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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.
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.