Airplanes & Car Seats Part I: Car Seat Requirements

This week, I'll be publishing a series of articles about Flying with Car Seats. This article, which covers the requirements and guidelines related to flying safely with a baby, toddler or child, is the first installment!

Who Needs A Carseat On An Airplane Flight
Neither infants nor children are ever required to use a specialized child restraint onboard. However, safety experts recommend that all children be strapped in with an FAA approved 5 point harness (rear facing for infants on domestic carriers) to protect them in case of turbulence. That said, only 13 people per year die on commercial flights, versus 43,000 on the highways, so many parents feel comfortable carrying a lap infant in their arms and forgoing the car seat on board for older kids. This interesting NY Times article highlights some of the concerns and has a particularly interesting discussion of this issue in the reader comments section.

Booster seats are designed to work with a lap and shoulder belt, and therefore may not be used on a plane. Once your child has outgrown a harness seat, he or she must ride using the airplane's seatbelt. Ideally, you will still carry the seat onboard the plane with you so that it doesn't get lost or damaged in checked baggage. Consider a model that folds or has a removable back so that you can stow it in the overhead bin.

Another car seat alternative while you're on board the plane, is the Cares Safety Restraint by Kids Fly Safe. The CARES harness weighs just one pound, is FAA approved, and fits in a 6" stuff sack. The harness is appropriate for children who are old enough to ride in a car forward facing & weigh over 22 pounds. Because the CARES harness is FAA approved, it can be used on any flight. However, some flight attendants have not seen it before, so it can be helpful to bring along the documentation in case they have any questions.

International Carriers and Car Seats
Laws vary depending on where the airline is based (review your carrier's website for details), but many European carriers do not allow rear-facing car seats at all, and do not allow infants under 6 months old to travel in a car seat. On board, your lap infant will be given a special infant seat belt that attaches to your adult belt for takeoff and landing. Once you are airborne many carriers have bassinets or special seats (Picture of Airline Baby Bed) available for infants seated in the bulkhead rows. The seats need to be reserved in advance.

Read the next posts in this series:
Part II: Checking, Renting and Carrying on a Car Seat When Flying
Part III: Airport Car Seat Carriers (Product Reviews)
Part IV: Travel Car Seat (Product Reviews)

Related Links:
Cares Safety Restraint by Kids Fly Safe
DeliciousBaby: Flying With Babies, Toddlers and Kids
USA FAA Infant and Child Restraint Rules
Australia CASA Infant and Child Restraint Requirements
CAA UK Infant and Child Safety Aircraft Laws
NY Times: The Safety Hazard on Your Lap

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  1. Louise Stoll on February 27, 2008 at 7:14 a.m.

    Hi Debbie;

    I loved your write up about traveling safely on airplanes with small kids. I'm Louise Stoll, the grandma who invented the CARES child aviation restraint system, and now managing Kids Fly Safe, LLC, the company distributing CARES. CARES was inspired by watching my daughter, Miriam, then 8 months pregnant, emerging from an airplane to visit us carrying a toddler, a 20 lb car seat and a diaper bag. I KNEW there had to be a better way!Hence CARES.

    Keep up the good work!

  2. Debbie on February 27, 2008 at 10:26 a.m.

    Thanks for checking in! I'm thrilled to hear that you liked the writup. Your product has made air travel loads easier for our family.

  3. MetaMommy on February 27, 2008 at 2:12 p.m.

    This is a topic near and dear to me. We've been traveling with my son since he was 4 months old. We've used the Sit N Stroll (, and have been relatively happy with it. However, we tend to fly to Ireland via fly Aer Lingus, and on occasion they give us such a hard time about using it. It's FAA approved, but for take-offs and landings, flight attendants have insisted that we remove him from the 5-point harness belt and hold him in our lap with the joke of a belt they provide for babies. I say they insist on occasion because they either don't bat an eyelash, or they insist so profusely that we either (1) hold our son, or (2) get off the aircraft. However, my husband called the airline and their policy is a bit garbled. So much so that he was able to convince the agent that it was indeed safer to use the car seat for take-offs and landings.

    My long-winded point is that if you're traveling with a car seat internationally (moreso than domestically because other countries don't rely on FAA standards), you might consider calling the airline to verify their policy. Further, if you can get anything in writing, that will make your journey that much more pleasant if you are confronted about your seat.

