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Safety comes first when flying with an infant

Air travel is hassle enough, but when you add a baby to the equation, making sure your precious cargo stays safe can make flying even more stressful. Flying with an infant doesn’t have to be frightening, however. If you know what to expect from your airline and come prepared with the essentials you need to keep your child safe and happy, you can minimize your worry considerably.

Seat options for babies

For most domestic flights, you have two choices when traveling with a child under two: Fly with your baby on your lap or place your child in an adjoining seat in a car seat (which is referred to by the airlines as a child restraint system or CRS). Babies under two can travel for free on an adult’s lap, although they will not get a carry-on baggage allowance. However, some airlines, such as American, will allow the adult to bring an additional carry-on item such as a child carrier or a diaper bag. For international travel, you may be charged a small fee to bring an infant on your lap, and regular airfare taxes and fees of up to $200 may apply as well.

If you choose to book a second seat for your baby, most U.S. carriers allow infants under two to fly in their own seat for half the cost of the applicable adult fare or at a special infant rate. Southwest, for example, offers discounted infant fares starting at $49 one-way plus taxes that are refundable and have no restrictions.

While traveling with your baby on your lap is the more affordable option, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) “strongly urges” parents to secure their child in a CRS, which requires purchasing an additional seat. In the event of severe turbulence or a crash, a 2004 National Transportation Safety Board report says “every lap-held child traveler lacks adequate protection.”

“Most parents don’t seem to recognize the risk and continue to fly with their children sitting in their laps or next to them, often checking their car seats as luggage” says family travel writer Eileen Ogintz in her column Taking the Kids. “On takeoffs and landings, everything on board, from laptops to purses, must be stowed and properly secured—except for young children.”

Still, the FAA has not made CRS use mandatory, so the choice is up to you. “As far as I know, the FAA has never made a second seat mandatory because, statistically, many more children lose their lives in car accidents than in plane travel,” says Kyle McCarthy, the editor-in-chief of the Family Travel Forum. “Therefore, they do not want their ‘requirement,’ a costly proposition for many families, to encourage more people to drive long distances with infants and toddlers.”

If you do bring a CRS, the FAA has several suggestions:

  • Make sure the CRS is approved for air travel or you may not be allowed to use it. If it is, the device should have “This restraint is certified for use in motor vehicles and aircraft” printed on it.
  • Make sure the device is no wider than 16 inches or else it may not fit in the airline seat and you may be asked to check it.
  • CRSs must be placed in adjoining window seats and are not permitted in exit rows.
  • If you have not purchased a ticket for your child you may be able to use an empty seat if the airline allows it. For the best chance of finding an empty seat, book your tickets for off-peak flights in the middle of day.
  • Babies weighing less than 20 pounds should use a rear-facing CRS; those weighing 20 to 40 pounds should use a forward-facing CRS; and those over 40 pounds should use the airplane seat belt.
  • Products such as booster seats, harness vests, and lap restraints should not be used.

Other tips

Beyond safety precautions, there are other steps you can take to help make traveling with your child easier:

  • Check your airline’s website before booking and read all the regulations regarding travel with infants, as regulations may vary slightly from one airline to the next.
  • To minimize the hassle, book a nonstop flight or a flight that doesn’t require you to change planes.
  • Pack everything you’ll need for your baby to get through a whole day, not just the duration of the flight. You never know what sort of sort of delays or unexpected situations you might encounter, and if your checked bags happen to get lost, you’ll be relieved that you have extra diapers, food, and your child’s treasured stuffed animal with you.
  • Bring along a small selection of toys (preferably ones that don’t make loud noises), books, blankets, or other items your child likes to help keep them entertained.
  • Babies require identification showing proof of age in order to fly, so bring a birth certificate or passport along.
  • “Get [to the airport] early so you have time to relax and don’t feel rushed,” says Monique Elwell spokeswoman for the Single Parent Travel Network. “Take advantage of preboarding so you can board at a slower pace due to the little ones.”
  • “I always recommend a child carrier, front or backpack, when flying with infants, because you can navigate the aisles with it, and they fold and store in the overhead bin much more easily,” says McCarthy. “Most have a small pocket that also fits a few diapers and wipes; you can fit a change of clothes (essential) in your own carry-on.”
  • To alleviate ear pain, both Ogintz and McCarthy suggest using EarPlanes, a type of ear plug that regulates air pressure and comes in both adult and child sizes. Making sure you child is sucking on something such as pacifier can be helpful too. Elwell also suggests scheduling feedings during takeoff and landing.

Eileen Ogintz says, above all, “keep your sense of humor…and remember, eventually, you’ll get there.” Many moms and dads have gone before you, and many of your fellow passengers, too. So come prepared, but stay cool—you’re on vacation after all.

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