Why I am Glad My Toddler is Too Old to be a Lap Infant

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Fellow BoardingArea blogger, Delta Gold Flyer, reached out to me to see if I would be interested in doing a joint post about lap infants.  He has a post up today about lap children, and since it is an issue that impacts virtually every traveling family, I told him I would do a post at the same time to share my thoughts.  So, consider this BoardingArea Lap Infant Day.  😉

In case you weren’t following every single post on Mommy Points around Christmas time last year (and who can blame you?!), a few days before Christmas my little toddler turned two years old.  We had a great party complete with ponies in the backyard.  It was a blast.  However, I know that for many frequent flyers a child’s 2nd birthday is also met with some sadness that their little one can no longer qualify as a “lap infant”.  Lap children must be under two years old, and they fly free domestically and typically for 10% of the fare when flying internationally.  Which can still be quite a hefty price, especially in First or Business class.  However, the day they turn two that “fly free” option disappears forever.

Most of us are in the miles and points game because we want travel that we otherwise couldn’t afford.  For some that means an economy domestic ticket to see grandma in Omaha, and for others it means an around-the-world journey in a First Class suite.  Both are equally worthy travel goals, and both can be accomplished with miles and points.  So, it makes sense that many in the miles and points world choose to fly with their little ones as lap children for as long as possible.  Simply put, it’s cheaper.  Whether your currency is miles or points – they both stretch further when you don’t have to obtain a paid seat for your baby.  I totally understand it – I have dealt with that temptation for two years.  In fact, I even gave into the temptation once for a short flight from Houston to Corpus.  However, that was the one and only time I flew with my kiddo as a lap child.

Trust me, I am all about saving money and stretching miles and points as far as they will go, but I am not in favor of lap children.  First of all, there is just barely enough room in an airline seat for one person.  Add a baby and all the baby gear to that scenario, and it isn’t that pretty.  It’s doable, but it really isn’t pleasant.  I love babies, but even I am not thrilled at the idea of sitting next to a lap baby on a long flight.  However, that is really just a secondary reason.  The real reason I am not a fan of lap infants is that it just isn’t the safest way to travel.  Sure, air travel in general is thankfully very safe, but traveling with a baby in your lap is a bit like rolling the dice.  You are betting on a smooth and uneventful flight.  Most of the time you will win that bet, but after rolling the dice once, I realized it wasn’t a gamble I wanted to make again.  While logistically I lucked out and there was no one sitting next to us on the flight, I was still very worried that we would hit some unstable air, and C would be injured because she was unrestrained.

Here is a picture taken that day – after the plane had landed.  She fell asleep and I still would not put her in the open seat next to us.  I was too afraid to let go.

My flight was less than an hour in length, and even on that short flight it was virtually impossible to keep a solid grip on her the whole time.  I can’t imagine even trying to keep a solid hold on her for hours upon hours on a longer flight.  Of course, in the event of severe turbulence or an emergency landing, even my tight grip may not be enough.  I posted about this issue several months ago, and a link in one of the comments was to a National Transportation Safety Board Brief written by Jan Lohr, a retired flight attendant who was on United Flight 232 that had an emergency landing in 1989.  In that brief, she advocated that all passengers, regardless of age, be required to be in their own seat with a safety restraint.  A 22 month old lap child named Evan was killed in that emergency landing.  One hundred and eleven people died on that flight while one hundred and eighty one people survived.  While no one will ever know for sure, it is quite possible he would have survived had he been in a restraint.  I recommend giving that brief a read, though I will warn you it is a bit heart-breaking.  If you want even more info on the fate of the four lap children on that flight, read this article.

I’m a pretty realistic person.  I know that there is some risk in most everything that you do, and that choosing to travel with your child does come with some inherent risk.  Heck, just going to the grocery store can be a risky proposition.  However, as a parent I try to make every decision knowing that I did the best I could with the cards that were dealt to me.  I know that if or when something goes wrong, I did the best thing that I knew to do in that situation.  In other words, I have to be able to live with myself.  After reading that brief and experiencing flying with a lap infant once, I knew I couldn’t do it again.  I could not live with myself if something happened to my daughter on a flight that could have been avoided if she were restrained.  That decision will obviously vary from family to family based on resources, but for me it was a clear choice.

Now that she has turned two, I am happy that the temptation to fly her for free is gone.  If you still have a little one under two, I totally understand if you choose to fly with them as a lap infant.  I did it, too.  Flying is a very safe way to travel, and the odds are certainly in your favor.  Heck, you may even be able to land an unused seat on the plane for free.  However, at least give strong consideration to getting your infant a seat.  Most everyone who reads this blog earns miles and points.  Consider using some of those miles to get a seat for your little one.  Not only will you have more room on the plane for your family, but your kiddo will be safer, too.  If you want to check out the FAA recommendations for keeping your child as safe as possible on flights, go here.

Those are my thoughts – I’d love to hear yours!  Thanks again to Delta Gold Flyer for giving another prospective on his site as well.

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  1. It baffles me this practice is still allowed on planes. If you drove down the street with an infant in your lap at 20 miles an hour you would be fined, and people would be tut-tutting over your behavior. But do it at 500 miles an hour that’s perfectly OK!

