Should my child wear a bike helmet?

In writing this article we risk dividing parents, safety experts, cyclists, non-cyclists and everyone else.  Whether or not to wear a helmet as an adult is a hot topic, and emotions run very high whenever it is mentioned.  Add kids safety into the mix, and it gets extremely contentious.  If you’re in the UK, there is no law that states cycle helmets are compulsory, and each family needs to weigh up the pro’s and con’s when answering the question “Should my child wear a bike helmet?” Should my child wear a bike helmet?

Many column inches and website pages have been devoted to the question of whether cycle helmets improve safety or not.

We do not intend to replicate them all here – rather this article allows you to do the research yourself and make an informed decision as to what is correct for your family.

We believe that each parent must make the choice for their family as to whether or not helmet wearing is compulsory, optional or not required. 

We also believe you should be able to make an informed decision, with the full facts of the arguments both for and against helmet wearing.

The difference between helmets for sport and leisure/transport

In the rest of this article we’re mainly discussing cycling as a means of transport or a very gentle leisure activity with very low risk of the rider falling off.

If your Cycle Sprog is taking part in cycling as a high speed sport, or doing any kind of tricks, racing, mountain biking or other activity where there is a high likelihood of fall then the arguements in this article do not apply – the risk of injury is high and protective equipment is needed. 

The vast majority of cycle clubs and cycle races stipulate helmets should be worn at all times.  

Kids racing BMX's

 

What if my child won’t wear a bike helmet? 

As parents, we understand that sometimes, (only sometimes??) your darling offspring will not do as you want. If you decide that the answer to the question “should my child wear a bike helmet?” is “Yes”, and junior will not comply, then you need to ask yourself how strict you will be in enforcing a ‘no cycling’ ban until they do.   

In our experience the lure of the bike will usually win, if you remain resolute and don’t waver.  This may take minutes, hours or days.

It goes without saying you will need to be 100% compliant yourself.  If your child sees you riding without a helmet, then you’ve lost the battle straight away.

A very brief summary of the pro’s and con’s of wearing a cycle helmet is given below, with details of where to go for more information.  We hope this helps you make an informed decision.

Please note, that if you live in a location outside the UK where helmet wearing is legally compulsory, then this article does not apply.

The argument for why kids should wear cycle helmets

  • Some evidence shows that helmets have been effective in reducing potential injury to a young cyclist’s head/brain in the event of a fall or impact with an object
  • Brain injury is devastating and we believe it is not worth leaving it to chance – say the Bicycle Helmet Initiative Trust 
  • Helmets are best suited to providing protection during low speed impacts. As a child is learning to ride, this is precisely the type of fall they are likely to have
  • Public opinion – people can get very vocal and aggressive if they see a child without a helmet
  • What if?  Regardless of the risk of a fall from the type of cycling your child is doing there’s always an element of worrying about “What-if” should the worse happen

If you asked the following groups “should my child wear a bike helmet?” the answer would be a resounding “Yes!”

The argument against compulsory use of bike helmets

There is no law in the UK saying children, or anyone else for that matter, must wear a cycle helmet.

There are numerous arguments about why it should not be necessary to wear a bike helmet:

  • Helmets are part of the culture of “cotton wool parenting”, and this makes children believe cycling is a risky activity
  • Rather than putting the emphasis on cyclists to protect themselves by wearing a helmet, our politicians and transport planners should be providing a cycling infrastructure that is safe for all to use
  • All evidence to support the pro-helmet lobby can be argued against, in terms of relevancy and accuracy
  • The benefits of cycling in terms of improved health and better life expectancy, out weigh the risks from not wearing a helmet
  • Risk compensation – riding a helmet may cause riskier behaviour, as the rider feels protected

If you asked the following groups “should my child wear a bike helmet?” you’d get a more complex answer.  These organisations have much more information about the limited benefits of wearing cycle helmets, and right of individuals to make an informed decision about whether to use a bike helmet. 

All the campaigning organisations will argue that we need safe spaces for people to cycle, rather than laws about cycle helmets (please note they don’t say you shouldn’t wear a helmet, just that there’s much more to cycling safety that putting a lid on your head):

Is no helmet worse or better than some options?

