Flying With a Lap Baby Does Not Make You a Bad Parent

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In the wake of last weekend’s Aeroflot flight from Moscow to Bangkok where the plane encountered severe and unexpected turbulence resulting in injuries to a couple of dozen passengers including at least three young children, I want to put on my ‘internet armor’ and talk for a minute about lap babies. My goal in doing this isn’t to start an internet riot (though lap baby ranks up there as being at least as controversial a topic as babies in first class and breastfeeding without a cover), but my goal is to share my own shifting experience with this topic and pass on my belief that flying with your child as a lap baby does not in any way make you a bad parent. I’ve got some stats and stuff too instead of just my own ramblings.

 

Before you have children you are, of course, the perfect parent. Your child will not look at a screen until they are like 10 years old, they will not eat garbage snacks and instead eat only organic whole non-processed foods, they will never have sugary juice, they will not wear light-up shoes with cartoon characters made in China, they will not sleep in your bed, they won’t throw tantrums in the line at the store, you will never take them to a restaurant until they can read the menu, you will never send them to daycare/school if they aren’t feeling 100%, they won’t walk around with green snot draining out of their nose, you will never raise your voice or lose your cool, you will come up with stimulating educational activities for them to do every day, etc. Then you have a kid, or two, or five, and let’s just say your expectations are hit with a dose of reality.

You may hold tight to some of your perfect parent ideals, but you loosen up on others, not because you are a bad parent, but because real life with another real human is just very different than a fantasy inside your head. Enter the lap baby discussion.

I don’t remember having a strong stance on lap babies before becoming a parent, but I do know I had opinions on it once I flew a few times with my first daughter. I was then a strong supporter of having your baby in their own car seat while in-flight even if they were under two years old and didn’t yet require a seat per FAA rules. Not only was it of course logically safer to have them strapped in, but I found it to be much more comfortable and convenient for everyone involved. We were a family of three, and this meant that we had our own little row of three to ourselves on most aircraft. We were parents to a daughter that wasn’t particularly snuggly and who was an expert at falling asleep in her carseat whether it was attached to an actual car or to an airplane.

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By the time she took her first flight she was done with nursing, and as such could easily enjoy a bottle or sippy cup from her cushy car seat. I had my hands free, she was happy, and we had plenty of space. Sure buying three seats instead of two cost more money or miles, but it wasn’t horrible, and it was almost fun booking a third seat for your only little kiddo. While I did travel a fair amount, we didn’t actually take our first trip with her until she was 11 months old, and most of the flights we took with her in her first two years were when she was between 18 – 24 months.

Given all of that, of course I would be a big fan of getting a seat for your little one instead of holding them in your lap. Every single piece of my personal experience pointed to that being a better choice.

And then I had a second kid. To those not yet indoctrinated to the realities of second time parenting, let’s just say that kid #2 is not just a repeat of kid #1. I’m sure that holds true if you go on to have 3, 4, or 19 children. You may be a experienced parent by this point, but you are brand new to meeting the needs of this particular person.

Here’s a true story I’m not sure I have fully shared. My second daughter was born in July of 2015, and I had agreed to present on miles and points at the Chicago Seminars in October of that year as I had done several times before. I had booked three seats on the flight for my mom, my baby, and myself to go to Chicago so that I could present. I booked that seat for my then three month old baby because that is what I had done for my first daughter, and of course everyone would be safer and more comfortable in that scenario than if we just held her.

As the trip drew closer I got nervous about this set-up because after meeting her it was clear that in no way, shape, or form was she going to be okay strapped into a car seat next to me and not in my arms. This child hated the car seat. Imagine a hungry, angry, rabid raccoon being strapped into a car seat, and that is about what happened when my second child was in hers. I hated even leaving the house with her to go to doctor’s appointments or run errands, because it was a guaranteed screamfest to and from wherever we went for months and months and months. In our car it is usually just me and her that suffered for a few minutes, but on an airplane it would be a longer situation that impacted way more people.

In contrast, as long as she was in my arms and/or nursing, she was pretty happy and content. This child was born to be a lap baby, not a strapped baby. She ended up being sick the week of the Chicago Seminars, and so none of those three seats were used in the end as we didn’t make the trip. I also never again booked her in her own airplane seat until she turned two years old, not because I am a bad mom or a cheapskate, but because once I met her and learned her own needs and preferences, it was clear she would do better in my arms, not in her car seat. I mean, maybe I am a little bit of a cheapskate, but that wasn’t the main driver of this decision making process.

