How to Choose a Kids’ Bike: Buying a Bike Your Child Will Love to Ride
Choosing a kids’ bike can be intimidating, with half a dozen size options and different types of materials, components, and styles.
If you want to buy a bike that your child will love, that fits them, and that doesn’t burn too big a hole in your pocket, you need to know what you’re looking for.
This article will guide you through choosing the best bike for your child as they grow up. We’ll explain sizing, types of kids’ bikes, gear and accessories, and some do’s and don’ts when buying.
- You may also like: How to Teach a Kid to Ride a Bike: Easy Steps to Follow
Choosing the Correct Size Bike for Children
Measure Inseam and Height
Before starting your search, it’s essential to have inseam and height measurements at hand—inseam is the length of the inner leg. Gather a ruler or book and a tape measure and follow these steps to measure inseam:
- Get your child to stand against the wall with their shoes on and feet at hip-width distance.
- Put the ruler or book between their legs, up against the crotch, and flush against the wall.
- Measure the distance from the ground to the top of the ruler or book to find their inseam.
With this measurement, you can select the corresponding wheel size or sizes (if they fall between two) from the table in the next section.
Kids Bike Sizing
Sizing for kids’ bikes is typically done by wheel size of two-inch increments from 12 to 26″. Each size has a broad reference range for user age, height, and inseam. However, a given manufacturer’s range may differ for each size.
The most accurate measurement is inseam length because this ensures the child can sit comfortably on the bike with their feet touching the ground and that they can pedal in a natural position. However, using the inseam alone ignores arm or torso length. When possible, have your kid test-ride the bike they want before purchasing.
|Wheel Size||Age||Height||Leg Inseam|
|12"||2-4||2'10" - 3'3"||12"-17"|
|14"||3-5||3'0" - 3'6"||16"-19"|
|16"||5-6||3'5" - 3-9"||18"-22"|
|20"||7-9||3'8" - 4'5"||20"-25"|
|24"||9-11||4'3" - 4'10"||23"-28"|
What Size Bike Does My Kid Need?
Finding the correct size bike for a child depends not only on their height and inseam but also on their experience and ability.
Firstly, children of all ages should be able to stand over the top tube with both feet flat on the ground and around an inch or two of space. This measurement is usually readily available.
Knowing the seat height range is another important measurement, as you must set the seat height based on the inseam and experience level.
For example, a child riding their first pedal bike should be able to put two feet flat on the ground when sitting on the saddle with legs straight, meaning the saddle height and inseam length are equal. Use the following guidelines for setting saddle height:
- Balance bike: 0.5-1.5″ less than inseam
- Training wheels: 0-2″ more than inseam, depending on preference for pedaling comfort
- Beginner rider: Equal to inseam (for feet flat on the ground)
- Experienced rider: 1-4″ more than inseam (so tip-toes touch the ground)
To illustrate, if your child is a beginner with an inseam of 41″, they likely need a bike with 14″ or 16″ wheels. However, you must ensure that the minimum seat height is equal to or less than their inseam length which may rule out the 16″ bike.
Unfortunately, many manufacturers don’t list min and max seat height online, so if you’re unsure, visit a local bike shop or contact the manufacturer.
The final consideration is handlebar reach. Your child should be able to reach the bars comfortably with a slight bend in the elbows and squeeze the brake levers (if present). You can change the brake lever distance using the adjustment screw on the lever body.
Sizes and Types of Bikes for Kids
Bikes for kids come in all shapes and sizes, from bikes for learning how to cycle up to specialized bikes for older kids and young teens. As children get older, more and more types of bikes become available.
Almost all bikes for children are built with steel or aluminum. In general, aluminum is favorable over steel as it is relatively light and doesn’t rust. In contrast, steel is heavy and prone to rusting, so avoid it when possible.
Child-specific componentry is another feature to look for in larger sizes. For example, you want brake levers, saddles, grips, and pedals that are appropriate for children, not just components for small adults.
Kids’ balance bikes are regarded as the most effective way to teach young children and toddlers the skills required for cycling. These bikes can help kids learn steering and balance without the complications of braking and pedaling.
- Related post: Best Balance Bikes for Toddlers
Balance bikes have the frame of a regular bike without brakes or a drivetrain, so kids use their feet to push, brake, and balance when necessary. Learning on a balance bike makes transitioning to a regular pedal bike easier than learning on training wheels.
Training wheels are the more traditional learning method. 12″ and 14″ wheel sizes usually come with removable training wheels. They allow kids to get used to riding with a simple attachment that you can take off when they’re ready to ride unassisted.
12″ and 14″ Kids’ Bikes
These two sizes are typically quite similar and could be considered one category for two to five-year-olds. Most brands don’t produce 14″ bikes and skip straight to 16″, meaning the selection of 12″ bikes is much larger.
- Related post: Best Bikes for 2-5-Year-Old Kids
This size is typically a child’s first cycling experience with or without using training wheels. These bikes have colorful paint jobs and basic designs such as a single-speed drivetrain and a rear coaster brake. Simpler is better at this age, as kids between two and five must develop their balance, coordination for pedaling, and confidence to move on two wheels.
