Children are unpredictable, even more so when confined to cramped quarters. And the stress of trying to quiet a screaming toddler is often amplified by the dagger-like stares coming from fellow passengers. While there may not be a playbook for handling pint-size petulance at 32,000 feet, paediatric behavioural experts and the Association of Flight Attendants offer insights into how to avoid, or at least contain, meltdowns.
According to Margret Nickels, a clinical child psychologist and former director of the Erikson Institute Center for Children and Families, in Chicago, preparation is key to prevention. She instructs parents to address stressors of plane travel — confinement in a small space, lack of control and interruption of routine — before heading to the airport.
Her advice? For children aged two and older, preface the trip with a chat about the (potentially overwhelming) sensory experiences related to airplane travel so they know what to expect. “Children like predictability,” explains Nickels. “Let them know that they must sit for a long time, hear strange noises, feel bumps, wear a seat belt and sit close to strangers.” According to Nickels, this narrative will reduce anxiety and help the parents refer back to that conversation (“Remember we talked about how you wear the seat belt until the pilot tells you it’s safe?”) when the child get antsy during the trip.
That said, parents should prepare for meltdowns in the form of bribes. Stock up on stickers, markers, small toys and special treats to nip a blossoming tantrum in the bud.
Setting ground rules
Dr Christopher Young, medical director of Wellmore Behavioral Health and Clinical Faculty at Yale University Department of Psychiatry, stresses the importance of setting ground rules before the flight. “There’s not much reasoning that can take place with with very small children,” he says. Just make sure they are comfortable and well fed. For older children, you can establish in-flight limits and boundaries by using safety as a rationale. For example, “It’s the captain’s rule to keep your seat belt on during the flight, that running in the aisle is dangerous and that kicking a seat hurts people.” But Young advises to offer positive alternatives to the “no” (Do you want to colour? Read a book? Play hangman?) to swiftly redirect the child’s attention.
Keep them busy (but watch that iPad)
A fact of parenthood: cParents should be armed with books, developmentally appropriate games (colouring books, Legos, dolls) and electronics. But you can’t just plop these items down on the tray and dive into Netflix. Why? “Parents’ tuning out leads to kids’ acting out,” cautions Nickels. “You need to hold your child’s attention.” Another potential land mine: Hunger. Since a hungry child is a volatile child, it is essential to have easy-to-transport food (grapes, cheese sticks, goldfish crackers) on hand.
About those electronics: It is tempting to let an iPad or other tablet serve as makeshift baby sitter. But, nonstop electronics can backfire. Young posits that gorging on electronics can induce peevishness and tantrums. Nickels concurs: “Children do not transition rapidly from digital absorption to reality.” Without parent-enforced breaks, children fall into a daze ignoring hunger, thirst, the need to use the bathroom and exhaustion. Then, when the device is switched off, they go into “distress mode”, a professional term for a freakout. To avoid overstimulation, set usage limits (“You can watch two cartoons and then have a snack and read for a while”) before handing over the tablet.
Establish a rewards system
Rewards can encourage good behaviour. Nickels is a fan of the goody bag. She advises filling a small sack with four surprises to be distributed at specific points during the flight. Let your children know about the goody bag, but not what is inside. This way, they can focus on a goal. Electronics can also be leveraged as a reward for good behaviour. Screen time can be earned by spending “X” amount of time doing other activities.
Use a flight attendant as a buffer
Of course, these strategies are not foolproof. So, what can you do if you are that parent with a child in full blown tantrum mode? You can’t blame fellow passengers for becoming irritated, especially if the parents are ignoring the situation. According to Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, passengers will have more empathy if they see that you are trying to diffuse the meltdown. So, standing up and delivering a statement like “I’m sorry my child is being disruptive, please bear with me”, can help.
But sometimes things can get hostile. On one flight from Miami to Boston, a nearby passenger berated a mother when her 15-month-old daughter became fussy and started crying. Recalls the mother: “My daughter had missed her nap and was overtired. I was trying to calm her down — walking the aisle, rocking her — and after I sat down, just as she was settling down, a woman whipped around from the row in front and said ‘This is outrageous! You need to start walking her again!’ I was mortified. I went to the back of the plane with the baby and began crying myself.” In an aggressive situation like this, Nelson suggests reaching out to a flight attendant for support. “Flight attendants are trained to de-escalate conflict,” she says. “They can move a family, offer complimentary food or drink to the frustrated passenger or try to reason with the child themselves.”