To work properly, your child’s helmet must be fitted and fastened properly. 

There’s no point in wearing a helmet if the straps are undone, or so loose it will come off at the slightest impact.

Kids bike helmets only work if the straps are done up properly

This could even cause more injury as the helmet could get in the way as your child falls, causing additional injury, rather than protecting them. 

See our article on how to check your child’s helmet is fitting them properly

It’s also worth remembering that not all children’s cycle helmets meet the relevant safety standards for cycle helmets, giving a false sense of security to parents and children that they’d be protected in case of an accident. 

What’s all the fuss about making cycle helmets legal?

Finally, for those of you who’ve inadvertently waded into this, and didn’t realise what a contentious area it was, here are a few articles and threads to bring you up to speed:

You can also read the comments at the bottom of this article to see how passionate people get about this issue. 

You’ll note I’ve not mentioned my own personal stance on this, or whether my children wear helmets, and I’ve been called all sorts of names (and even a bad parent) for writing what I hoped would be an informative article explaining the pros and cons of helmet wearing! 

Should my child wear a bike helmet? – the verdict

The answer to this question (if you live in the UK, or anywhere else where it isn’t compulsory), is that the decision is entirely up to you, when your child is cycling as a means of transport, or doing very leisurely cycling where there is very little risk of falls.   

The evidence for the pros and cons of wearing properly fitting bike helmets is there for all to see along with the facts about making sure any helmet they do wear is correctly fitted.  

“Should my child wear a bike helmet?” is just one of the many difficult questions we as parents face.

Each of us will come to our own conclusion, for our own personal reasons. 

Other posts you may find useful whilst you’re here:

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This article was first published in 2016 and updated in August 2021 to keep the various reference sources up to date

Comments

Jason

As you rightly point out there is no law that says you have to wear a helmet and that leaves it in the hands of the individual and parent as to what they do. I do a lot of cycling on the road and for me it’s a simple answer. I’m on the road, I travel quite often at speeds in excess of 20mph and if anything was to happen and I come off that helmet could very well save my life. As a family we all have helmets and wear them when we cycle. My 5 year old son started on a balance bike at 18 months old and he has always had a helmet. That was our decision and now it’s part of the routine for all of us. He doesn’t see anything odd about wearing a helmet in fact quite the opposite he thinks people are silly for not wearing one. Personally I think anyone who doesn’t wear a helmet is taking an unnecessary risk for the sake of a few quid.

Tony Endean

A helmet has saved me numerous time in all types cycling, simple if you don’t like your child that much than don’t bother with one.

John

This is a damn stupid question and a complete no-brainer. Of course children and anyone else who ride cycles should wear a safety helmet. For those who are undecided or who don’t think cycling helmets are necessary, why don’t you try head butting a wall good and hard – once wearing a helmet and then a second time without wearing one. Once you’ve hopefully fully recovered from the second head butt, that short and sweet little exercise might just help you to decide.

Max

Man some of the people here scare me. Yes kids should all wear a helmet cause they can’t understand the risk associated with a dangerous activity. In fact it should be law. I do not know why people are even discussing otherwise.

To the guy who compared biking to being in a car and not wearing a helmet I really hope you don’t have children.

Karen

Thank you for your comment Max. It’s interesting how views on this topic vary so much, isn’t it. Personally I’d prefer that the time and money spent on legislating for and enforcing helmet usage be spent on providing safe infrastructure so I don’t have to worry about my children riding in amongst fast flowing traffic, but I respect your point of view on this topic. Karen

Robert Davies

I worked at MIRA, the automotive design centre in the 1990’s and conducted research on pedestrian and cyclist injuries and deaths. Ever since I have worn a helmet where possible. Similarly I ask my children to also wear helmets as irrespective of the low probability of serious injury the benefit in the event of a blow to the head could be life changing. I continue to cycle most days helmet in place.

Karen

Thanks for taking the time to comment Robert – your insight and experience is really helpful. Karen

David

I don’t take any cyclist seriously if they don’t wear a helmet.when you fall off,and you don’t need to be in a collision with a vehicle to do so,despite what a few people on this site think,you WILL hit the ground,you won’t have time to take any avoiding action and it just pot luck whether you hit grass or the kerb edge.(I know,I’ve done it,the helmet saved me from more serious injury).As I always say,if you’ve only got sawdust in your head,you don’t need a helmet.

