Babies and airplane turbulence

You’re not supposed to intentionally shake a baby, of course. But if you have a young baby on an airplane, and there’s really bad turbulence, could that result in shaken baby syndrome or other harm to the baby?

Probbly not unless the plane is in real trouble

Commercial airliners can take an insane amount of abuse without falling out of the sky. Every now and then the news carries a report of passengers who were injured during bouts of severe turbulence - and once in a while a report comes in of a passenger who was killed. Virtually all of these cases involve passengers who were not wearing their seatbelts and got tossed around the cabin. I haven’t done a literature search, but I suspect the fatalities are due to head injuries when the plane gets accelerated downward by a downdraft faster than gravity can accelerate the passengers downward, and unbelted passengers end up slamming their heads into the ceiling.

Which brings us to the case of a baby, which is typically sitting in the lap of its guardian, not wearing a seatbelt. Presumably the (conscientious) guardian is wearing a seatbelt, so if turbulence gets really insane it’s important to keep a good grip on the kid. Baby shaking often seems to involve holding it by the torso and allowing the head to flop around, which results in the head seeing worse accel/decal than the torso, along with rotation of the skull as the neck flexes. Video of a baby-shaking simulator here. I’m guessing that if the baby is well supported by its guardian (including its head), then heavy turbulence isn’t likely to be a problem.

Having said all that, I don’t know how suddenly the really bad stuff hits, so maybe it catches you totally off-guard. I’ve never personally experienced injuriously violent turbulence. Does the plane suddenly get slammed downward after an hour of glassy smooth flight, or is it more typical for turbulence to build from gentle to “holy shit” in a gradual way?

Turbulence of that magnitude is quite rare. However, taking a baby on a plane is not really such a good idea. The pressure changes can cause problems in the ears. Babies don’t know how to equalize the pressure. Don’t be surprised if you fly with a baby they may need tubes in their ears before too long.

Why do babies cry on planes? They are experiencing pain in their head from their ears not equalizing to the pressure change.

Plus, they pretty much cry all the time. They’re babies.

We’ve taken our slightly less than two year old son on both a domestic flight and international flights (through England and to South Africa) and on the domestic flight no seatbelt was required or available for an infant-in-lap. On all the international flights an infant seatbelt (which hooks into the main seatbelt) was required and available.

I was surprised by the domestic flight … I’m skeptical that relying on parents to hold on during turbulence strong enough to cause injury is a reliable safety mechanism. Even if you aren’t caught by surprise (which is certainly a possibility) we’re dealing with pretty strong forces.

Not true. I have actually taken a baby (well an 18 month year old) on a plane. During most of the journey (a long flight, from Los Angeles to London) she was strapped into her regular car seat, which was in turn strapped to plane seat we had bought for her. During take off (and I guess landing, though I can’t remember for sure) the cabin crew insisted that she on my lap, but an extension belt was provided that looped around her, so she was secured, at least as well as an adult, through all the times taht adults were expected to be wearing seat belts.

Incidentally, she screamed her head off through all the time she was forced to be on my lap with the belt around her, but as soon as we were allowed to put her into her car seat she calmed right down (she was normally a pretty quiet baby) and scarcely made a sound for the rest of the journey. I do not know why we were not allowed to use the seat (which would have held her much more securely than she was held on my lap by the extension belt) during takeoff. It would have made the whole experience much more pleasant for me and everyone else on the plane.

I agree that any shaking caused by turbulence is likely to be a good deal less violent than what a baby would experience by being held and deliberately shaken back and forth, but in my experience it is not true that they are allowed to be unsecured on a plane at times when adults have to be secured.

Seriously? When was this? My daughter went on her first flight at 2 months. It was still relatively common at the time for many, if not most, center seats to be empty. So the first few times we flew with her, we didn’t buy a seat for her, but we would bring her car seat on anyway, and if there was no room, the flight attendants would check it. Otherwise, we’d just attach it to the middle seat and let her sleep in it. On no occasion did they force us to hold her on our laps when the car seat was available. If fact, I was under the impression that airlines strongly discourage lap-sitting infants, precisely because turbulence is so dangerous (or maybe because they want to sell the extra seat).

By the time she was 18 months old, I think we started just buying her a seat to guarantee space for her car seat (flights were more regularly completely full). I don’t think we ever flew with my son on our laps (he was probably 20 pounds by 6 months, so it would have been decidedly uncomfortable).

I really thought rear-facing car seats were the preferred way for under-2 year olds to fly.

ETA: Daughter is flying to college in the Fall, so this was all a while ago.

Taking a baby on a plane has its challenges but I would not condemn it like that. In my opinion taking an *adult *on a plane is sometimes not such a good idea.

What does trouble with air pressure while flying have to do with the indication for intubation? I think we need a cite on that one.

My son had tubes because of recurrent infections due to inadequate fluid drainage of the Eustachian tubes. Fluid would build in the middle ear and the tube was not large enough to allow both fluid drainage out and replacement air to come at the same time. The fluid is an excellent medium for bacterial growth. Tubes in the eardrum allowed replacement air in so the fluid could drain. None of this is caused by pressure changes due to flying. However, intubation does facilitate pressure equalization so can ease problems of flying.

Although anecdotal, both my children have flown often since they were babies and only one had a need for tubes.

It’s a shame Louise Woodward never thought of that excuse.

Too soon?