    We tried the lap thing briefly I’m ashamed to admit with our baby (now 4-yo). What a trial it can be! For both safety and practical reasons switched to buying a seat and using an approved car seat, hooked up REAR-FACING. If you have to cut back by one trip a year to afford the extra seat, that’s the right thing to do.

  2. I agree. I have never flown with my kids as lap infants. it’s really not safe. additionally, it imposes on your seatmates. i was traveling for business by myself yesterday and got seated next to a couple who had a very big looking 2 yr old as a lap infant. he invariably accidentally kicked me or stepped on my feet. the parents were apologetic and I was sympathetic because I know how they feel but if they had drawn one of the other FTers I have a feeling there would have been some major resentment.

  3. I’m not sure how the other posters have reached the conclusion that an infant in your lap is not safe. In fact, studies have shown that it is the safest place for your infant (not child — infant!) as the seat would be too large and not “snug” enough to hold him in an emergency. Actually, it is the policy of all airlines I know of to hold your infant in your arms in case of an emergency, even if he has his own seat! You can check this out if you don’t believe me. I know this for a fact on AA, BA, JJ, and TK — from first-hand experience.

    My wife and I flew more times than we can remember with our daughter in our laps (from 3 months to about a year) and it was always perfectly fine. We did have to alternate eating at meal times and putting her to sleep and so forth. It’s obviously not as comfortable, but we were always in international business class. That in itself was the reason: a) business seats/beds are comfortable enough to pull it off, and b) the price of business class is too steep to pay a child’s fare for an infant to sit in that seat. Admittedly, we would not do this in coach for comfort reasons, but not because of safety concerns. That’s never an issue.

    Now that our daughter is walking, we wouldn’t do it at all! She’s still 1 year and 3 months and technically qualifies, but she’s got fire ants in her pants and it would be dress rehearsal for hell if we tried to hold her still for anything more than 17 seconds!

  4. We never flew with our son when he was very young– his first flight was a few months before his second birthday. We didn’t consider bringing him as a lap child for more than a second. In addition to mommypoints’ reasons, it was also a way to keep him in his seat (we used a car seat, for added safety). If we had been holding him, he’d likely have been more uncomfortable, which would mean more squirming and more chasing him down the aisles!

    By the way, a car seat is a pain to schlep, but I’m a big believer of it on the plane. No strained neck when sleeping, nice harness/protection (no way the seat belt is going to do anything for such a small child). We gate checked the stroller but our son wanted to walk in the airport, so we just plopped the car seat in the stroller.

  5. When I flew with my 9-mo old, I used a snugli front harness. That way she was attached to me if anything happened. The only downside is that the flight attendants made me unbuckle it for the takeoff and landing, due to FAA rules.

  6. “One hundred and eleven people died on that flight while one hundred and eighty one people survived. While no one will ever know for sure, it is quite possible he would have survived had he been in a restraint.”

    One hundred and ten people died who were in their own seats, so how can one postulate that the infant died specifically because they were a lap child? Additionally, the three other lap children all survived, so it would seem speculative at best to assume it was only the lack of restraint that caused this tragedy.

    • @Nate, he reportedly died as a result if smoke inhalation. His mother could not find him after the emergency landing, so she could not get him off the plane when she evacuated. Another of the lap children ended up in an overhead luggage bin, and another passenger found that child and got them off the plane. We certainly will not ever know, but it seems what ultimately lead to Evan not making it, was him not being found during evacuation. It is quite possible if he would have been in restrained in his seat (thus making him easily located during evacuation), he very well may have survived.

  7. I have 2 young boys and flew 3-4x each year with them. They always flew as lap children until they were 2 years old. Because of the way we booked our flights, we were able to get an extra seat on each flight except one. Since my kids are (well, were!) cuddle babies, it was actually easier to hold them than it would have been to keep them in their seats. (Yes, car trips to see grandma were painful until about 18 mos!)

    I have seen many message boards develop into all-out fights over this topic. In the end, we have to weigh risks with our children each and every day. I do not believe the FAA (or whoever has the power to change lap child rules) is scared of offending parents of children under 2 so much that they would not change the ruling if there were data to support it. And as heart-breaking as the anecdotal stories are of lap children being injured, that does not equate to overall unsafe conditions for lap children.

    As a mom I try to support others in the choices they make with their children and appreciate the same support in return. We’re all trying to do our best!

  8. I always see comparisons of airplanes and cars, but that’s apples to oranges. There are no other airplanes flying next to you going 500 mph, nor are there any drunk drivers, drivers on cell phones, eating, applying make-up, etc. etc.
    Also, families with multiple children don’t always have the luxury of “buying” 4, 5, 6 seats.

  9. One lap-child died, on one flight, ONCE, and we now think that lap-children are unsafe? You’ve got to be kidding me. This is a Texas-sized flaw in the logic, but it’s what we’ve come to expect around here.

    I suppose you also believe that cell phones cause interference with the avionics? That ridiculousness is also based on one incident that happened on ONE flight, ONCE…. and was never able to be repeated.