16″ Kids’ Bikes
Once your child has outgrown their 12 or 14-inch bike, the next size is 16″. These bikes may also have an option for training wheels if your kid has started to learn a little later.
Kids ages five and six will have enough strength to operate brake levers, pedal for longer durations, and possibly join you on short rides. Most 16″ bikes have coaster brakes, but some feature one or two hand-operated brakes. Finally, this category consists of colorful options with components suitable for pavement riding.
20″ Kids’ Bikes
The 20-inch category is the first that starts to resemble adult bikes. Children are ready to begin trying new terrain and specific disciplines like road or mountain biking at this age. In addition, they can use the full range of components available to adults.
- Related post: Best 20″ Boys’ Bikes for 5-to-9-Year-Olds
You’ll find more specialized options, such as 20-inch MTBs, BMXs, road bikes, and traditional urban or cruiser models. These bikes feature standard braking systems, multiple gears, and 1x or 2x chainsets. 20″ mountain bikes will typically have rigid forks. Multiple chainrings add unnecessary complexity at this age, so a bike with 1x gearing is ideal.
Riding a bike that fits perfectly and isn’t too heavy is essential from this age onward.
24″ Kids’ Bikes
Again, more specialized options become available in this age range. We recommend consulting your child about the kinds of riding they would like to do (urban, off-road, or road) to narrow down the options. Higher-end options are also available in this size.
Some of the best kids’ mountain bikes come in this size and are available in rigid, hardtail, and full-suspension options. The suspension travel on these MTBs is child-specific. Road bikes will feature standard 2x drivetrains and lightweight frames, and 24″ hybrids will have the same component choices as adult ones. Again, look for child-specific components on these bikes for a more natural fit.
26″ Kids’ Bikes
The final category for older kids and young teens is 26-inch wheels. Although your child may fit a small adult’s bike at this age, kids’ versions are better as the components are often child-specific, and the geometry is different.
These bikes will mimic adult bikes with a full range of components, pricing options, and discipline choices.
Cycling Gear and Accessories for Kids
When choosing a kids’ bike, ensure you have the appropriate gear to keep your child safe.
A Helmet That Fits
The first and most important gear item is a helmet that fits appropriately. When trying on a helmet, it should fit snugly and comfortably without moving around while it’s on. A loose helmet will not be protective in a crash.
- Related post: 11 Best Kids’ Bike Helmets in 2023 [Buyer’s Guide]
In most US states, children under 16 must wear a helmet by law. Regardless, kids should get in the habit of wearing one from a young age.
Protective Pads and Gloves
Another way to keep your children free from scratches is to buy knee and elbow pads and cycling gloves. These are especially helpful when they’re trying to learn how to balance for the first time, as falls are inevitable.
Lights and Bell
High-quality bike lights are essential for riding at dawn, dusk, and nighttime. However, they also make you more visible at all times of day, especially on cloudy days.
A handlebar bell is another excellent addition that allows kids to make their presence known on a bike path. So grab a set of lights and a bell for your child’s bicycle to make riding safer for them.
If your kid is cycling somewhere with plans to leave the bike there, such as a friend’s house or school, they’ll need an easy-to-use lock to deter bicycle thieves. Check out our review of the best bike locks to find a lightweight model that suits your kid.
Do’s and Don’ts of Buying a Kids’ Bike
There are a few things you’ll want to do and avoid if you want to ensure your child loves riding their bike and spends lots of time cycling, gaining all of cycling’s numerous benefits.
Buy a Bike That Fits
To save money, some parents will consider buying a bike for their child to ‘grow into,’ meaning it doesn’t fit exactly right from day one. This is a big mistake. A poor-fitting bike will be uncomfortable and unsafe to use and could lead to injuries if the fit is way off.
Instead of buying a bike they will grow into, find one that fits them with the saddle height in and around its minimum position. This way, they will have almost the entire saddle height range to grow before they need a bigger size.
Match Their Capability and Experience
Each child learns and progresses on their own unique timeline. Add complexity and challenge as they become confident with a specific bike or riding environment.
For example, you can start a child on a balance bike and progress to a single-speed 12″ or 14″ pedal bike with a coaster brake and removable training wheels. Then, when they are ready for a 16″ bike, you may consider a bike with multiple gears, hand brakes, or both for added complexity.
Exploring light dirt trails or going for longer rides would add an extra challenge as they develop confidence with gearing and shifting on regular bike paths and pavement.
Choose a Lightweight Bike
Let’s face it; nobody likes riding a heavy, cumbersome bike. This fact is even more relevant to kids, who are proportionally weaker and more easily fatigued.
Some cheap kids’ bikes can be almost as heavy as adults’ ones, especially in the 24″ and 26″ wheel sizes. With a heavy bike, even the faintest incline can take the fun out of cycling and discourage your kid from using their bicycle.
We recommend spending a little extra to get a lighter bike, if possible. Doing so will make riding more enjoyable and develop your child’s passion for cycling.