Okay, so she was more comfortable in my arms at 36,000 feet than in a car seat, but was I putting her safety at risk in ditching the car seat in the sky? I mean, she hated the car seat in the car, but I kept her strapped in there. Here’s the truth…logic will tell you that babies would be safer in the sky strapped into car seats than in their parents’ arms. I don’t have the stats to back that up, but I can’t imagine it being seriously disputed. However, air travel is so incredibly safe that the amount of increased risk has to be miniscule. In contrast, the risk of her being in distress next to me in her car seat was pretty much guaranteed.

Via stats available from the Department of Transportation, in the years available via the linked table, there were between 14 – 29 serious injuries per year on US air carriers. There were 2,200,000 – 3,200,000 serious injuries per year on US highways. Even trains, boats, and walking had way, way, way more injuries than on US air carriers. There are a number of recent years in which there are 0 passenger fatalities due to accidents on US airlines, and only a handful of serious injuries. Of course one serious injury is far too many when it is your child, but the actual risk to your baby on a US passenger aircraft whether in a car seat or not is very, very, very small. If you think a family should drive instead of fly just because they plan to fly with a lap baby, I encourage you to look again at the stats and decide which is actually the more statistically dangerous choice.

It would seem to be a much better use of mental anguish to figure out how to have the littlest travelers securely strapped into a car seat when in a cab, a bus, or a train than an airplane, at least based on the likelihood of an accident. Or, maybe even better yet, let’s work on the reality that 95% of people do not properly use an infant car seat in their own vehicles, of which 89% made critical installation errors. I’m sure we make our share of our own errors, but in our vehicles at home, my now almost two year old is still rear facing, even though she still isn’t the biggest car seat fan. My very tall 7.5 year old is still in a high backed booster even though most of her friends are not. I’ve spent big amounts of cash to secure car services that have safety seats available on our travels because the risk on the road is real and I want to mitigate it where I can. I’m all for safety and car seats whenever feasible, but I’m just not for falling into the trap of obsessing over very small amounts of increased risk here and there to the point that you never leave your couch. Though, while we are talking about couches, my baby did fall of the couch when she was very young, so we can add that to some accident category.

Now, I’m not at all saying you shouldn’t get your baby or young toddler their own seat on an airplane and strap them in. Of course that is a great option, and it was the best choice for our firstborn as it meshed well with her own personality and needs. I’d love to see airlines make that process even easier in a similar fashion to how UberFamily has compact car seats available on Uber rides in select cities. However, regardless of why you may decide to have your baby fly as a lap baby, you are not a bad parent, and your baby is not exposed to a huge amount of increased risk. Air travel, especially in this country, is so incredibly safe that the time you are in the air is probably the safest part of your entire journey whether you are a baby being held in a lap, or a grown man strapped into your own lie-flat seat.

Let’s work together to improve safety and security for our littlest travelers, but not at the expense of actually putting them into more dangerous situations by turning to more road trips or even just staying on couches at home.

 

Editorial Note: The opinions expressed here are mine and not provided, reviewed, by any bank, card issuer, or other company unless otherwise stated.

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Comments

    • Girl, I knew you were part of ‘the choir’. And happy recent second birthday to your littlest! 😉

  1. Even without the details, I agree wholeheartedly with your headline. In fact, it seems silly that someone would think that a parent was a “bad” parent for holding their child. Using that same logic, a parent should never walk anywhere in public holding their child. After all, something might happen…

  2. Are there any restrictions for lap babies on long haul flights? I would think it would be even more unsafe for a parent to hold a baby for 10+ hours….especially on an overnight flight. I’ve done ORD-SYD quite a bit and couldn’t imagine trying to hold a baby on that journey.

    I have 5 nieces and nephews and their mom’s have used those baby backpack/carrier type things that you can strap the baby in. It seems like that would be a good tool for a lap baby. I think though if I had a child I’d buy the extra seat. All your points are valid and understandable as to why not to buy it. I think in the end it’s a risk/reward scenario. If you are on one of those 1/1,000,000 DME-BKK flights you’d wish you had the seat. The other 999,999 it would be an issue.

    • I think it is great if parents decide to purchase a seat, it just isn’t ‘bad’ if you don’t. There are not different rules on longer flights, other than the lap baby isn’t usually ‘free’ in those cases, but most frequently 10% of the going fare in that cabin. Most long haul flights do have bassinets available for the smaller babies, but you can’t use those when the seatbelt sign is on.