  10. To those of you who think it’s safe…. is that infant belted into your lap all the time? Have you ever hit turbulence and had your hard head whacked against the ceiling? Want to whack your soft-headed baby against the ceiling? No thanks!

    Anyone who thinks differently should look at some crash-test movies on YouTube and look up “internal decapitation” which can happen for babies even in very low-impact crashes due to their giant heads and weak necks. The unending grief of a neighbor is enough for me, who put their infant unrestrained in the front basket of a bike for “just a minute” to pop down the block, baby fell out and died of the head injury. I will *never* take the chance of my child dying from something stupid like that. YMMV.

    My son rode in a car seat on planes until he was 4. Actually it was great, we mounted his seat rear-facing, he couldn’t kick people, he had the nice “wings” of this Britax headrests to lean his head on to take long naps. We used the GoGo Babyz attachment to hook up and roll him STILL SLEEPING out of the plane several times. Well worth it IMO for everyone’s safety & comfort.

    OK we did have one “incident” relating to car seat usage. I always asked the passenger in front if it’s OK to rear-face since it inhibits the meager recline in coach. If they say no I just set the seat up front-facing. Most don’t care but this ONE guy just grimaced and sat down, which I took for assent to rear-face, didn’t hear a peep from him during the flight. After getting off the plane he starts to excoriate me in the terminal for DARING to inhibit his recline on his seat he had paid FULL PRICE for blah blah. I’m thinking “if you paid full price, you would be in the back of the bus” but anyhow… I just told him he should have said NO when I asked, he missed his opportunity to correct it for over 5 hours sitting there seething, and we were never seeing each other again anyhow. Bye!

  11. Why do airlines allow it? Because it keeps their customers happy, and they are not liable for your child anyhow. FAA has tried to several times to require that all pax be restrained in their own seat, but politics and backlash have overridden this being made a requirement and it’s merely a recommendation.

    FAA recommendations here:

  12. @Vincent, sounds like your family found a plan that worked for you.

    @bluto, it can be a tough situation when you are seated next to a lap infant – especially when they are on the upper end of the age limitation.

    @AS, I would agree a seat is too big for an infant, but if they had their own seat, I would have them in a car seat. I absolutely agree that once my daughter was 1 there is no way her personality would have meshed with being a lap infant – at least not a flight that was very long. 😉

    @dmel, agreed. It is so much easier when our daughter is strapped in her car seat. We have been using the CARES harness recently, but part of me really misses the car seat.

    @Shannon, thanks for sharing!

    @Up & Away, being strategic about selecting flights/seats can really increase your chances of scoring an open seat. I agree that there is no reason for this discussion to disintegrate into an “all out fight”! Every family has to make this decision for themselves based on the resources and information they have available to them. Thanks for sharing!

    @goheerow, agreed that air travel is statistically much safer than traveling in a car. Certainly large families are often going to have a much larger time purchasing multiple seats, so I absolutely see the logic in avoiding buying seats that you aren’t required to buy. Heck, even with one child I understand the temptation. 😉

    @Joe, I am certainly not pretending to be the expert on lap children safety statistics – I’m simply sharing my thoughts. I’m willing to bet it would take some digging to actually get good information about injury reports regarding lap children, but I do know as recently as a couple weeks ago several American Airlines flight attendants were injured on their Brazil to Miami flight when the plane hit “extreme turbulence”. I know at least one was seriously injured.
    If a child is unrestrained when a plane hits that type of turbulence, it is logical to assume that the child may also sustain some injuries. Perhaps if the parent has a good grasp on them, they will be okay, but it doesn’t take an emergency for people to sustain injuries on planes. So, it is not just child deaths that I am concerned with, but injuries as well. Everyone has to decide for themselves their own risk tolerance – certainly flights are a very safe way to travel, but this was a decision that I personally was not okay with for my family. Not sure that is illogical or flawed thinking, it is more of a personal choice.

    @Vincent Fox, what a horrible story about your neighbor. Sounds like you had a pretty good system worked out for your little one. It is hard since rear facing can impact other passengers with the recline issue and forward facing can impact other passengers with the kicking issue. We often offer to buy other passengers a drink or a snack to help compensate if we have impacted them in anyway.

  13. We just put our kids into one of the baby bjorn infant carriers. Protects against the random bumps, frees up our arms, etc. Sometimes we are able to snag an empty seat and bring the car seat on, but honestly the car seat is a major pain too!

  14. And I thought you were going to tell us how excited you were that C is earning all those miles when she flies on paid tickets.

    • @Robert, ha ha. Most of her flights this year are booked on award tickets, but I’m sure she will pick up a few miles here and there!

  15. Holding a child on your lap is definately more dangerous than having them in a car seat next to you. In a crash you can’t hold them and if you did your head would likely hit theirs. That said, this is one area where allowing lap infants is good policy! We know that if we force people to pay for an extra seat for their baby, more families will choose to drive rather than fly. Those extra miles in the car are far more dangerous than the flight. Both are slightly dangerous, but flying as a lap infant is still much safer than driving the same distance in a car.

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