Should You Use a CARES Harness on Flights?

Once upon a time in the early days of traveling with my baby, I came across a device called the CARES harness. It’s an Federal Aviation Association-approved device that allows you to travel without a car seat on an airplane by making the typical airplane seatbelt more appropriate for older babies and toddlers.

I’ve used it on several flights now, and have mixed feelings. Before you spring for one, these are all of the things you should consider about the CARES Harness:

What is a CARES Harness and How Is It Used?

cares harness review

CARES stands for child aviation restraint system and is intended to be used only on aircraft for children who are flying in their own seat and are between 22-44 lbs. They should have no problem sitting up on their own in order to use the harness. It only weighs about a pound and is small enough to easily stuff into our travel diaper bag.

The harness has a red strap at the top that needs to be wrapped around the seat and secured underneath the tray table behind you. This means you’ll have to nicely ask the person in the row behind to allow you to wrap the harness around the seat, but I’ve never had anyone say no.

Since almost every airline under the sun has family boarding (like United and Southwest), you can probably do this before others board, anyway.

The harness has two loops that allow you to pull the airplane seat seatbelt through them and fasten it at your child’s waist, while another set of straps fastens across their chest.

Once my son turned 15 months old, we didn’t really want to fly with him on our lap anymore unless it was a very short flight, so we have used the harness several times now, including on a 15 hour flight.

Why Not Just Use a Car Seat?

travel with a car seat

Why not just use a travel car seat? The first couple of times I traveled solo with my son, I got him his own seat and used our UPPAbaby Mesa infant seat. It was great, and until he outgrew it, I liked this option.

But when we were flying back from an African safari on Qatar Airlines, I knew I wanted to have the option to have the whole row to stretch out, and I also knew there was no way my son would be willing to be strapped into a car seat for 15 full hours, so we used the CARES to create more space and have less bulk to travel through the terminal with.

Pros of the CARES Harness

should a baby have their own seat on an airplane
Quite the attractive sleeping face I have but you see my point, yes?

If I am on a long flight, I can’t see us using a car seat. It won’t fit in the overhead bin if we decide we don’t want to use it for a couple of hours, and it creates an obstacle for us to stretch out and sleep when we have the whole row as a family.

This allows us to check the car seat as hold luggage, or if we are on a trip where we don’t really need a car seat, then we don’t need to bring one at all.

However, it’s not all sunshine and roses with the CARES harness, unfortunately.

Cons of the CARES Harness

should a baby have their own seat on an airplane

There’s a learning curve to using the harness, and while that’s true for a lot of things, you don’t always wanna be fiddling and adjusting when you know you’re disturbing the person behind you. It’s probably worth watching a YouTube video tutorial, which I didn’t do, to understand how to use it the first time.

I find the top red strap and shoulder straps difficult to adjust. Sometimes it feels like it won’t budge. Also, since every airline seat is different, it’s hard to know exactly where it should fit on the seat behind you, and it can sometimes impact the tray table experience of the person behind you. Again, everyone has been understanding so far, thankfully.

However, the biggest problem is that kids slide down easily when wearing this harness. If you check out negative reviews, they will all mention this. I’m constantly having to get my son to sit back up so that the chest buckle doesn’t choke him. Since there’s no crotch strap like there often is on high chairs and strollers, I have to manually sit him back up and can’t prevent him from slouching again. This doesn’t feel like the safest thing if he’s not sitting properly.

He always cries when he gets strapped in, and I think he would be less upset in a car seat. I also wonder if a car seat would be safer. All that said, this is still MUCH safer than him sitting on my lap.

I was also questioned about using it on a brand new airline that just launched in our area despite it being FAA approved, so you may want to bring documentation along to show it’s an approved device.

Where to Buy a CARES Harness

The harness is also a little bit pricey, in my opinion. Considering the Cosco Scenera Next is $60 from Walmart, and the CARES is $89.

However unlike a car seat, a flying harness, provided that it doesn’t have any issues, isn’t a big deal to just buy secondhand. I found mine for $24 on Mercari, and it had only been used a couple of times. Since most families don’t travel often with their babies, you can probably find one that someone only used once or twice, and you can sell it when you’re done.

I’m glad that the CARES Harness exists. It’s nice to have an option that’s lightweight and easy to travel with, especially for trips that don’t require us to travel with a car seat. It’s not perfect, but it’s a good, FAA-approved option that makes flying with a baby in their own seat a little bit safer.

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