Don’t Be a Crybaby: What to Do When Babies Cry on a Plane

Apr 26, 2019

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Welcome to Travel Etiquette, a TPG column that explores the fragile social contracts and the delicate dos and don’ts of travel. Have an opinion or suggestion for a future subject? Sound off in the comments below. 

You’ve settled into your airplane seat, started a movie, opened a book or powered up your laptop when you hear a stomach turning noise — a baby has started crying just a few seats away. It may begin as a whimper or whine, and eventually escalate to an all-out howl as whatever the baby wants clearly isn’t happening fast enough.

We have plenty of resources for parents flying with babies to try and minimize these unfortunate events, but let’s face it: Sometimes babies just have total meltdowns. And it can be frustrating to both the parents as well as nearby passengers on the plane. Before you start yelling at the parents — or the baby — consider this definitive guide to dealing with outbursts from the tiniest travelers on board.

Resources for Parents Flying With a Baby

Woman traveling with her baby sitting in an airplane cabin. (Photo by Juanmonino/Getty Images)
Photo by Juanmonino/Getty Images

Understand Why Babies Cry

As most people know, the baby is not crying to make your life harder — the baby is crying because he or she needs or wants something, and this happens to be the communication tool at their disposal. Once you have lived with a baby, you quickly learn that babies cry a lot. Or rather, there are developmental timeframes when crying is pretty common.

Feelings of discomfort, exhaustion, hunger, loneliness, boredom, anger, pain and general unrest are generally all expressed by wails and tears. And the sobs can be pretty intense. Normally, only parents and caregivers hear and respond to those cries. But on a tightly packed airplane, others share in the stressful experience.

I’m a mom of two, and when either of my babies would cry as infants, my blood pressure and stress levels immediately spiked. It was a physiological response to their distress that compelled me, as their mom, to respond as quickly as possible. That stress response happens at home, but it is magnified on an airplane. At 36,000 feet there are the added pressures of limited resources and extra audience members to intensify the experience.

While my girls thankfully didn’t have any long-term crying episodes on planes (thank goodness!), we certainly had plenty in other locations — like on a private shuttle from Puerto Vallarta (PVR) to the St. Regis Punta Mita. That was very intense, and I can tell you it’s absolutely miserable knowing that your baby is in distress — and others are distressed as a result.

The last thing you need as the parent in that situation are snarky looks, comments, eye-rolls or audible sighs. What you need is to focus all of your attention on meeting your baby’s needs as quickly as possible.

Image courtesy of Klaus Vedfelt via Getty Images.

What the Experts Say

Flight attendant Leisha Poage, who has been working with United for 12 years — and has twins infants — weighed in on the best way to handle this situation as a fellow passenger.

“It does no good to glare at the parent with hostility, as that won’t change the situation. Trust me: They are wishing they were anywhere else as well.”

“The best advice I can give if you want to help,” she added, “is to try and engage the child. This can mean talking to them, asking them questions, singing or asking the parent what you can do to help.” She also said if you don’t want to get that involved, just rely on some good noise-canceling headphones and cut the parents some slack.

If the issue isn’t a crying baby, however, but instead a toddler or child who is kicking your seat, she said it’s entirely appropriate to politely ask them to stop. If that doesn’t work, she said to ask a flight attendant in your cabin for assistance, and he or she will have your back.

What Frequent Flyers Say

We asked the TPG Family Facebook Group, which is full of frequent flying parents, what other passengers should do when a baby starts to cry on a flight. The consensus: Do nothing, say nothing.

Most of the time, all that parents want from fellow passengers is that they don’t make the situation worse. As Poage said, put on those noise-canceling headphones and don’t put any added pressure on the parents.

Of course, depending on the specific situation, there may be other ways for you to proactively help the situation and, as a result, help pacify the bawling baby.

Offer an Aisle Seat If the Parent Is Stuck in the Middle

One suggestion from the TPG Family Facebook Group is to offer an aisle seat if the parent is stuck in a middle seat with an unhappy baby — especially if the child is a lap infant. Getting out from between two strangers and into the aisle with just a little extra shoulder room can make all the difference. Of course, don’t feel like you have to offer your seat. But if you’re looking for practical ways to help, this is one.

Share a Kind Word or Smile

An easy way to help when a baby is screaming on an airplane without having to do much at all is to simply give the parents a reassuring smile, a nod or a kind word. Letting the parents know this is normal, we’ve all been there and it will (eventually) get better might help lower their stress level, which can help them focus on the crying infant.

Provide Hands-on Help

If you are willing and able, don’t be shy about offering candid help. Perhaps you have a toy or toddler-appropriate snack you can part with that might distract the child from his or her screams. Or, in some cases — especially if the parent is the only adult flying with the kid(s) — he or she might even be eager for another adult to take a turn trying to calm the baby. A polite offer that you are available to help if desired is not inappropriate. Just don’t take it personally if the parent doesn’t accept your offer — they’re definitely appreciative.

(Photo by Andrea Bacle Photography)
Sometimes a toy goes a long way to calm a child. (Photo by Andrea Bacle Photography)

Bottom Line

You may want to blame the parent for not doing enough to quiet their baby, or for not coming adequately prepared. But all that does is add negative energy to a situation that already has plenty. I’ve often found that the most tired, stressed and ill-prepared families on a plane are the ones traveling for the most stressful reasons.

The best approach for other passengers when a nearby baby is crying on the plane is to simply not exacerbate the situation. For most passengers, that will simply mean putting on headphones, not making eye rolls, audible sighs or worse and just silently hoping that the family can rectify the situation soon. If you are willing and able to offer a reassuring comment or provide hands-on assistance in some way, a polite offer is an appropriate way to get involved.

As both a mom, as well as an airline passenger who frequently travels for work without the kids, the key is to always remember that a baby is just a baby, and this too shall pass. Eventually.

Featured image by Radist via Getty Images

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