  3. Is it sad that my first inclination upon finishing your post was to press the non-existent “LIKE” button?!

    “Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passion, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.” – John Adams

  4. Agreed! I’m taking my almost 2 year old as a lap baby in first class to Hawaii in September…guess I’m hitting TWO hot buttons with that one 🙂 My kid is like your 2nd, would SCREAM the entire time she was in her car seat. Thankfully that has stopped!

  5. One thing that isn’t mentioned here is the impact a lap baby has on your seat mates. This does not apply at all if your family is filling the row, but if you are going to be next to a stranger, if your child is anything other than a true infant, a second person taking up one tiny airplane seat really does encroach on the space of a neighbor. Last year I had the misfortune of being seated next to one squirmy, kicking, lap toddler. She pulled my hair, kept grabbing at my shirt, and it was impossible to eat because she wouldn’t leave my tray table alone. Recently, my teen son and I picked a window and middle on a Southwest flight. A woman with a toddler got on and sat in the aisle seat. We decided to move as there were still plenty of open seats left on the plane. We didn’t say why we were moving, or act put out, but as we got up, she said “are you moving because of the baby???” She thought it was very rude of us, and let us know. To me, it is ruder to expect a stranger to share such close quarters with an extra person. Just something to think about – again this doesn’t apply if you are sitting with friends and family.

    • I feel like you missed the point of Summer’s post. I feel for the mother with the lapchild. It’s certainly not easy traveling alone with a baby and is not often anyone’s first choice but it is sometimes necessary. I’ve sat next to many rude/stinky/loud/messy/too large for the seat/etc “adults” that infringed on my very limited economy class personal space in an airplane. Unfortunately that’s just the nature of economy air travel. We don’t get to choose our seatmates and they don’t choose us. I imagine if that mother had her child in a car seat, the potential crying would have had you just as upset. Now, if the mother was doing nothing to keep the child from touching you I can see being justifubly upset, but if it were me I’d be doing everything in my power to keep my seatmates happy and probably panicking inside that my child was acting like a child.

      • I think you’ve missed an important point in Lynn’s post: “there were still plenty of open seats left on the plane.” While the plane may fill up, at that point the mother quite clearly decided who she was going to sit next to. We both have no other facts, but this reads to me like an entitled mommy who was willing to cram her child and herself in, in order to be 4 rows further forward. All well and good, until she give Lynn attitude when Lynn decided to avail herself of a couple of those open seats.

        We flew 8 or 10 RTs with our twins while they were still lap-capable. Probably something like 30 segments. With family boarding on Southwest, only once did we run into a situation where there weren’t entirely open rows in the back. Yep, we sat in the back… a lot. A small price to pay to not cram ourselves into the first 2 seats we saw. As a side benefit: sitting in the kids’ section (yes, many parents were smart and considerate enough to do the same) way in the back, we were almost always able to pull out the CARES harnesses and strap the kids into their own ‘free’ seat.

  6. Touchy subject, I know, and I DO respect your opinion, but….

    I would NOT call you a bad parent, as I understand your reasoning.

    That said, as a professional aviator for more the 35 years ANY passenger on a plane … 8 mos or 80 years old …. is safer when strapped in. It’s why they allows say to have your seatbelt fastened whenever sitting, even if the seat belt sign isn’t on. Unexpected turbulence DOES happen. So if you have an infant in arms that’s strapped to you in some sort of bundle/swaddle/etc and YOU are strapped down you’re probably ok. If you are just HOLDING a child that child CAN and WILL become a projectile. That said it’s YOUR call as a parent if you are willing to accept that risk. (I also am selfish and would hate to have your child CRY the entire flight as has happened to me on NUMEROUS international flights… in coach AND business class).

    and Lynn….. my wife and I have gotten up and moved more than once on planes, in restaurants, etc, and have also been asked if it’s because of the baby and/or child. I have no problem politely saying YES…. but moving all the same. If it makes that parent ticked off it’s not MY problem. If I choose to (potentially) suffer in silence it’s MINE!

    • It’s funny that people /ask/ whether you’re moving due to the child — gotta say, if I saw you move, doesn’t matter to me!