Bribing your fellow passengers: Follow the Clooneys’ formula
Even if your child has not uttered a peep, some parents head conflict off at the pass by proffering gift bags to their fellow passengers with a cute note apologising for unruliness in advance. George Clooney and his wife Amal famously handed out wireless noise cancelling headphones to the entire first class cabin on a flight with their infant twins in 2017. But, a less glitzy offering does the job just as well. Cambi Clarke prepared gift bags for passengers in the row ahead, the row behind and aisle seats abutting theirs, all containing an apology note along with chocolate, ear plugs and snacks. “I did not want to be that mom that everyone hates,” says Clarke. “It was a preventive measure that made me feel less anxious.”
And what about babies? Does the five-minute crying rule work?
Krupa Patel Bala, who recently travelled from Sydney to San Francisco on United Airlines with her husband and infant son was confronted by a cabin crew member when her son began crying soon after take-off and told that her infant’s behaviour was “absolutely unacceptable”. The attendant claimed that babies weren’t allowed to cry for more than five minutes on United flights, Bala says.
“Parents of newborns have it hard enough already travelling with a baby,” said Bala, who works for Facebook. “We certainly don’t need crew managers piling on when we are doing our best to ensure we’re containing our children and their cries.”
Bala used the onboard internet to post her experience to Facebook. By the time her family landed in San Francisco, United was ready with an apology and a full refund. But the incident also underscored the unpleasant fact that no matter how you look at it, air travel with babies is a challenge for everyone — including parents, other passengers and crew members.
TOP TIPS FOR A SMOOTH FLIGHT:
1) First, buy an extra seat: You’ll need the extra space, and bringing the car seat on board will also make the trip safer for your offspring, experts say. “Typically a child is more comfortable in their own seat instead of being constantly readjusted in a parent’s lap,” says Ashanti Woods, an attending pediatrician at Mercy Medical Center in Baltimore.
2) Clean diaper and comfy clothes: Alexandra Fung, a mother of three and CEO of the parenting advice website Upparent.com, has a routine for every flight. Before boarding, she makes sure her baby has a clean diaper and comfortable clothes that are easy to change, and is looking forward to the next meal. “Nurse or bottle-feed during takeoff, as the swallowing motion will help with any discomfort from the pressure change, and a comfortable and well-fed baby might just spend the next couple of hours sleeping,” she advises.
3) Cute dresses and earplugs: How can a parent deal with annoyed passengers? Experts say there are at least two schools of thought. Some say you should dress your baby in cute clothes to endear them to other passengers and hand out earplugs and treats with an “I’m sorry about my baby” note attached. Others subscribe to the “deal with it” philosophy: Just apologise if your baby cries too much and move on.
“Here’s a tip for those who are traveling next to someone with a baby, especially next to a solo traveller,” says expert Trish McDermott. “Ask how you can help. Simply offering to hold a baby for five minutes so Mom or Dad can take a restroom break, or reaching over to pick up a fallen item that a parent can’t reach, can be a game-changer on a long flight. Sometimes it takes a village to get a family with young children through a flight.”
4) Be an aware parent: Crew members have mixed feelings about babies on board. They want to welcome all passengers and make them as comfortable as possible. And privately, they often confess that young children aren’t their biggest problem; it’s their adult travel companions, especially new parents who tend to make a lot of mistakes. The errors include being ridiculously unprepared, acting as if any advice they receive is “baby-hating” or “mum-shaming”, and not knowing what to do with diapers.
5) Know the diaper change etiquette: “Most narrow-body airplane lavatories are in the galley where food and beverages are served,” explains Susan Fogwell, a flight attendant. “For sanitary purposes, the lavatory door should not remain open when a diaper is changed. Some people think it’s a two-person operation to change a diaper and will leave the lavatory door open while the other person — the helper — is standing at the entrance to the lavatory.”
She suggests that parents travelling with infants pack a sealable plastic bag. When they’re done with a diaper change, they can seal the diaper in a plastic bag and dispose it of quickly.
6) Read the rules: Most airlines post a simple guide on their websites that covers seats, strollers and carry-on allowances for families. You wouldn’t know how to handle diaper changes unless you asked. Even then, you might not get a consistent answer.
That’s because when it comes to flying with babies, it’s not clear what the rules are — or whether there are any.
“Enforcement of them varies widely, not only from airline to airline, but from staff member to staff member,” says an expert.