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Coaster Brakes vs. Hand Brakes on Kids’ Bikes

Coaster brakes vs hand brakes for kids bikes

In the U.S., coaster brakes have long been the norm for kids bikes (not to mention the law). Conventional wisdom has claimed that young kids don’t have the coordination required for hand brakes, and moreover, that they are downright dangerous.

Over the last few years, this mindset has begun to change. Parents have realized that coaster brakes can hinder learning, cause dangerous skidding, and add weight to already heavy kids bikes. Manufacturers of higher-end kids bikes have also started offering modification kits to allow parents to remove coaster brakes.

Here’s a comprehensive overview of the pros and cons of both coaster brakes and hand brakes, so whatever setup you choose, you can make an informed choice.

Coaster brakes vs. Hand Brakes

The Law

Any conversation about the coaster brake versus hand brake debate has to start with an overview of the law. U.S. regulations require manufacturers to outfit all “sidewalk bikes” with wheels sized 20” or less with a “foot brake” (aka coaster brake).

Fortunately, this law applies only to manufacturers/distributors, so if you as parent choose to modify the bike, there’s no problem with that. Many bike companies have begun skirting this law by selling after-market conversion kits that allow you to replace the coaster with a freewheel.

The Coaster Brake

Coaster Brake
A child’s bike outfitted with a coaster brake only.

A coaster brake (or foot brake) allows a child to stop by pedaling backward. This is unlike a regular freewheel which allows the cyclist to backpedal freely.

The primary rationale for including a coaster brake on kids bikes is that it requires relatively little coordination to operate it. This is not the case for a hand brake which absolutely requires some skill and coaching to use properly.

The initial downside of a coaster brake comes when teaching a child to ride a bike. Kids naturally pedal backward as well as forward. With a coaster brake, however, they come to an immediate stop when backpedaling. This can be both dangerous and frustrating for a brand new rider.

Once a child has pedaling figured out, they may very well be just fine riding with a coaster brake on a sidewalk. Assuming that all kids on small bikes are just riding on the sidewalk, however, is a mistake. Many parents are looking for bikes that are suitable for riding on singletrack or at the bike park.

A coaster brake becomes increasingly challenging on hills and off-road. Coaster brakes are either off or on; there is no modulation. This causes skidding and potential crashes particularly when riding on dirt or large hills. On a mountain bike trail or at a skills park challenges such as rocks often require the rider to backpedal—something that you can’t do with a coaster.

Finally, coaster brakes are pretty heavy. They can add significant weight to a child’s bike. When you consider that a kid’s bike is already close to half of their body weight, any place where you can save weight is worth considering. A bike outfitted with handbrakes rather than a coaster can save a couple pounds.

Coaster Brake Pros:

  • Requires low levels of coordination; relatively easy to learn.
  • Works well in all weather conditions.

Coaster Brake Cons:

  • No modulation; skidding is common.
  • Heavy
  • No backpedaling—can make learning to pedal harder, and causes problems when doing more technical riding

Hand Brakes

B'Twin Brake Levers
Image by B’Twin

Hand brakes consist of brake levers on both the right and left handlebars and generally control calipers on both the front and rear wheels. On larger and higher-end kids mountain bikes, the hand levers might actually control disc rotors instead of calipers.

The biggest problem with handbrakes is that they can be difficult for kids to use.  Most brake levers are simply too large and too difficult for little hands to control. Fortunately, more and more kids bikes are being outfitted with child-specific easy-to-pull, easy-to-reach levers.   If you are going to put your child on a bike with only hand brakes and no coaster, make sure the levers are top-notch.

Many critics of hand brakes argue that you kids aren’t coordinated enough to use hand brakes. I don’t buy this argument. If given kid-appropriate levers (as mentioned above), kids as young as 2.5 can learn to use a handbrake.

I always encourage parents to start their child riding on a balance bike with a handbrake first. This allows them to learn to operate a hand brake at an early age, and promotes an easy transition to a pedal bike with handbrakes.

The biggest concern for handbrakes is that the child grabs a big handful of brake and goes over the handlebars. This is a very real concern, and means that if you put your child on a bike with handbrakes you need to spend the time building their skills.

Hand Brake Pros:

  • Kids will have to learn to use hand brakes eventually; it’s best to learn early.
  • Allows for modulation—helpful on hills and off-road.
  • Ability to backpedal

Hand Brake Cons:

  • Levers must be child-specific and high-quality in order to be effective and safe.
  • Requires more skill and coaching than a coaster brake.
  • Not as effective in wet conditions.
  • A handful of front brake can send little riders over the handlebars.

A Hybrid – Using Both Coasters AND Hand Brakes

Many quality kids bikes are now being offered with both a coaster brake and handbrakes. This might be the best of both worlds. Using both means that there is no single point of failure, and kids have options to use what they are most comfortable with.

I highly recommend this option over utilizing only a coaster brake simply because all kids are eventually going to have to transition to a bicycle with handbrakes. Giving them the chance to practice and learn that skill at an early age will do nothing but help them.

Bottom-Line

There is no wrong option when choosing a bike with a coaster brake versus a hand brake. My advice would be to either (a) choose a bike with both options so that your child gets practice with a hand brake, or (b) for families that do a lot of cycling or who have a child interested in mountain biking or BMX, go for the hand-brake only option.