Phil

My wife (who has never cycled) is very keen for our son (11) to wear a helmet. I have cycled all my life and never worn a helmet, and am less bothered about my son wearing a helmet, although I do insist he always wears cycling gloves. Those parents saying “the facts are irrefutable, wear a helmet”, do you also make your child wear a helmet when walking on a pavement, or whilst in a car? Both have a higher risk of head injury. It isn’t as straightforward as it first seems, and I would invite you to take a few minutes to research for yourself before attacking parents who don’t enforce helmets.

Karen
Richard

This article was ridiculously political. Your arguments against wearing a helmet are essentially – yes I’m happy to bet my child’s head, skull, brain to further my own political views as a parent.
Truly idiotic.
Cotton wool parenting – you wish to endanger a child to fight millennial cancel culture.. Okaay..
Campaigning for cycling infrastructure – you want to endanger your child to make a point about how roads should be magically made wider, Okaay.
Evidence can be argued against – evidently you can try..
Benefits of cycling outweigh risk of not wearing a helmet – don’t even know where to begin with this logical fallacy.
Risk compensation – the only nugget of worthwhile argument here.
Poorly fitting helmets – so when not worn correctly they may not provide full protection. As with anything..
Wow. Just wow.
That you think these points are a counter to a culture of cotton wool giving children what they want, how about the way in which these ‘arguments’ pander only to your own virtues instead of the safety of your child. Incredible selfishness and short sightedness.

Karen

Hi Richard,
Thanks so much for taking the time to comment. I’d attempted to write an article that put both view points around helmet wearing, so parents can understand why the debate about helmets is so heated. I’m sorry you found it ridiculously political – I haven’t advocated either stance, but hope to give people links to further resources to help them make their own informed decision.
I would like to correct you on one point – I absolutely 100% think about the safety of my children every single time they are out cycling (and my own and everyone else I know who rides a bike). You will note I make no reference in the article as to if / when my children and myself wear helmets as it’s a decision each parent has to make themselves.
Karen

Dave

It’s funny, but more than a little sad, to see how viciously people attack any suggestion that helmets aren’t essential. I won’t change any minds so won’t try. If you take up bareheaded cycling in the UK your life expectancy increases, and as numbers in the road grow, bareheaded numbers grow even faster (witness any hire scheme). The trend is clear, sleep easy, and worry about something more important like road position or route selection.

Karen

Thanks for taking the time to comment Dave – and yes, you’re right it’s hard to change minds on this topic! Karen

Allan

Is this serious. How pathetic a parent do you have to be to find con’s in saving the life of your child. Bloody millennials and there constant, belief in giving kids what they want rather than need. My daughter.. I don’t like wearing the helmet, me OK give me your bike I’m returning it. 1 week later I’m use to it now its ok

Karen

Thanks for taking the time to comment Allan. Another side of the argument we hear is “Bloody millennials, wrapping their kids in cotton wool. When I was a kid I rode with no helmet and came to no harm”. Hence this article tries to explain why different people have different attitudes to risk and helmet wearing. Karen

Marc

The only argument (that makes sny sense) for not wearing a helmet is the one about risky behaviour. The others aren’t arguments. I’ve had a quick look at meta analysis (summaries of research)on the topic and all, I mean all, show that helmets make rading safer (even if the difference is small, this small difference can mean having or not long lasting effects. We shouldn’t be mixing facts with opinion.

Jason

I cannot believe what I just read. If there was even an ounce of protection over not wearing one, why would you not choose safety. This was one of the worst articles I have read in a long time. Human regression at its finest. If you child doesn’t want to wear one? Who is the parent here! Simply take away the bike, skateboard unless they do. It is that simple. Guess the next article will be on seat belt use, and how statistically they are not need and it should be a choice right? These rules are to protect kids who don’t know any better from stupid people like you

Karen

Hi Jason – thank you for taking the time to read my article and reply. I am sorry that you feel I am a stupid person for writing an article which explains why cycle helmets are so divisive.
QED, Karen

Michael Saville

What “cons” are there to wearing a helmet

Penny Millar

Hi Michael
Thanks for your comment. If you have a look at the links on the post, particularly those under ‘The argument against compulsory use of bike helmets’, you should find those within there. Kind regards, Penny

Peter Clinch

This is a very good piece, very refreshing to read something that accounts for the confused and contradictory state of the evidence rather than just repeating a mantra.