I used to laugh at airplane seat belts - the old “if the plane crashes, what’s the belt going to do?”
Then I was on a flight with u expected turbulence. Went from minor bumps, to suddenly dropping out of the sky. Objects (books, games, drinks) and unsecured passengers all immediately hit ithe roof. I had my belt on and was shaken but fine. My partner had his belt on but it was loose and he had major bruising across both thighs where the belt stopped his upward path, before his head hit the ceiling. One hostess was bleeding from impact with the ceiling. Two passengers (one unbelted, one in the bathroom at the time)needed assistance off the plane (in wheelchairs due to injuries).

I didn’t notice any young children on the flight, but from that moment on, I was anti-lap babies. It happened so suddenly and so unexpectedly, that I knew there was no way of preventing an unsecured baby from slamming into the roof. Parental arms just wouldn’t do anything with those sorts of forces. It was a real eye-opener. If I had to fly a child it would have its own seat & belt (& car seat if appropriate) after that experience, whereas before that flight I didn’t see the need.

Sorry - just realised this was GQ, not IMHO. I don’t know if turbulence could cause the same problems of ‘shaken baby syndrome’ but I do know first-hand it could slam them into the roof with a lot of force with minimal warning

Shaken baby syndrome doesn’t happen from the kid bouncing around a bit…it comes from violent shaking that snaps their heads back and forth and causes concussion like damage or serious neck trauma. You can bounce babies rather vigorously as long as you properly support their head and neck, and they’ll be fine. In fact, it’s one of the key ways to calm a baby who’s upset. My son (who will be 3 weeks old tomorrow) loves to be bounced, and that is at or worse than even relatively bad turbulence…but of course he’s very well supported, with my hand cupping his head and stabilizing his neck, and there are no hard stops at either end of the motion. He loves it.

Now, if there is bad airplane turbulence and you do not have a good support on the baby, and their neck is free to move, then yes, it absolutely could cause some serious damage.

Oh…as I looked through some of the other responses…note that I haven’t experienced turbulence anywhere remotely close to the kind that Essured talked about…I’d imagine that could potentially cause some injury (probably not at the same level of SBS, though) even when in a proper infant seat. I’ve flown a lot, and had really, really bad turbulence on one flight that made me sick (and I am not prone to motion sickness), and bounced the whole time. It wouldn’t have been pleasant, but if I’d held a baby with proper neck support, I’d imagine it’d be fine. However, that’s not as violent as what’s described in some of the accounts above…I do not bounce my son at the level of that, for anyone who may be wondering (it’s bouncy, but certainly not violent in any way).

Either, but clear air turbulence is likely to cause the greatest number of injuries. It is difficult to detect due to its lack of visual clues given to the pilot, and it not being detectable by standard RADAR. This gives pilots little chance to alert the passengers to belt themselves in.

A good reason to always wear your seatbelt any time you are seated on the plane. I make sure I get up and walk at least to the bathroom and back every hour or so on very long flights (e.g. Detroit to Tokyo), but for safety’s sake you don’t want to spend a whole lot of time unbuckled.

If there’s a crash that has a mix of fatalities and survivors, it’s a fair bet that all of the survivors will have been wearing their seatbelts, and that all/most of the people not wearing their seatbelts will be among the dead. In a crash like ValuJet 592 (crashed nose-first at 500+ MPH), seatbelts won’t make difference. In a crash like United 232 (tumble/breakup after semi-controlled crash-landing), they’ll greatly increase your odds of survival.

“Shake me like a British nanny”
-Stewie, Family Guy

I just flew two weeks ago and they told a mother who had bought the extra seat and had a baby seat, to hold the baby in her lap during landing and take-off. Then she could strap her back into the seat.

It makes no sense to me…
ETA: and yes, you can bounce babies a lot. They are substantially less fragile after the first month anyway. I’ve bounced a lot of babies and they love it…they also love if you swing them around and dip them down, as long as they feel safe.

a human brain/head can take quite a bit of linear acceleration, provided the load is distributed fairly evenly. If you’re in your car and get hit from behind, as long as that headrest is properly positioned, you can take a pretty hard hit without suffering brain injury. This is the kind of acceleration you produce when you bounce a baby with its head well-supported. you accelerate the skull in a linear fashion, the skull pushes against the brain with a nice, evenly distributed force, and that force gets distributed throughout the brain as a nice, even hydrostatic load, no major distortion of brain tissue (provided the accelerations do not reach ridiculous magnitude).

But rotational accelerations are more troublesome. Shake a baby by holding its chest, and the baby’s head nods back and forth violently. Imagine an axis running from one ear to the other: the baby’s head rotates back and forth around this axis. When you rotate the skull, there are precious few attachment points where torque can be transferred from the skull to the brain. Those attachments are things like the brain stem and major blood vessels, and they get stretched injuriously. Torque gets transferred across the brain by shear stress, which distorts and stretches the brain tissue (see diffuse axonal injury). If you’re in a car and get hit from the side, your brain experiences something similar to this (except the axis of rotation runs from your nose to the back of your head): the car accelerates sideways and takes your body with it, your neck pulls the bottom of your head sideways, and your head rotates violently. You can suffer a traumatic brain injury this way without your head ever hitting anything - just like a shaken baby.

My guess:
A baby seat strapped into the middle seat of a 3-across will impede the exit of the passendger in an emergency.
A baby in an emergency evacuation in a baby seat would slow mother and child exiting.
It would reuire fiddling with straps to either get the baby seat out (and lug down the narrow aisle) or get the baby out.

Simpler to be carrying a the baby free and clear to begin with should an emergency develop.