If you do choose to buy your child a bike with only a hand brake, make sure that the levers are both easy-to-reach and easy-to-pull. Also make sure that they are given proper coaching and instruction on how to use them. This option is best for kids who started riding on a balance bike and are already comfortable with a hand-brake.

If you need more help picking a good bike for your child, check out my Guide to Buying a Quality Kids Bike.


18 thoughts on “Coaster Brakes vs. Hand Brakes on Kids’ Bikes”

  1. I am deciding between the Norco 14 freewheel and the coaster break/handbreak combo for my 4 year old who is just learning to ride. Thanks for breaking down the pros and cons. I think you helped make my decision for the Ninja (combo breaks).

    Reply
    • Hi Christine,
      If your child has a bike equipped with hand brakes AND a coaster, it is pretty easy. You can buy a rear wheel with a freehub from several companies including Woom and Pello. You can them swap it out for the existing coaster wheel. If your child’s bike isn’t already equipped with a hand brake then things are way more challenging and probably not worth the expense/effort of converting.

      Reply
  2. You mentioned having little ones learn to use handbrakes on a balance bike. My almost 3 year old daughter absolutely flies on her strider, starting at just over 2.5 yrs old. She can stop on a dime with her feet. We like the idea of getting her comfortable with handbrakes before switching her to a pedal bike. Is there a kit we can add to her strider bike?

    Reply
    • Hi Sheena,
      While you COULD add a handbrake to a Strider, there isn’t a kit to do it. Adding a handbrake would require quite an effort and expense. In addition to the brake levers, you would need new wheels and clamps to install the v-brake calipers. You’d be better off getting another balance bike that come with handbrakes OR getting her a pedal bike with handbrakes and just removing the pedals for now.
      Cheers,
      KB

      Reply
  3. I have never seen a hand brake that holds up long term. They require constant maintenance. Coaster brakes, on the other hand, last for years.

    Reply
  4. Our children learnt to ride bikes in Europe with only hand brakes. They are here in the USA and tried to bike ride with loaned bikes and they are miserable and confused. This coaster brake is completely unnatural and frustrating! Where do we buy an inexpensive small kids bike with hand brakes?

    Reply
  5. My son just got a bike that is a hybrid with a coaster brake and only one hand brake for the front wheel. I’m concerned that this could be unsafe if he only uses the handbrake to stop, as it could flip the bike. When you discuss hybrids here, are you talking about bikes with a coaster brake and hand brakes on BOTH wheels? would you recommend me adding another handbrake so there is one on the back wheel as well?

    Reply
    • Huh, that’s interesting. Usually, when there is a coaster and a handbrake, the brake is for the rear wheel, not the front. I would be concerned about that also….Can you tell me what bike it is? I would definitely add a rear brake if it’s possible…i.e. there’s a way to mount calipers and the rear rim has a braking surface….

      Reply
  6. I have read several articles about coaster brakes, and each one said you can’t modulate the coaster brake. That’s just wrong. They’re much like the old drum brakes on cars. Brake modulation is done by thoughtfully controlling pedal pressure – like driving a car. This is something most people will need to learn for cars, motorcycles, and other things.

    Reply
    • I completely agree, Andy. I learned to ride with a coaster brake as a kid and got quite good modulating it. Skidding was only done intentionally. I can still hop on a kids bike with a coaster brake and still modulate it easily today. That said, my son learned on a hybrid, and he had no problem later moving to a bike with all hand brakes.

      Reply
  7. My kids have Holt-Oram Syndrome which affected their thumbs and have had pollicization procedures so they can use bicycles but they have got hand brakes only and frankly they would have been much better of with a foot brake instead.

    So consider disabled kids with less grip strength might have different requirements.

    Reply
  8. I’ve just bought this bike for my son – combining a coaster brake with a hand brake to the front. I’m now concerned that it will confuse him /cause him to fly over the handle vara. I may need to start my search again, we hen his birthday is next week and we have a bike shortage here in the UK!

    AMIGO BMX Turbo – Kids bike – 14 Inch – Boys – With training wheels and coaster brake – Blue https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B07XXYVH9V/ref=cm_sw_r_wa_apa_i_2yd.EbQ5V2ZDA

    Reply
    • The front brake is very unlikely to send him flying, if you loosen it so it is impossible to fully lock up the front wheel it will be impossible. With weight in the saddle it takes a considerable force to flip a bike on a front brake, it is a very rare occurrence which has a lot of fear built up around it.

      Front brakes are the best way to stop a bike fast, and learning a little modulation with a front brake is a fantastic way to becoming a confident rider in the future.

      Reply
  9. I am actually out looking for a bike for my growing son that is specifically equipped with two handbrakes. I’m not sure I agree foot requires less coordination because when I jumped on my daughter’s little bike for fun and I found the coaster brake quite confusing. It’s not like I’m an uncoordinated person – I normally ride a road bike with clipless (clip-in cleat) pedals comfortably. To me it makes more sense to program two different muscles to do two different things rather than programming the legs to do both.

    Reply
  10. We have a similar problem to some of those above. My child learnt on a 14” Islabikes from the UK. 2 handbrakes, no problems. We live in the USA now and picked up a 16” Islabikes but it has a rear coaster brake and front handbrake. I think it will cause problems. I’m annoyed. There are no mounting posts to retrofit a rear handbrake either.

    Reply

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