Another excellent evidence resource is childhood risk specialist Tim Gill’s “Cycling and Children and Young People”, a consultation report for the National Children’s Board charity which includes a lucidly discussed Annex on cycle helmets with a child-centric viewpoint.
Free download at https://timrgill.files.wordpress.com/2010/10/cycling-rpt-gill-05.pdf

Karen

Thanks for the link Peter – much appreciated. I do believe it’s up to each parents to make their own choice, although the problem is in the UK people are very judgemental, as cycling is seen as “risky”. Karen

Peter Clinch

Can only concur on the judgemental thing… Back when I taught Bikeability Scotland I made a point of doing it in normal clothes to show that it was a reasonable choice to ride without helmets and hi-viz (Bikeability/National Standards for Cycle Training have no requirement for either, though delivery agencies may well insist on them) and that what you do is more important than what you wear.

After various anonymous parental complaints that I was setting a “bad example” I gave up 🙁

Karen

That’s so disappointing, but sadly not surprising. There’s such an emphasis on cyclists making themselves “safe” by wearing Hi-Vis and helmets, rather than providing safe spaces for them to cycle. It wasn’t until we went to The Netherlands that it really hit home what things could be like. I wrote this at the time – the lack of helmets and hi-vis was one of the most noticeable things about our time there. Karen

Tony Franklin

Would NEVER advocate helmet wearing for kids, not even infants. My own son cycled to school via a 60mph back road for 7 years sans helmet, my grandkids cycle with me without a helmet. The risk is massively misunderstood. In fact kids in cars die (solely) of head injuries in bigger numbers in just England and Wales than ALL child cycling deaths for the whole of the UK from ALL injury types.
Learning through falls is part and parcel of growing up and understanding boundaries.
Children as well as adults take greater risk when they feel protected, thus increasing chances of having an incident at all.

With children it’s worse wearing helmets because you massively increase the head size so increase chance of a head strike and you also add significant weight/kinetic energy thus a situation where the head would miss hitting anything at all is turned into a scenario of the helmet hitting something and causing a head injury, hence why in ALL countries ALL sports that wear helmets we a decrease in safety and an increase in incident rate.
Boxing, Ice hockey, American fotball, cricket, skiing, cycling etc, ALL have worse outcomes when wearing PPE!
The facts don’t lie but helmet evangelists and people with an agenda do, they twist facts and ignore that people on other walks of life suffer greater rates of head injuries and in much bigger numbers yet won’t consider wearing a helmet for things like walking, driving, walking up/down stair, getting out the shower.

1.3Million reported head injuries in the UK with 160,000 hospital stays and yet cycling serious injuries of ALL types number 3100 of which there are circa 800-1200 of those to the head.
Do the math as to where the actual risks lie, it isn’t cycling and it’s not children without helmets riding bikes!

Karen

Thanks for taking the time to comment Tony. As I mention in the post helmet wearing is a divisive topic and we encourage each family to consider the risks for themselves. In some countries helmet wearing is compulsory – thankfully in the UK we still have the choice. I firmly believe that a far better way to prevent injuries to cyclists is to invest in segregated infrastructure which will massively reduce the risk of collision with motor vehicles. Kind regards Karen

Ben

Hi Karen,
Thank you for the article and for hosting these great discussions. I bought a helmet for my 9 month old son today, the bile seat adventures will begin tomorrow.

Karen

Have a great time Ben! Bike seat adventures are such brilliant fun! Karen

Thomas Burton

It should be law for children and if there’s any parents out there having doubts on whether or not their child should wear a helmet please Google leo James Burton my son who I lost because of that one though he didn’t wear his can only urge parents please have your child wear a helmet at all times

Karen

Sorry for your tragic loss Thomas, and thank you for sharing. Karen

Stephen

My son now wears his helmet all the time, and he reminds me and checkes I am wearing it properly.