    • Paul V.:
      Well said comment.
      As a professional aviator, I’m sure you can attest that you’ve personally experienced severe turbulence. Fly enough and it’s almost an inevitable experience. It’s only a matter of when. I guess one could make excuses in any scenario and internally justify acceptable levels of risk —–

      • @Queenie – I’m not sure if your comment was meant to be judgmental, but it does read as such. Summer shared the stats that show injury is a very minimal statistical concern. In fact, your kids are more likely to get injured in the back seat of your car, or playing in the street or backyard. Or getting extremely sick from going to school.

        My oldest is under 2 and has been on at least 13 segment with no issues. When there is turbulence, I hold her tight. In fact, I know zero people with kids who has ever had an injury with their kid on a plane, but I know a number of parents who’s kids have broken bones jumping off a swing in the safety of their own backyard.

        The shaming of parents nowadays is ridiculous. You are not a bad parent for having a lap child, just like you are not a bad parent for letting your kids play alone in the backyard, or walk to school…etc.

        Summer, I appreciate the post standing up for parents who are just trying to do the best they can.

  7. Great post! I often wonder if people get worked up about other people’s lap children under the guise of “safety” when it’s actually more of envy that they’re getting a free seat. I can kind of understand the behavior/space invading point of view, but with all the recent fighting of (adult) crew and passengers, I think I’d rather sit next to a child.

  8. Appreciate all that are sharing, and while this post was more about the safety perspective than the potential inconvenience factor, I’ll still share a travel story from last week when I paid to upgrade my flight home from Newark to a lie-flat seat and ended up next to a lap baby. By the time the flight came around all I wanted to do was sleep. When I sat down in 1B, I sat down next to a mom and a roughly 6-9 month old lap baby who were traveling alone. When I saw them did I have a moment of “oh crap, I hope I still get to sleep” run through my head? Absolutely. Did I keep that to myself, cross my fingers for the best, and be as nice to that mom and baby as I could be? Absolutely. I smiled at him, offered to hold him during meal time, offered to help them deplane, let her know I also had a one year old, etc…but they didn’t need me. They had this down. In the end he was the absolute cutest and sweetest baby, and I was the lucky one to get to sit next to them…and I did still get a nap, though that mom most certainly did not. Like any passengers seated next to you, lap babies are a crap shoot in that some will be a delight to be near, and others will be tougher. That is a valid discussion, though a slightly different topic than the safety aspect. I know my own baby would be much easier to be near when she is in my lap vs. when she is in a car seat.

  9. Some factual analyses and insights:

    https://jetlagged.blogs.nytimes.com/2007/12/19/the-safety-hazard-on-your-lap/?_r=0

    http://www.nbcchicago.com/investigations/Plane-Crash-Survivor-Fights-for-Lap-Children-Ban-267443051.html

    I wouldn’t label someone as “bad” but it is a dangerous decision to carry one’s baby on their lap onboard an airliner.

    While it’s good to look at the likelihood of risks occurring, it’s an incomplete picture without factoring in the impact if the risk does occur. The risk of a commercial airliner crashing is relatively small, but a properly secured (belted or infant seat) person stands a much, much higher chance of surviving and of minimizing injury than a person who is free to succumb to the forces of the crash. And an infant will be free to be fling about as a person’s arms cannot hold such force…anyone who thinks that they can hold on to their infant is delusional and doesn’t understand physics.

    You aren’t permitted to hold a backpack on your lap during takeoff and landing but are permitted to hold an infant human on your lap during those times. Now think about that for a minute.

    As for the driving deaths strawman, the second article I posted above addresses that. As it notes, too, the FAA even talks out of both sides of its mouth saying lap infants are OK but then stating it’s best for an infant to be restrained.

    Rationalize all you want, but it’s a poor decision.

    • Yes, fully agree. Ever watch the film Fearless with Jeff Bridges and Rosie Perez? All about trying to hold a lap baby during a crash…. Not good, very sad. 🙁

    • first off, your second article doesn’t actually address the argument about driving deaths. it does indeed bring them up, but without further explanation or sources it doesn’t provide a full picture. during the post 9/11 drop in airline passengers, they say that fatal injuries to children and total injuries decreased… but they don’t say whether the number of people driving increased or decreased over that time as well. it’s tempting to say that with a drop in air travel that driving travel would rise, but i wouldn’t be surprised at all to find out that for a period after 9/11 many people avoided traveling at all and that driving travel also fell.

      i’m not saying the article or person quoted in it is wrong, but what’s provided in the story doesn’t provide nearly enough information to know that these numbers are statistically significant and say what they’re purported to say.