  4. Shannon on April 7, 2008 at 11:35 a.m.

    Hi Debbie,
    We just purchased the CARES system for at trip we're taking to Mexico next month with our two-year-old. Last year, we took him to Hawaii and brought his car seat on the plane, and also used it in our rental car. It worked very well on the plane, and was easy to take through the airport (we used the TravelMate system with it), but a pain to lug down the aisle of the plane (the aisle was too narrow to roll it). This time we don't have a rental car, so we decided to give CARES a try.

    My questions are: Have you ever had a problem with airline personnel not accepting it? I contacted our airline, and received an email stating they would accept it, but I'm still a bit nervous...
    Also, have you ever had a problem with the person sitting behind the seat, since the strap has to go under their stowed tray table?


  5. Debbie on April 7, 2008 at 11:51 a.m.


    First of all, have a great trip to Mexico!

    I have never had a problem with the airline personnel accepting the CARES harness (though they've asked questions a couple of times). We always bring along the printed documentation for the harness (which shows that it is FAA approved). Since you were organized enough to also get email from the airline, I would bring a printed copy of the email as well. If you do get questions from the flight attendants, you'll be well prepared to answer them.

    I've never had a problem with the person sitting behind us (possibly they're just glad that they're not sitting in front of a toddler ;) The CARES harness doesn't interfere with the operation of their tray table, so unless they're just bothered by having the tray down for a few minutes while you get things set up, there isn't really any reason for them to complain.

    With both flight attendants and other passengers, we try to remember that we already have two strikes against us (D & E) when we step on board a plane. We're extra sensitive and extra polite, especially with all the recent news about flight attendants having people kicked off planes for various reasons.


  6. Meg on May 14, 2008 at 6:22 a.m.

    Hello. I travel by rail with my son frequently. Now that he is an "active" toddler, I find it very stressful to take trips by train. My son never sits still and I spend the entire trip making sure that he is out of the aisle, not bothering other customers, or hurting himself. There isn't any restraint system and taking the car seat isn't an option when travelling alone. I see that there is such a restraint for the airplane but can't find one that would work on the train. Do you or other readers know of any restraint system that might work on the train where there aren't any seatbelts. Any advice would be greatly appreciated.

  7. Debbie on May 15, 2008 at 2:48 p.m.


    This is tricky. On the upside, we find train travel much easier overall than flying, there's more space to move, there's less security and waiting time at the station, and train stations are generally closer to the downtown area than airports. One of the downsides is the inability to keep your child safe by securing them with a seatbelt. Having a child wandering around on a (sometimes) lurching train isn't great, even if the cabin was empty of other passengers.

    Unfortunately, I'm not aware of a harness that works without using a built in lap belt, but here are some other ideas:

    There is usually a handicapped seat somewhere on the train (a regular seat with an empty space next to it to accommodate an wheelchair). If nobody is using the handicapped seat, you can sit there and seat your son in his stroller next to you. Sometimes (rarely) there is even a strap designed to secure the wheelchair into the space.

    Whenever possible, wear your son out by visiting a playground before you get to the train station. At two, he's probably practicing his jumping skills, and he can practice hopping in place in all but the most crowded train stations without disturbing anyone.

    Take a break from your seats and visit the dining car (where there's generally some open space) and the other cars near yours. A chance to explore should help satisfy some of his curiosity, and give him something to think about when he returns to his seat.

    Do everything in your power to keep him occupied and happy in his seat. Here are some of our favorite tips:
    Keeping A Toddler Busy:
    Homemade Travel Toys:

    I hope this helps,

  8. Donna on May 22, 2008 at 1:34 p.m.

    Where can I buy a car seat for a toddler that can be used on a plane? I need one that sits up high enough so she can see out the window. Thanks Donna

  9. Debbie on May 27, 2008 at 4 p.m.

    Most infant and convertible car seats are FAA approved and can be used on a plane, and the windows are low enough that a toddler seated in a car seat should be able to see out the window.

    Good resources for buying a car seat online include:

  10. Christy on June 30, 2008 at 6:58 a.m.

    We are getting ready to make our first trip with our daughter who will be approximately 15 months at the time of our trip. My husband and I are debating on if we should purchase another seat and use her car seat (it will be needed once we get to our destination) or if we should just hold her in our lap. I can't see her sitting still on our lap, but also see her wanting out of her car seat. The flight is only an hour and I think her ticket will be relatively cheap. Does anyone have any suggestions?

    First time traveling with toddler

  11. christine on July 27, 2008 at 8:33 p.m.

