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Babies on a Plane: How the Parent Wars Have Spread to the Skies

Baby Sleeping On Mother's Laps In Airplane

In a split second, everything you know about the safety of air travel can change.

That’s what happened to the 114 passengers on a United Airlines flight this past President’s Day.

Unexpected turbulence hit mid-flight, catching even the crew off guard. People went flying, two passengers were sent to the hospital, and the mother of one lap infant was unable to hold on to her baby — other passengers reported her heartbreaking cries as she called out for her little one in the chaos that followed.

Thankfully, everyone survived. But that isn’t always the case — and lap babies are sometimes the most at risk. The physics of extreme turbulence makes it almost impossible to hold on to the weight of a child. A flight attendant from a crash where a lap baby died went on to become a vocal advocate for car seats on planes, pushing for an end to lap babies entirely.

In 2005, the Federal Aviation Administration addressed the issue with a statement urging consumers to purchase separate seats for infants and bring their car seats along, saying it’s the safest way to fly. But they weren’t willing to go as far as requiring car seats on planes, stating that doing so may cause more families to drive to their destinations instead, since the cost of an extra ticket can be prohibitive. It turns out that more families on the roads — where fatality rates are much higher — could actually pose a far greater risk than lap babies.

And that gray area between recommendations and requirements is where most new parents find themselves.

Before I became a mom, somewhat suddenly last year, I’d never really thought about babies on a plane, let alone how hotly contested an infant car seat could be. Then, right before I traveled for the first time with my daughter, I posted on Facebook about being a little anxious about taking such a big trip with my little girl. And my confession opened me up to a rather uncomfortable and unexpected exchange. A woman contacted me through my page and, quite aggressively, attempted to convince me to purchase an extra seat — continuing to come at me again and again, clearly determined to force a change of mind.

At the time, I thought she was crazy. My daughter hated her car seat, and I couldn’t imagine making her cry for eight hours of flying. I have traveled my entire life and I have never been on a flight that came close to producing a dangerous level of turbulence. To me, having her secure and warm against me was the only way to go.

And I’ll be honest — I don’t regret that choice. It was the right one for us at that stage in her development.

But now that my daughter is older, the irony is that those heated conversations still echo in my head. And combined with the dread of having a 25-pound near-toddler on my lap for eight straight hours, our last several flights have included my little girl in her very own seat.

And me, lugging an extremely heavy car seat through the airport to accomplish that goal.

And you know what? It works. For both of us. The cost is higher, but she is safer, more comfortable and more likely to sleep.

At this stage in her development, having a separate seat for her is the right answer for us.

And it finally occurred to me—car seat safety has become just another salvo in the mommy wars, with car seats on planes being the soap box du jour

Yet I’ve continued to watch this debate rage on from afar, seeing again and again the aggression with which some women approach it. And it finally occurred to me — car seat safety has become just another salvo in the mommy wars, with car seats on planes being the soap box du jour. Which is not to say that the information being imparted is not valid or important, because it is — but when the sharing of that information travels over into shaming and harassing, it becomes more about saying, “I’m a better parent than you are,” than it is about actual child safety.

Because when you look at the facts, these instances really are quite rare. Tragic, yes, but still pretty few and far between. When you consider how many lap infants travel each year, and how few deaths and injuries have actually occurred, it is easy to understand why some parents may decide the risks aren’t enough to justify the purchase of a separate seat. And when you think about it, we take risks every single day as parents. Even risks that go against general guidelines, because we feel strongly that we know what is best for our own children. People put blankets in cribs or ignore the Bumbo sticker that says not to place it on a table. We all occasionally choose the “less safe” option from time to time, if not when it comes to car seats on a plane, then when it comes to something else. We do a risk-benefit analysis, and we move forward with the choice that feels right to us.

Those on the aggressive side of this mommy war have convinced themselves that their aggression is justifiable because this is a safety issue — but the mommy wars are full of “safety issues.” Kids have died because of complications with circumcisions, too. Even ear piercings carry an increased risk of infection. And we have an entire campaign telling mothers “Breast is Best” — in other words, if you aren’t breastfeeding, you aren’t giving your child the very best.

How is this any different?

It is a cost/benefit analysis, and for some parents — the risk simply isn’t worth giving up the benefits of flying with a lap child. That doesn’t make them a bad parent, or an irresponsible parent. It just makes them… a parent, making the best decisions they can for their children in the moment.

If this is your passion, I support you. I do. By all means: Educate, push for reform and get information out there! But don’t belittle, shame and harass in the process. Because at the end of the day, this is just one more battle that we are allowing to divide us, forgetting that we are all moms who are facing difficult decisions every day, processing the information that is out there through our own lenses and making the decisions we see as best for our children.

For me, the time came where having my daughter in her own seat was what was right for us. Of course, that came with its own set of complications, including rear-facing a child under 1 in a seat that provided very little room to accomplish that task. And when the gentleman in front of us on one flight realized that he could not recline in his seat because of her, he was far from pleased. Which actually fueled my indignation.

This is my child’s safety we are talking about! I thought. If you want full recline, go sit in first class! Coach isn’t meant to be comfy!

Funny how attitudes can change.

But I still maintain that just because I decided this is the best option for us, it’s not my right to shove that choice upon other moms.

And sometimes, when the choice is to see grandma and grandpa or to forgo an important trip because you can’t afford the extra seat — I get why you would choose the former.

Life is about analyzing risks.

And most of us are simply doing the best we can.

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