Should You Use a CARES or Other Toddler Airplane Harness?

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I didn’t fly with my daughter until she was just past two-years-old, which meant I faced a choice – should I bring along her car seat, should I buckle her up in the airplane seat, or should I look into a child airplane harness or child aviation restraint system (called a CARES harness). I am allergic to checking baggage or otherwise being weighed down by carrying a lot, so bringing the car seat was not appealing.

At the same time, my toddler has never had to be buckled up with just a lap belt for any length of time and I wasn’t sure how that would go over. I ended up going the route of buying a child aviation restraint system, which is a really fancy way to say that I brought along a simple little harness that helped turn an airline seat more into a car seat.

And I will say, for my own experience, this was great. It was easy to install, no complaints from my daughter, and no problems otherwise. However, do note that they aren’t exactly the same as a five-point harness in a car seat. Unlike a five-point harness, child safety airplane harnesses don’t have a strap between the legs so kids at the younger end of the age range for these might slip down if they aren’t used to sitting up right. They also don’t get quite as tight as a car seat just because of the way they’re built.

cares harness installed
Getting the harness installed took about a minute. Easy peasy.

What is a child airplane harness and why might you want to use one?

An airplane harness essentially turns your average airplane seat into a car seat for your child. Where airplane seats only have a lap belt, these harnesses attach to the seat back and provide shoulder straps, a chest clip, and attach to the lap belt to get as close to a five-point harness as you’re going to get without bringing along your car seat.

You might use one for a few reasons. Most people likely opt to use these for the added safety in the face of air turbulence without having to lug around a car seat. These harnesses pack down very small and barely weigh anything.

My driving reason was that I wanted make things as familiar as possible for my toddler. She’s fine in a car seat. I had no idea how she’d feel about a lap belt. I wanted her to feel like she was in a car seat and therefore understand she wasn’t getting up for the duration of the two-hour flight (and she didn’t ask even once to get up – this may or may not be true for your child!).

Child aviation restraint harness
Look, Elmo. Safety first!

Where can I find a child airplane harness?

The most common child airplane harness is the CARES Child Aviation Restraint System by AmSafe. Despite the fact that AmSafe says their harness is the only FAA approved harness, I found another one by Jimotek that was cheaper and has a label right on it that says it’s FAA approved. Both look to be exactly the same with very minor differences.

Whatever you find and whether more of these pop up on the market that are FAA approved, just be sure that your harness is indeed FAA approved and that it says so right on the harness somewhere obvious. No one checked our harness, but you can’t just stroll onto a plane with a homemade harness and hook that baby up. You need to have one that’s FAA approved.

cares harness FAA
The FAA approval should be right on the red belt, easy to see.

Are these harnesses tough to install?

CARES harnesses are extremely easy to install. Simply slip the red belt over the top of your child’s seat and slide down to about their shoulder height. You will have to briefly make friends with the person sitting behind you, if there is anyone, as you’ll need to open their seatback tray to slip the harness behind that (no one likes it if you slip it over their tray and prevent them from opening it). However, that part takes maybe 30 seconds tops so it’s brief and unobtrusive. You might need to talk to them again at the end of the flight to slip it off, but you’ll be buddies by then.

Tighten the red belt. There are two black belts (hi-YA!) hanging from the red belt that slip over the two ends of the seat’s lap belt. Slip each side through and then buckle the lap belt. Tighten all the belts appropriately. Voila. You’re all done.

We requested preboarding just to be sure we had time to do battle with this thing if it was tricky, but it wasn’t. If you didn’t preboard, you’d still be able to get this all set up without issue.

What age/height/weight requirements are there for CARES harnesses?

Check the harness you buy just to be sure. For the both the AmSafe CARES harness and the Jimotek harness we used, the age range is 1 to 5 years and 22 to 44 lbs.


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cares harness