    I am flying with my 22lb, 12 month old son to London/Paris from NYC in a few weeks. I really would like to leave the car seat at home, but am worried he is too young/small for the CARES restraint. Also, it is a night flight, so I am hoping he will sleep - are kids really able to sleep while strapped in with CARES? If not, do you just take it off and put the lap belt loosely around them? We did buy him a seat and his father and I will be on either side of him. What do you think - CARES or car seat (with the cheeky monkey pac back)? thanks in advance

  12. Debbie on July 28, 2008 at 9:56 a.m.

    My son sleeps well with the CARES harness, but of course every child is different. I think it depends more on whether you need a carseat at your destination. If you do not (we don't use one for Paris or London), than CARES is perfect. If you are planning to bring a carseat, than the safest place for it is on the plane, not in checked baggage.

    Hope this helps,

  13. IdahoSEO on November 6, 2008 at 4 p.m.

    I am a mother of 3 who has traveled many times with just one to all three of my kiddos - and solo to boot! I actually prefer to bring my car seats because I can get the airline ticket agent to provide an escort to the plane with the seats. We are all then able to bypass the security lines to go in the special access. It saved us from missing our plane once last Summer due to extremely long lines! Then I generally, not 100%, but generally have been granted first boarding onto the plane. It's been a real time saver! And my toddler, who insists on being in his seat, is accustomed to sleeping in it and doesn't wander because they know they have to stay in the seat (and BTW - it does give them the lift to see out the window) just as they do in the car. So, for me I completely prefer the car seats with my toddlers.

  14. Debbie on February 11, 2009 at 2:06 p.m.


    It can be difficult for even the most well behaved child (or adult) to sit still for several hours.

    Here are some ideas that might help:

    - Schedule some time at a playground on the morning of your flight or arrive early at the airport and find an empty gate area to run in
    - Give your son milk and a protein rich (not sugary) snack as the plane takes off. The chewing/sipping will help with his ears and both the milk and the protein will help make him drowsy
    - Try to plan some new and fun activities for the plane - because he is small, he might even be able to sit "chris cross applesauce" in the seat" (which would help with the kicking
    - At the first sign of the jiggles, take your son out of his seat and let him go for a walk, that way he'll use some of his excess energy before he has a chance to discover seat kicking

    With respect to the CARES and seatbelts specifically: Yes, hopefully the belt will fit better now that he is older, and there is no reason not to recline the seat while the plane is in flight.

    If you are really having a difficult time, it is legally ok to remove the cares harness and use just the lap belt (but just as in a car, a 5 point harness is safer than a lap belt). It is also ok for the child to have their seatbelt off whenever the seatbelt light is turned off.

    As with an adult, in the seat with the seatbelt fastened is the safest place for a child, but I often let D drift off to sleep in my arms and then move her back to her seat. She thinks that is a real treat.

  15. Sarah on September 7, 2009 at 11:43 a.m.

    I read the article and went to the link for CARES...and it's $70!!!! Good grief, it's just a 5-point harness. Why on earth does it cost so much money? It costs as much as a car seat, but is only functional on an airplane. Ridiculous. They need to bring the cost down to about $25 to make it a realistic purchase for many parents.

  16. Debbie on September 7, 2009 at 8:49 p.m.


    It is expensive, I agree. Believe it or not, the price has actually come down from when we first bought ours.

    My guess is that it took quite a bit of money to do the safety testing and get the FAA approval for the harness, so that would be built into the cost of the product.

    I have occasionally seen it on sale for as low as $50 on Amazon... still not cheap, but much better.

  17. Megan on November 30, 2009 at 2:40 p.m.

    Re: the expense of the CARES harness - I've seen harnesses for rent on eBay for less than $15, and used ones for sale on eBay for about $50. Since the resale value is so high, folks might consider buying one new or used, then re-selling on eBay once they no longer need it. Or setting up a rental business. :) I just ordered mine and am excited to use it on upcoming holiday trips. We're going to have to check our carseat, though - no other options at our semi-rural destination.

  18. Jan on May 27, 2010 at 9:58 a.m.

    Do I need to bring the infant car seat base along with the car seat onboard the aircraft? I have purchased a seat for my (1) year old and plan on seating him in his car seat. Also has any aircraft provided an infant car seat at the gate? I had thought to avoid lugging a car seat and car seat base and just rent one at my destination.