Pete

In our house helmets are part and parcel of going for a bike ride, my 13yr old daughter wears one without question even if they may be classed as uncool, and my 5yr old son will go grab his helmet without even being asked.

I am of the opinion that 999 times out of a 1000 you may not need your helmet if you have an accident but it’s worth it for that one time it could save your life.

I have a few friends that have been in accidents and every time their helmet has saved them from possible life changing or ending injuries, just don’t understand why you wouldn’t wear one, it should be second nature like putting on a seatbelt or wearing a crash helmet on a motorbike

Karen

Hi Pete, Thanks for taking the time to comment. Sorry to hear about your friends’ accidents – although good news that their helmets were able to protect them from long term injury. Karen

Tim

Hi Karen.
Thanks for an interesting blog post. We have a strict no lid no ride policy in our house. It’s the same idea as the seatbelt rule, no seatbelt and the car won’t move.
Consistency is key. My 18 month tested the boundary and only lasted 2 minutes before they put it back on.
The choice part is about letting them choose the helmet, and not being stingy and buying the cheapest.
Stephen, I am delighted you came up with a winning tactic. Good for you!
Tim

Karen

Hi Tim – that’s a very sensible approach. Kids tend to pick up really quickly if you’re not being consistent, and also if you’re not leading by example. They love pushing at the boundary fences, but need to know they’re not going to move. I hope they just don’t test them too often for your sake! Karen

Stephen

Hi Karen I have had no problems now getting son to wear his helmet, he will not go out with out it now he puts it on and checks it every time he goes cycling.

Karen

Hi Stephen – that’s great news! Well done on persevering – glad the effort was worth it! Happy cycling, Karen

Stephen

Hi thanks, he really likes wearing it now and he reminds me and checkes mine is on properly every time.

Stephen

Hello Karen up data for you,9 year old is now wearing his new helmet and keeping it on, every time he goes on his bike even when he goes round the corner to the shop,and he reminds me to wear mine. And he checks mine and his every time as the bike shop showed him the two finger above the eye, the straps make a 4 finger v, and he can only get his little finger between the strap and chin.He even gives it a little pull to check its tight He does this every time he puts it on, and he puts it on with out being told, please leave a good comment so I can show him. Thanks

Karen

Hi Stephen – that’s really good news! Tell him well done! Sounds like you found a good bike shop that explained everything well, and that the new helmet is comfy for him to wear. Hope you have many enjoyable bike rides this summer. Karen

Stephen

Thanks for your reply, I will do that going in the morning, his friend and his mum is well up for it as he wants to wear one. Hopefully this will solve the problem as they go cycling together or the 3 of us go together, I will let you know how it goes, thanks for your help.

Stephen

Hi Karen, thanks for the reply. Yes our local bicycle shop mersherd his head and fitted it properly. We both go cycling quite often on weekends and in the evening, but he just will not wear it and complains he feels stupid wearing one, I i spend so long trying to get him to wear it that I just give up and go with out it I really want him to be safe and wear it, what am I doing wrong? And what can I try next?

Karen

Finding a group of kids to cycle with who all wear helmets may help (your local cycle club?). And always wear your helmet – if he sees you without it, then you stand no chance! At the end of the day, it’s up to you to assess the level of risk he’s facing, and whether you believe he should be wearing one or not, and whether he will be safer or not. Different types of cycling have different levels of risk – if he’s mountain biking then the risk is entirely different to if he’s riding gently around a park. If you really want him to wear one, then it’s ultimately a choice of never riding his bike again, or wearing his helmet. Perhaps that would focus his mind (kids sense when they’re going to win a battle and get parent to back down and can be very very trying!) Karen
P.S. Can you get to the bottom of what’s causing his dislike? There are different helmets out there – some are cool, others aren’t!

