Baby Care

A baby is crying on your flight. Here’s what to do

Celine Brewer still remembers the glares when she got on a flight with her baby boy. The people in front of her demanded new seats right away – and then the baby started to cry before the plane even took off. Cue a new demand for different seats.

“I got very angry, and I got very stressed out,” said Brewer, owner of the site Baby Can Travel. She turned on her phone to distract the baby, who fell asleep for the entire flight. But several years later, she still smarts at the memory of the impatient fellow passengers.

“You guys could have given me an ounce of compassion and a moment to figure this out,” she said.

Strangers’ reactions to wee wailing passengers have gone viral recently, with one man unleashing a string of expletives to a flight attendant, asking if a howling baby had paid “extra to yell.” Earlier this month, the rapper Chika took her complaints to Twitter when a tiny first-class passenger’s cries woke her up.

While commenters send up pleas for child-free flights, the reality is that families with small kids have every right to travel by air. And just like adults might lose their cool on a plane, babies – who, after all, communicate by crying – can’t always keep it together. Experts say sometimes the tears are unavoidable, but they do offer some tips on the best ways to help.

Before the flight

Etiquette expert Jackie Vernon-Thompson, founder of From the Inside-Out School of Etiquette, said parents have the responsibility to plan ahead and pack what their baby or toddler might need on a flight to stay comfortable. That could include a crucial blanket, preferred pacifier or favorite stuffed animal.

Parents who have rules against screen time might need to reconsider before flying, she said: “That policy will probably need to be thrown out the window for the flight.”

Sydoni O’Connor, a flight attendant and mother of a toddler, said in a TikTok that she started using noise-canceling headphones for her daughter when she was still an infant who flew frequently. In an interview, she said that now that her daughter is older and prefers different foods all the time, she’ll bring a little snack tray with six compartments and fill them with “a little bit of everything she’s been liking this week.”

Because a soggy diaper might spark tears, and airplane lavatories are notoriously crowded, Brewer said she always tried to change her kids’ diaper before getting on the plane – a preventive move for short flights, at least.

While some strangers prescribe Benadryl for other passengers’ flying babies, Boston Children’s Hospital primary care pediatrician Claire McCarthy said no one should give the medication to a baby without first checking with their doctor.

“It can have side effects, especially if repeated doses are given on long flights,” she said in an email. “Also, sometimes instead of making children sleepy, it can have the opposite effect!”

McCarthy, an assistant professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School and spokesperson for the American Academy of Pediatrics, said that if parents have discussed risks and the safest way to give Benadryl, she suggests a trial dose at home in advance to see what effect it has on the baby.

On the plane

McCarthy said in her email that there are a few reasons babies might cry on a plane, beyond the reasons they cry as part of normal life. They may be in pain because of pressure changes at takeoff and landing; they may be tired and find it difficult to sleep without their normal surroundings; they might want to move around instead of being stuck in a confined space or they might be disoriented and scared.

She said feeding the baby or having them suck on a pacifier when the plane takes off or lands can help with the pressure change. If a baby has a cold or ear infection, acetaminophen or ibuprofen can help because they might be in worse pain.

McCarthy said it’s worth trying to tweak a sleep schedule so a baby’s nap takes place during the plane ride, even if that means keeping them awake longer ahead of time. If the baby is still crying on the plane, she said parents should reach into their bag of regular tricks.

“I would suggest trying everything that works at home – at least everything you can do while in the constraints of a plane,” she wrote. “It’s important, obviously, to follow all safety instructions.”

When possible, Brewer said she would try to put her kids in a baby carrier and walk around the plane to soothe them. Distractions also help, she said, even something as simple as a plastic cup with ice or a spoon or a fellow passenger who is willing to engage the baby.

“If there’s some way that they’re offering to help, take it,” she said.

For fellow fliers

Not your baby, not your problem? Not exactly. Fellow passengers or flight attendants can take the situation from bad to worse – or potentially make it better.

Brewer remembers one overnight flight from Calgary to Japan when her 14-month-old son slept for less than an hour.

“We were so exhausted,” she said. “And the lovely flight attendant came over and said, ‘You guys look like you need a break.’” She took the baby for a walk around the plane, and Brewer remembers thinking: “a break – thank god.”

O’Connor said that as a flight attendant, she’ll often sit down with a mom whose baby is crying and encourage her, ask if she needs something or just start a conversation about the baby just to move the focus from the tears.

She recognizes that people might be concerned about germs, especially given the last few years of pandemic air travel, but she still thinks it’s okay for someone to offer a hand with a baby – or even just to play a game or make a funny face. That kind of interaction helps lighten the mood and make a stressed parent feel less alone, she said.

As a traveling parent, she said she’s had a moment where she was trying to get something from the overhead baggage compartment and someone offered to hold her baby.

“All of a sudden the baby has fallen asleep on the lady and they’re just in love,” she said.

Even if other passengers don’t actively engage, extending compassion or understanding for parents rather than getting agitated can help, Brewer said.

“The parents want, more than any other person on the plane, to stop their baby from crying,” she said.

Brewer said preparation for people without kids is also key: “Don’t show up on a flight and not bring noise-canceling headphones. . . . To be honest, babies aren’t always the most annoying thing on an airplane.”

What not to do

As hard as it might be, parents need to keep their cool amid the howling.

“Certainly don’t get angry at the baby, who surely does not want to be crying,” McCarthy said in her email. “If the baby feels you’re upset – and babies can be very sensitive to caregiver emotions – it can make things worse.”

O’Connor has seen plenty of examples of what not to do, like the man who called her over and asked her to make a baby shut up. She said the look of dread people get when they see someone with a baby is also not helpful.

“That is something that automatically instills this fear into moms or parents,” she said. “Just mind your business.”

Vernon-Thompson, the etiquette expert, said yelling is never an appropriate response.

“It’s good as a passenger to understand: Don’t start shouting at the baby, shouting at the parent,” she said. “That’s not going to resolve anything.”

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