  19. LJ's mum on October 3, 2010 at 6:42 a.m.

    Hi - I recently flew with my 15 month old (just the 2 of us!) to Australia. Having read the Airline website before leaving - they advised that the best way to travel with a toddler was putting them in a car seat. This seemed great as he sleeps happily in it, and if I was to fall asleep I was happy that he wouldnt be able to go 'exploring' around the plane on his own.

    So I struggled with LJ, and all of the toys, clothes, food, nappies etc he would need for a 20 hour flight (and a few essentials for me) and the car seat all the way through the airport & departure lounge etc - finally got on the plane, and they said it didn't have the correct sticker on the side to say it is aviation approved so they took it off me and stuck it in the filthy dirty hold.

    Lesson 1 - dont assume as one person says it is ok - that the next one will also.

    Lesson 2 - always cover your car seat before you check it in (pay for shrink wrapping if necessary) as it was horrible putting my child in it when we arrived at the other end.

    Lesson 3 - even if your toddler has his/her own seat, ask for the baby extention to your own seat belt and get them to sit on your lap during take off and landing. it is less scarey and you feel happier being in control of their safey (LJ just slipped straight under the normal lap belt).

    hope this helps someone!!

  20. Dot Libertore on November 18, 2012 at 6:36 p.m.

    We will be flying with a 3 year old in February. We are bringing a carseat and want to use it on the plane. My question is, if we put it forward facing, can you recline the seat? It sits pretty straight up in the forward facing position, and not sure she will be happy with it facing backwards. Im thinking with the seat all strapped in,maybe you cant recline the seat..thanks, Dot

  21. Sandy on May 29, 2013 at 9:43 a.m.

    As a former flt attendant with 10yrs experience and a gramma who started flying w her grands nearly 7yrs ago, I'd like to add my 3cents. The amsafe cares strap is well worth the money, both for safety and convenience. It does not interfere w other passengers and by now, most FAs know what it is and that it is FAA approved. There is a product called Go Go Babyz or something like that. It is wheels you attach to the cars eat so you can use it like a stroller. You cannot use the wheels on the airplane or in the car tho. Makes transporting the seat and child much easier & you can check the whole thing at the gate. I do not recommend checking car seats with your luggage, let's face it there are times checked bags get don't want to get to your destination & discover your car seat is somewhere else. Gate check car seats. Teach your child to watch the seatbelt sign. My granddaughter learned when she was just over a year. Do not let them take off the belt until the sign goes off. You don't take off your car seatbelt until you are parked, same goes for airplanes. Many times I have been on flights where the pilots have had to slam on the brakes while taxi ing, your child could get hurt if not buckled in. (& so could you!) don't stress if your infant cries, it's not something you can control, it happens.
    Enjoy your travels!

  22. Lucas on March 16, 2014 at 7:02 a.m.

    Thank you Debbie for such a helpful blog. We are about to do our first flight with an 8 month old which is an overnight from New York to Rio (12 hours). We do not have an extra seat for her, and I am concerned that I might literally drop her when I fall asleep -- I can be a deep sleeper and have never slept with her in my lap. So we're thinking of putting her in our Baby Bjorn carrier in the hopes that she'll sleep and be secure if papa passes out. Are there any concerns we should be thinking about with that approach? Have you heard of others doing that or do you have other suggestions for how to feel a bit more secure passing out with her in my lap.

    Thank you!

  23. Kristen Guthrie on January 10, 2015 at 5:27 p.m.

    Need advice??? my partner and I are flying from dfw dallas to midway chicago. We will a 1 yr old along with us we need a car seat at our destination but see no reason to pay for a seat because she is easily occupied in our lap. Ive heard terrible thing about checking car seats. She is only 18lbs now and will be 19 lbs by the time we fly. she has an infant car seat. Can i take it aboard and hold it in my lap???? it is a 2 hour flight. what are some things I can do for her ears??? I hear they can bust ear drum and be painful?

  24. Debbie Oreizy on January 11, 2015 at 7:12 a.m.


    The flight attendants will not allow you to use the Bjorn during takeoff and landing, and I'm not sure whether they'll allow you to use it in flight, but you could try it.

    You cannot hold a car seat on your lap in flight, but you can gate check it which should ensure gentler handling.

    To help with the air pressure, you can nurse or bottle feed your baby if she is awake during takeoff and landing.

  25. fred on January 18, 2015 at 12:42 a.m.

    Useless in most airlines where you have a screen on the seat back, they won't allow it and it would block the tv screen anyway for the behind passenger.. need more innovation here!!