Crying children on airplanes: Three points of view

No-one can deny that crying children on airplanes are a problem. How much of a problem it is, and how best to deal with it, depends on whether you are the parent of the crying infant, a fellow passenger who also happens to be a parent, a traveler not blessed with children, or a policy-maker for the airline. Each one of these viewpoints needs to be considered.

The parents’ viewpoint

It should be said straight away that parents of a crying baby on a plane are in even greater pain than anyone else who is listening. Air travel with babies should not be taken lightly. Rest assured that there was some pressing need to bring the baby on the plane, and even if that need was only a family vacation, parents of very young children are probably more in need of R & R than many other people. So give the parents a break. They are probably squirming with embarrassment as they try to work out whether the child is cold, hot, hungry, overtired, in need of a diaper change, or just trying to cope with the sudden pain in infant ears when the cabin pressure changes.

Of course parents should do everything they can to quiet the infant, and if the child is dry and fed, not overtired or overdressed, there are still some things they can try. These include using a pacifier, especially to deal with pressure changes, and walking up and down the aisles nursing and rocking the baby when this is permitted. The cabin staff may be willing to keep an eye on any of the baby’s siblings who may be traveling with him, while the parent is otherwise engaged.

If it falls within their budget, parents should buy a seat for a baby old enough to sit up, especially on long flights. Busy commuter journeys, in the early morning and at the end of the business day, should be avoided. Child care experts recommend that parents resist the temptation to sedate babies and young children for the duration of the flight. Medicines are for sick children who should not be traveling, not a drug to be used without due consideration merely for the sake of parental convenience.

There will always be horror stories about children who run amok on planes, running around or just screaming or whining while their parents blithely ignore their bad behavior. This is a situation quite different from the distressed and crying child, and such conduct is the exception rather than the rule. Sensible parents will prepare their older children for travel with a discussion about how to behave on a plane, and bring with them plenty of distractions such as books and small toys and games. Cabin staff are likely to offer coloring books and crayons, drinks and snacks, and sometimes children’s movies and audio programs. Parents should not allow children beyond babyhood to get to the point where they are a serious disturbance to other passengers.

Viewpoint of other passengers

Having dealt with what can reasonably be expected of parents of a crying child on an airplane, where does that leave other passengers? Travelers who are themselves parents will probably be prepared to make allowances, and take comfort from the fact that they are either past this stage in their lives, or left the kids behind for this trip.

Those who have never had children of their own cannot be expected to truly understand some of the problems and frustrations of parenthood, but any reasonable person will make some allowances for the noise created by a baby or very young child. It’s tough if the noise is right behind you and you’re at the end of a hard day, but when the flight is over you can get off and walk away from the disturbance. The unfortunate parents do not have that option, and will be struggling with a fractious infant for many hours to come.

So, exercise patience, use earplugs, listen to music or watch a movie using headphones. If it becomes truly unbearable, discreetly ask cabin staff if you could be moved to another seat. Loud complaints directed towards the parents are not going to improve the situation.

The airline’s viewpoint

What can airlines do? Many companies have definite restrictions on the number of babies and very young children allowed on a single flight, purely for safety reasons. There is a limited supply of infant oxygen masks and life vests on normal flights. There have been suggestions that airlines should schedule completely child-free flights, for the convenience of those who do not wish to travel in the company of young children, but this would be an infringement on the civil liberties of both parent and child. Additionally, many routes have only one flight per day, or even per week, so to ban children altogether would be outrageous.

A far better approach would be to have designated family areas on planes, with special cabin staff trained in early childhood procedures. This might even result in parents actually feeling welcome to bring their children on planes, and a better flight experience for both generations. Parents and young children would be spared the embarrassment of inconveniencing other passengers, who would themselves be released from the noise and disturbance caused by youngsters, and the airline might actually get more business. Everybody wins, and all because a baby can’t help crying, especially on an airplane.