Consider the Risks before Flying with Your Child on Your Lap

If you’re thinking about flying with your child on your lap, consider the risks before making that decision. You’ll find that no amount of savings in airfare would make it worthwhile.

You may have heard the terminology lap child or lap baby when it comes to the infant policy of airlines. Many airlines offer free airfare for domestic flights in the United States for children under the age of two if they travel on the lap of an adult. Some airlines (like Delta) will even allow a 12-year-old to hold a lap child during flight.

International flights will also allow children under the age of two to fly as a lap child. A ticket must be purchased at the infant fare (plus taxes and fees), but the child does not occupy a seat.

Some of these same airlines recommend that children travel in an appropriate Federal Aviation Association (FAA) child restraint system and occupy their own seat to enhance their safety. But they don’t enforce what they believe to be right.

As tempting as it may be to save money by not purchasing a seat for your baby—there are some serious risk factors to consider.

Female in Blue Top Holding Baby in Blue and Gray Stripe Top

To begin with, there is a reason why the airlines require passengers to be buckled up during takeoff, landing, or turbulence. All luggage must be secured and tables put in the upright position. This is done to protect passengers from getting injured.

The same should hold true for that precious child sitting on your lap…but it does not.

If you’ve ever been on a flight where there was tremendous turbulence, then you know how rough it can get. It is oftentimes unexpected and results in everyone scrambling to get secured—including the flight attendants.  The only one not secured would be a child sitting on the lap of an adult.

Airplane Silhouette and Orange Sky

On August 12, 2016, a JetBlue flight from Boston to Sacramento hit severe turbulence causing injuries to 22 passengers and two flight attendants. The airline had to make an unscheduled landing in Rapid City, South Dakota.  According to news sources, passengers on the flight described the unexpected occurrence as “feeling like they just hit a wall and then the plane instantly dropped down. Passengers that were not belted in were thrown around the cabin.”  Severe turbulence has occurred on many flights, but most do not make the news.

This is a disturbing reminder of the risks that are associated with flying with your child unsecured on your lap.

Free stock photo of eyes, young, face, child

According to the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), “During severe turbulence (without warning, a plane can drop instantly) combined with the laws of physics, it would be very difficult, if not impossible to hold on to your baby. You have no control over how much you will get tossed around or thrust forward into the seat in front of you. That amount of force could cause injury or even death to a child.”

The NTSB recommends that parents purchase a seat for their child and restrain them in a safety seat with a five-point harness in the event of an emergency landing or turbulence.

According to an article on Denver CBS, “The National Transportation Safety Board has on multiple occasions recommended child-safety seats.”

It has been unable to convince the FAA to change its policy.

Its critics point to failed logic. They say the FAA maintains children are, indirectly, safer not restrained aboard flights because if airlines require parents buy an extra seat for their child, air travel will become too expensive and families will opt to drive instead.” 

Is the decision to allow a child to fly on your lap based on increasing revenue for the airlines?

Free stock photo of flying, people, sitting, public transportation

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that “children under the age of two be offered the same protection as all other passengers, and that it should be mandatory that these children be restrained in an aircraft during takeoff, landing, and turbulence.”

Even though the Federal Aviation Administration still allows lap children on aircraft, they think it’s not safe for children to fly unsecured. On the FAA website under the topic of Child Safety on Airplanes, it states “The FAA strongly urges parents and guardians to secure children in an appropriate restraint based on weight and size. Keeping a child in a CRS (a hard-backed child safety seat that is approved by the government for use in both motor vehicles and aircraft) or device during the flight is the right thing to do. Your arms aren’t capable of holding your child securely, especially during unexpected turbulence.”


That is an overwhelming amount of support for children being secured on an airplane, even though it is not mandatory.

It is understandable that parents want to save money when flying. Contact the airline directly to see if it offers discounted fares for infants (other than the lap child option). The airline may not list these reduced fares on its website or on other travel sites (like Expedia, etc.).

Under Baby on Board, Southwest Airlines states its concern for children flying unsecured and follows through by offering an infant fare: “Infant Fares are available that enable a Customer to reserve a seat for an infant and use his/her FAA-approved car seat.”

According to Parents Magazine, “Buy a ticket for your baby, and bring a safety seat. For us, this is the golden rule of traveling with an infant. It’s tempting to save money by holding your baby on your lap or gambling that there will be an empty seat in which to put a child safety restraint (normally, a car seat with a tag attached that says it has been approved for aircraft), because a child under two years of age often flies for free. But we think buying the extra seat is well worth it these days when many flights are full.

Jan Lohr-Brown, a former flight attendant who was involved in a plane crash several years ago, has been fighting to change the ruling that allows children to fly on the lap of an adult. She has seen the worst and wants parents to know about the dangers so they can make an informed decision.

It is true that flying is still one of the safest modes of travel. Turbulence during a flight is usually no cause for alarm and rarely results in any problems or injuries, but that may not be the case for an unsecured child sitting on a lap.

Knowing the potential risks of flying with a lap child is definitely worth thinking about.

For more travel insight, check out my book:

Know Before You Go: Traveling the U.S. and Abroad

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Know Before You Go:  Traveling the U.S. and Abroad by [Patterson, Stephanie Tehan]


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