  10. I realize that stinky/large passengers are also an inconvenience, I was just pointing out there are additional considerations in lap infants. Then of course, there is the subject of pets. Once my husband and I boarded and took our aisle and middle bulkhead seats to find the woman at the window was blind and her extremely large German Shepherd was lying across the floor of all three seats! There was truly no where for it to go, but there was also no way we could get in the seats without stepping on it. We finally settled on sitting with our feet on the wall in front of us. Talk about awkward and inconvenient. And my husband is allergic to dogs, so he was extra miserable. I’m still waiting for teleportation to be invented . . .

  11. I would not label them a bad parent. That being said, I was on a plane that had to prepare for an emergency landing. We had to “brace for impact.” Let me tell you, it was the scariest flight I’ve ever been on as I’m sure you can imagine. Across the aisle from me was a mom and her lap child. That sobbing mom had to put her crying child on the floor between her feet. It made me cry (of course, I was on the verge of tears due to the main situation anyway). I couldn’t believe that was where her child had to stay. We, fortunately, managed to land safely, but after having been through that situation, I swore that my son and I would never be put in that position. He hated his car seat, too. He was a sickly baby and to this day gets motion sickness. It didn’t matter. I would rather know he had a safer place to be during takeoff and landing. Once the seatbelt sign was off, then he sat on my lap. I hope that no other parent ever has to go through what that mom did. I know she was second-guessing her decision to not buy a seat for her child. Yes, air travel is incredibly safe, but it only takes that one time… Of course, I still don’t think it’s right for other parents to judge nor shame parents who choose not to purchase a seat. We don’t know their circumstances.

  12. If this is wrong, I don’t wanna be right. haha Seriously though, I milked every opportunity to have our kids fly for free while they were lap children… including booking several extra weekend flights in the last couple of months before they each turned 2 years old.

  13. I wholeheartedly agree with your words. I read some of the comments on the Aeroflot new’s article last week and figured most of those people aren’t parents! One other point is that some families may truly need to fly (funerals, etc) and they don’t have the money to pay for another seat. Unfortunately, in this day in age, everyone on the internet thinks they know it all.

  14. Great post Mommypoints.

    I agree that the decision to lap child does not make one a bad parent. I also agree the airplane is far safer than a road trip.

    I also think that most of the issues with lap children occur at the 14-23 month stage. The early toddler months are hard to predict and parents are still trying to figure out how to parent a mobile toddler that has figured out how to use all arms and legs.

    I understand that the safety argument hinges on the FAA or NTSB feedback that parents would switch their mode of transportation to driving if the free lap child “benefit” was removed. I feel that the only way to truly test this feedback is to pull the lap child benefit and see what happens. I have this viewpoint based on the years of watch airlines remove/reduce/enhance elite benefits followed by negative reactions online and pledges to move to another airline. Fast forward six months after the elite benefit reduction, and less than 1/10 people have followed through on their abandonment threat. the other 9/10 adapt.

    If there was no lap child program, the market would segment as follows:
    (1) Some would buy a seat for their children and take onboard the car seat.
    (2) Some would chose not to travel or limit their number of trips.
    (3) Some would chose to drive instead of fly.

    Market segment #2 is the one i am most interested in further analysis. This segment bifurcates the drive option into separate groups. The don’t travel at all passengers are still safe because they are not subjecting the infant/toddler to the less safer driving option.

    Ideally I would like to limit lap children to the period when they are still reverse facing. But that is a subjective assessment criteria. The next best example is to limit lap children to under 0-17 months.

    Rolling back the lap child by 6 months would still allow for parents to use the lap child benefit but would limit the impact of a squirmy toddler that is capable of running faster than the parent. It is a small adjustment that could easily be reversed if there were unintended consequences. If successful, it would also improve the image of travelling parents in the eyes of the travelling non-parents. With infants the general population is very forgiving of the parents, however with toddlers there is no quarter shown.

  15. I will be traveling with my one year old lap baby this August and been regretting not getting her her own seat but trip is already booked and I think we will be ok. This article definitely made me feel better about the whole situation but I have a question. This will be my first time flying with a baby and I was wondering if there’s a special seat belt you use for your baby? Is there something you purchase or do airlines provide anything as security for your baby? I have no idea what to expect.

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