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Having a successful flight with little kids takes preparation, thoughtful packing and serious parenting skills. But don’t underestimate how helpful it can be to have the right gear. If you’re traveling with a toddler or preschooler, one of the most helpful items you can have on hand is the FAA-approved CARES Harness.

My family used the CARES Harness for both our daughters. Though this isn’t a new or flashy product, it may still be the best option for keeping toddlers and preschoolers safely secured in an airplane seat — without lugging a car seat around on your travelers.

What is a CARES Harness?

Except for using a car seat, the CARES Harness is the only FAA-approved restraint for use with children on an airplane. It weighs less than one pound, can easily fit in a purse or backpack (even a big pocket) and works in tandem with the airplane seatbelt to keep little ones secured. The seatbelt loops through the CARES Harness, which fits over the back of the child’s airplane seat: no clunky or complicated attachments of which to speak.

Richard Kerr
Richard Kerr’s two-year-old daughter secured in her CARES Harness (Photo courtesy of Richard Kerr)

According to the FAA, the CARES child safety system intended for use with children between 22 and 44 pounds in a forward-facing seat. Generally, the harness fits kids who are between 1 and 4 years old.

How do you use a CARES Harness?

Installing the CARES Harness on a plane is not difficult once you know what you’re doing, but it is much easier to accomplish if you board early — and before the person in the following row sits down. (You’ll have to lower the tray table belonging to the person seated behind your child to install the harness.)

Once your child is in his or her assigned seat and the tray table attached to the seat back is lowered, follow these instructions from the Kids Fly Safe website to property install the CARES Harness:

“Slide the red loop of the CARES restraint over the seat back, adjust the height of the red loop so [it’s] just above your child’s shoulders, and tighten it. Then close the tray table covering the red loop.”

“Place the black shoulder straps over your child’s shoulders and slide the buckle and connector ends of the regular airplane seat belt through the loops at the bottom of the black shoulder straps.”

“Buckle the seat belt and pull it snugly across your child’s lap as you normally would … then buckle the chest clip …”

As soon as you’re comfortable with the steps, installing the harness takes about a minute — maybe less. There’s even a video available if you want to watch someone install the harness first.

Property installed CARES Harness. (Photo courtesy of Kids Fly Safe)
Property installed CARES Harness. (Photo courtesy of Kids Fly Safe)

When we used the harness with our daughters, I would let the passenger behind my daughter know what the harness was, and reassure them their tray table would work fine.

I’ve never had an issue with a passenger objecting to the harness. You might, however, encounter a flight attendant who isn’t familiar with the product.

In speaking with fellow frequent-flying parents who use the CARES harness — including TPG contributor Richard — it seems it’s not uncommon to have a flight attendant claim you cannot use the harness. Our experience has been that you can resolve the matter by simply pointing to the “FAA APPROVED” label on the harness.

According to the website, the CARES Harness is only to be used in window and center seats on the aircraft, which is consistent with the FAA guidelines for car seat placement.

The pros and cons of the CARES Harness

We used the CARES Harness with some success when our girls were between 18 months and 3 years old. There is no question small children are more secure in a harness than just a lap belt. In the event of severe turbulence, kids will remain firmly strapped to their seat.

However, we found the CARES Harness to be no match for the comfort of a car seat. Both of my daughters slept better in a car seat on the plane than in a CARES Harness. For a short flight, this may not be a real issue. But on a longer flight, it’s definitely something to consider if your child sleeps well in a car seat.

My toddlers preferred a car seat to the harness (Photo by Summer Hull / The Points Guy)

Another reason the CARES Harness may not work for you? If you splurge to sit in lie-flat seats with your toddler, many are not compatible with the harness. Check with your carrier directly about the use of a CARES Harness if you are in a premium seat.

Couldn’t use the CARES Harness on this flight (Photo by Summer Hull / The Points Guy)

Of course, it’s important to also check if an airline’s standard seat is wide enough to accommodate a car seat. If it’s not, or there’s another reason you can’t logistically bring a car seat, the CARES Harness may be the right choice.

Looking for more tips and tricks for traveling with young children? We’ve got guides for flying with three-month-olds, six-month-olds, eight-month-olds and toddlers, to name a few!

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