Are “Lap Babies” Safe Enough on Airplanes?

baby on a plane
baby on a plane

A slew of severely bumpy flights have reignited the debate about airlines' policies to allow lap babies--is it safe? This is something I've wondered about for a long time. When our first daughter was born we lived in Rome and having access to all of Europe within a couple hours' time was too tempting to pass up. We flew all over with her, not to mention back to the U.S. to visit family.

Each airline, each country, had a slightly different policy about lap babies, who fly at 10 percent the cost of an adult ticket for international trips (and free domestically). Some offered seatbelt extensions that you looped around your own seat belt but most didn't. On long international flights, some airlines have attachable bassinets available in bulkhead rows. They're only for infants but we used one for our daughter and it was great.

Related: How new airport security rules affect how you fly with baby

But is it dangerous? I can see why a lap baby might get hurt in roller coaster turbulence but can't help but question the one thing that's always surprised me: airlines' universal policy AGAINST wearing babies in a Bjorn, Ergo or any other carrier, at least not for takeoff or landing. Eventually we experienced traveling with all three of our babies, and the moment we were able to, I'd always strap them in-both for their safety and mine. Having an adult who's hands-free has got to be safer in an emergency than one who's desperately clutching her wiggly infant. And on a lighter note, it's easier to enjoy your ginger ale--and prevent the baby from knocking it over--when you've got a free hand.

There might be more to it, but I'd guess that if the baby who was recently thrown from her seat during turbulence was in a Bjorn, we might not be having this debate. I feel for airlines because they have so many crazy rules these days, no shoes through security please, no talking on cell phones--unless of course it's now allowed, but definitely don't bring liquids anywhere near the airport. But this one has never made sense to me.

Really, what are the options otherwise?

  • Parents buy full price tickets for babies.

  • Parents buy reduced prices for babies.

  • Parents hold babies in their laps.

Each one has pros and cons for both parents and the airlines, which are businesses aimed at making a profit and can't be criticized for it. That means the second option is realistically a no-go, not when they could sell the same seat for a full fare.

It does seem outdated to me that we'd be allowed to hold babies loose in our laps. A throwback to the 70s when my parents brought me home from the hospital, perched on mom's lap and wrapped in a blanket. My dad would be smoking a cigarette and more than likely having "one for the road." Planes go much faster than cars and we've all been on death defying flights where an unsecured baby would surely get hurt. But then again, airline travel is statistically safer than driving so that's another vote for lap babies' safety.

So, for economic reasons that most parents can relate to, we've typically held our babies in our laps unless we were flying internationally, going from one continent to another. We bought the babies their own seats on those occasions, half for comfort (if you've ever held a baby on your lap for 9 hours you understand,) and half for the extra suitcase they'd be allowed. Even then, we got a lot of hassle about whether our American (Graco) infant car seat was appropriate for the airline--European airlines don't follow AA regulations--and twice almost ended up having to check the infant seat even though we'd bought a full price ticket for the baby. Even though the baby wouldn't have been able to sit in the regular seat, and certainly couldn't buckle up. Even though I specifically called the airline ahead of time, sitting on hold waiting as the consultant asked around whether our seat would work, and been told it would.

There's a lot of uncertainty in air travel these days. When we have our fourth baby this spring, she'll be born in the U.S. so at least I'll have an easier time understanding airline requirement. And if we fly to visit family on the other coast, I'm sure we'll make her a "lap baby," but one that's strapped firmly inside the Ergo or Bjorn. For us, that's the right solution in terms of money and safety.

For 14 tips for traveling with a toddler and a baby, visit BabyZone!

-By Charity Curley Mathews

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