stroller or a bike trailer (not even in their infant seat) because you'll give them shaken baby syndrome!
I don't advocate not doing everything you can to protect and nurture a healthy little baby, but a quick cross check with moms of old shows just how far over the edge we've come these days. Our two grandmas-to-be laugh whenever we report to them the things we're not supposed to do with kids, according to the new "wisdom."
"They're not fragile!" "They bounce!" is what they tell us. And we tend to believe them.
My major problem with the baby scare industry is that rarely (nearly never) does anyone back up an opinion with any kind of data or facts. They're not considered necessary in the rush to protect the children.
I'm one of those people who likes data, who thinks its necessary to establish fact, so I'm going to use this page to test a few of the scare theories out there and see how they hold up. With the help of an accelerometer, I plan to test the G-forces a baby would get: in a bike trailer, on a car ride, bouncing on a knee, in a baby backpack, and so on.
I’m also a person who doesn’t want to have to stay locked away for a year before heading outside to jog, take a bike ride, or do some of the other things – yes, with baby in tow – that U.S. parents (the younger ones, anyway) seem to believe will cause a child’s head to spontaneously detach and roll down the multiuse path. If you’ve ever been to The Netherlands, you know that they just about give birth on their bikes. They sell stuff like this.
But, here in the states, tell a few people you can’t wait to put baby in the car seat, put the car seat in the bike trailer, and you might hear stuff like this.

I respectfully disagree with the commenter who said riding in a trailer is no different than riding in a car. There are far more vibrations on a bike/in a trailer than in driving in a car. Most cars have high-tech hydraulic shocks that absorb the bumps on the road. Bikes and bike trailers may have shocks, but to compare those to shocks on a car is ridiculous. Also, the larger air filled tires on cars do a lot to absorb impacts, and there is really no comparison to bike tires. Whether or not the infant seat is secure in the trailer is really a side argument.

My point, which you didn't address at all, is the use of a helmet. A lot of states require helmets for kids on bikes, and riding in bike trailers. Just because a child is a passenger in a trailer does not mean they will be protected if hit by a car (or flip). Those trailers are flimsy. Yes, they have the "roll bar", but pit an aluminum and cloth trailer against even a slow moving car and I think we can all agree which vehicle will prevail. It is my opinion that putting a child in a trailer (or on a bike) without a helmet is being an irresponsible parent, regardless of your state law. See and

It’s pretty easy to see the lapses in reasoning in that post. To assume that cars, by virtue of tires and suspension, have anything on a bike trailer, is ridiculous. Cars with stiff suspension and sporty (or old-but-still-serviceable) tires can be incredibly rough riding, and since you’re hitting bumps at high speeds, the jolts are much more noticeable than anything I’ve ever felt on a bike. (A trailer, I acknowledge, may be different.) And of course, the variety here makes such a blanket statement useless. The difference between my old truck and my new Honda is pretty incredible. (How incredible? We’ll need to test to find out.)
Furthermore, the Helmet issue in such arguments is a red herring. Obviously, you can’t stick an infant in a car seat in a helmet, because it would wrench their neck forward and possibly close off an airway, in addition to being just plain horribly uncomfortable. Moreover, the straps themselves might present a chocking hazard. But the worst part of the argument above is the idea that an infant in a child seat needs a helmet anyway. (I doubt the person who wrote this is a cyclist.)
Here’s how I see this specific matter: The infant seat is the helmet. The seat itself prevents impacts to the head. The child is strapped into a child seat with a rollbar, inside a trailer that is itself a rollbar. It’s pretty difficult to imagine any circumstance in which this double protective shell will be breached by impact forces to an infant’s head – except in the case of a pretty sever collision with a car. In such a case, I submit a helmet would be of no help anyway. (Go out and play with your infant car seat. See if you can crush the rollbar and the plastic body of the carrier. Now crush a bike trailer too. Finally, go try to crush an infant bike helmet. Pretty easy, eh?)
All over the internet, on blogs like this one, you see similar arguments, or crazier ones. It’s pretty much the equivalent of Maud Flanders wailing (as she did before she was killed by a T-shirt cannon) that someone needs to “think of the children!” no matter how unproved the threat.
To be fair, some websites out there discuss infant carriers in bike trailers with the presumption that it’s all good. Consider this from infantguides:

Bike trailers attach to the back of your bike and can be zipped to completely cover baby with a breathable mesh. You can simply strap baby’s infant car seat right in the trailer. When children are a bit older, they can sit in the trailer without a car seat. All baby bike trailers come with five point harnesses for buckling babies or toddlers inside, and most have a full roll cage. Most will seat one or two children.

Others seem unsure, and await official safety testing (or, Gawd help us, proclamations from state legislators).
Some families have put their child in their car seat into the trailer. This practice has not been officially safety tested, but if the child is securely strapped in to the car seat and the car seat properly strapped in to the trailer, it may be the best option for transporting a young infant.
Many also appeal to authority, demanding that any bike trailering plans be cleared with a pediatrician. Well, as knowledgeable and well meaning as pediatricians may be, they also need to cover their asses in case of lawsuit, so how many do you think are going to say “Sure, go ahead!” Some, I’ll bet, but others will undoubtedly take the easy way out, and recommend against it, whether or not there’s any real reason.
Which brings me to this weblog. The most interesting aspect of this entire kerfuffle to me is the complete lack of data to support any of the various arguments, either pro or con – though it seems to me that the burden of proof should rest with the con side. Be that as it may, I hope to provide some actual data soon.
Since I like to tinker and experiment, I’ll run some scenarios using an accelerometer-equipped fake baby in a car, bike trailer, stroller, various carrying pouches, so we can compare regular daily G-forces (the kind people assume are 100% safe because they’re used to them) with stranger situations (the bike trailer than non-cyclists assume will mean instant death.) I also plan to go ahead and rig up the real baby, when it arrives, for some tests on everyday G-forces that a baby gets just being carried around, rocked, cuddled, flopping around on its own, etc.
I'll post the methods, data, and my conclusions here, so you can decide for yourself if all those scary tales are true.

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