Stephen

Hi Karen, thanks for the reply, we both do all sorts of cycling together, had a chat this morning with him and it’s manly the strap he doesn’t like, and his friend does not have one, and I haven’t got one as well, so what I was thinking is taking him and his friend to a different bike shop and they can both choose what ever they like I am paying for his friend’s (you can’t put a price on safety) and I will get one to then his friend and I will be wearing one as well, what do you think of that idea?? Please let me know thanks

Karen

Hi Stephen – that sounds a sensible (and generous) idea. When he’s trying on, it’s probably best to get him to try on a couple of styles and ask him how it feels (out of earshot of the sales assistant) so you can be sure he’s got one that’s comfortable. Good luck! Karen

Stephen

Hi looking for help and advice, 9 year old child will not wear a cycle helmet, complaining its uncomfortable, hurts,and not cool every time we go out I keep trying but won’t wear it, just says your not wearing one, I am probably going to give up trying but I really would like it to be worn. Any advice.

Karen

Hi Stephen – have you tried borrowing another helmet from a friend, or trying others on in your local bike shop? Each child has a different head shape and size, and if it doesn’t fit properly it can be very uncomfortable (just like a badly fitting pair of shoes). Also, as with everything in life, if you want your child to do something, you usually need to do it to! Karen

Dawn Matter

My sons have all ridden bikes and motorbikes. When riding pushbikes I did ask them to wear helmets. One of them came off at low speed when crossing a wooden bridge that was wet – he suffered a very severe concussion. I took his cycle helmet to the hospital when I took him to the ED and the consultant said that if he had not been wearing it it would be his skull that was in two pieces and not just his bike helmet. As for the argument that a helmet is going to make little difference when hit by a car – well if I am going to bullseye a windscreen I would rather do it with a helmet on than without! I only have one brain and I know what it is like to recover from serious brain injury: I know which side of the argument I come down on!

Stacey

I live in London wear I see many people biking and I mostly see helmets, now if that works for them that’s great. But I personally would prefer to not get in accident that to be protected when I get in one. I have 2 kids, a 15-year old daughter, and an 8-year old son. My 8 year-old son isn’t as good as a rider, so I make him wear his helmet. I worry about his spills. My daughter, however loves biking, she bikes so often, she hiked to school everyday. I never have to worry if she will fall off a bike. I started teaching her how to cycle with the road when she was about 10, I taught her how to be cautious, (we live in a very crowded part of London so that is very important) then when she was 12 years old she asked why I don’t wear a cycling helmet. I told her that I don’t know. She then asked if she has to wear one while she is bicycling. I thought about it for a second, I thought about how I feel when I’m biking and how I feel when I am forced to wear a bike helmet. I thought about how nobody cycles safer than her. But than I thought about safety, I thought about how if she were to get hit by a car that she may be safer if she had a bike helmet, that may be true. But than I thought if she is being hit by a car going 30 miles per hour what difference does it make if she were to be wearing a bike helmet. I said no, you do not need to wear one, but it makes your mom feel safer if you wear one. She then said than I would feel safer if you wore one, I then said well it’s my job to protect you. She then said “Mom, I’m going to go bike to get some tea, do I need to wear my bike helmet.” I thought about it and I said “ Of course not my dear.” Shocked by what I had just said “ she then came storming in and asked if she could throw her helmet away.” I told her if she wanted to I then saw her throw it away. And storm away on her bike going at least 10 miles per hour. Shocked by what I just said. She continued to ride her bike, and in 3 years we haven’t had a single safety issue. That my opinion on it.

Karen

Hi Stacey – thanks for sharing. It’s so important that kids learn about risk, and the various levels of risk. Some types of cycling are inherently risky for head injuries, and others aren’t as risky. As you say, against a lorry or car, a helmet makes very little difference. In an ideal world there would be protected cycle ways everywhere, and the risk from any sort of injury when popping to the shops or cycling school would be incredibly low. Sadly, few kids are that lucky here in the UK.
I try and teach my kids to know that when they are mountain biking, or doing fast road biking (we live in Cumbria, so can get up some very fast descents), or if they’re at the track, they need to wear a helmet for safety reasons. The rest of the time, then, as you say, it’s a decision based upon how confident they are on their bike. Interestingly when we went to Holland they asked if they could take their helmets off, as they felt so safe! Glad you’ve found a solution you’re all happy with. Karen

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