Several months ago when my husband was looking at his work conference schedule for the year, he noticed that one in December would be in Washington D.C. We have a careful budget that we stick to, but we both agreed that this was one of those times we wanted to splurge a little. And so we started looking into flights. I went to Washington D.C. when I was 7 and have wanted to go back ever since, so this was a big deal to me, and I really wanted to take Eli, even if he was a little too young to really appreciate it. When it came time to book a flight, we had a big decision to make: do we get Eli his own seat? Or do we take him for free as a “lap child” and hold him throughout the flight? The lap child option is incredibly tempting, especially as a family on a budget, but something was pulling us away from that. It just didn’t seem safe. And it definitely didn’t seem easy, now that Eli is walking and has some pretty strong opinions. So we did the only reasonable thing we could think of: we consulted the Internet and got really confused, and then we consulted a pilot that we know.
It’s a debate we’ve had a few times, and we’ve always known in our heads what the right answer is! This time was no different except that instead of scrapping our vacation plans due to cost, we found a reasonably priced flight and bought Eli his own seat. The decision wasn’t one we made lightly and the cost wasn’t insignificant by any means, but this was one trip we were willing to swallow that cost for, and especially now that we know now about the safety issues of having a baby as a lap child on a flight.
There are a few reasons why holding babies on your lap isn’t a good idea, and I’m going to get to those, but I just want to take a minute to address one thing I know will happen. Many people will be tempted to comment and say that they have flown with a lap child and nothing bad happened, and I know that. I did too a year ago, and Eli is fine. But that’s the problem with most safety things in life. You can ride a bike without a helmet, and 99% of the time you’ll be fine. You can toss your kid in the front seat when they belong in the back in a car seat, and 99% of the time they’ll be fine. You can eat recalled food and jaywalk and do other ill-advised things, and most of the time you’ll be fine. But the reason these things are ill-advised or illegal is when things aren’t fine, they’re disastrous or deadly. Flying with a lap child is one such thing. So, as a reformed lap child flier, I just ask you read and consider this with an open mind.
There are 5 main reasons you shouldn’t fly with a lap child:
1. It’s not safe for your child.
This is by far the most important reason. I think we all know that flying is safer than driving and the number of crashes is infinitely smaller on planes than in cars, which is partially why many of us choose to fly. But that doesn’t mean that it’s safe for a child to be unrestrained. While we assume that a car seat won’t make a difference in a catastrophic crash (which, more on why that’s not true in a second), there are a multitude of other situations where having a baby properly secured into a car seat can make a huge difference and even save your baby’s life.
Turbulence, for example, isn’t present in a car, but can be incredibly dangerous for an unrestrained baby. When the “fasten seatbelt” sign goes on, the majority of (thinking) adults buckle up, but if you’re holding your baby, you are relying on your reflexes to prevent them from getting thrown into the air. And no matter how much you love your baby or how strong your maternal/paternal instincts are, the forces acting upon them and upon you in an airplane during severe turbulence would be beyond your ability to control and could seriously risk the baby’s life.
Crash landings are another such situation. Trying to hold onto a baby when the plane is landing abruptly is again something that is just beyond the general properties of physics. Your baby can and will go flying, or they’ll become your airbag and will cushion your whiplash like movement. Here’s one such story from a retired flight attendant, where a baby flying without a car seat died in a survivable crash landing. And think that a car seat can’t be the difference between life and death? Here’s a story where a child in a car seat was the only survivor of a plane crash.
2. It’s not safe for everyone else on board, either.
If your baby isn’t going to be able to stay on your lap during a crash landing or quick deceleration, where do they go? Anywhere and everywhere. In a crash landing, flight attendants tell parents to roll lap children in blankets and to hold them on the floor for protection, but as you can imagine, that isn’t generally where babies stay. And in those situations, they essentially become a projectile, which is dangerous for everyone else on the plane. While this reason may not seem terribly significant to you since after all, it’s your baby that is going to also be harmed, it is definitely a big one for everyone else around.
3. You need a car seat at your destination, and rental ones are a bad idea.
Obviously there are some situations where you may have a car seat waiting for you at your destination, but if you don’t, it’s not a good idea to assume you can rent one with your rental cars. Rental car seats are notorious for being unclean, having missing manuals, and being poorly fitting (like requiring you to put a 2-year-old in a booster, or a baby under age 1 forward facing, both of which are incredibly unsafe). Also, and most important, their history is unknown. They may look fine from the outside, but if they’ve been in a car accident and there are microfractures in the seat material or cracks in the frame that you can’t see, they can be incredibly dangerous. They are equally, if not more, dangerous if you have to install without a manual and the installation isn’t correct.
4. Checking your car seat is not safe.
I know we all assume that gate checking is somewhat safer than checking luggage, but if these videos are any evidence, that’s not really the case. If you check your car seat not in its original box, there’s no way to know if it was thrown or dropped, fell from a great height, or is otherwise damaged. Car seats may look fine to the naked eye, but that doesn’t mean they can hold up in an accident.
5. It’s easier to contain your child in a seat.
This is definitely my least solid reason and probably falls more into the opinion zone, which I am happy to admit. Holding a wiggly baby or toddler on your lap is hard. It’s hard on you, it’s hard on them, it’s hard on your neighbors. Buckling yourself into a seat and buckling your baby into their own, familiar car seat is a good signal that you’re both going to be sitting still for a while and that crawling or running around isn’t an option. That doesn’t mean it’s easier to parent them or that they’ll be quiet and happy, but they’re easier to contain, which isn’t nothing.
If you’re still not convinced, do a quick test that was recommended by a friend of mine who is a commercial pilot for a very large airline (and who is opposed to lap children on planes): Have someone drive a car while you ride in the backseat holding a bag of flour (please wear your seatbelt). Have the driver go 25-30mph, and without warning, slam on the breaks. After you clean up the flour from your backseat, consider that that is simply the force of a plane coming to an abrupt stop while taxiing. Now imagine how much faster and more severe that would be in an emergency or crash landing.
I know that it’s hard to imagine swallowing the cost of an extra ticket or skipping out on trips due to the price — truly, I do, because I’ve done both now — but it’s the best decision for you, your baby, and everyone else on your flight. Please think twice before holding your baby on a flight, and please buy them their own seat or stay on the ground.