Babies on Airplanes Are. The. Worst.

On the way back from Texas last week, our plane made a quick stop in Houston to unload some passengers and re-load others. I had finally coaxed Lincoln to sleep as we landed, and he was nestled cozily between Sienna and I as the new passengers boarded.

I heard her before I saw her, of course. A wee little blond lass, 7 or 8 months old, sleep deprived, disoriented, and totally overwhelmed by the airport’s assault on her senses. She was screaming bloody murder. For real. She was shrieking in that way that babies rarely do, that way that freezes your blood and makes you panic even though you have no clue what’s wrong, how to help, or even who the poor child is.

I felt so sorry for the mother, even when she inexplicably chose to sit directly across the aisle from me and my peacefully sleeping baby. This was not some mere fussing…this baby was emitting absolutely ear-piercing screams. Lincoln woke up almost at once, naturally, and began wailing himself. Still, I tried to give the mother supportive, friendly, sympathetic smiles as I comforted my own disoriented baby.

She did not respond in kind.

I really think she was just exhausted, the mother, overwhelmed by the baby and her 3-year-old. She had an older woman with her who I guessed to be her mother, but neither one seemed capable of responding to the children with anything other than frazzled irritation. Having been subject to extended layovers, cancelled flights, re-routing, and general standby misery with two, then three, then four of my own, I really do understand that eventually you just get to that point. That point where you don’t give a crap about how much your baby’s wails are disturbing other travelers, because you can guaran-damn-tee that they’re disturbing you twenty zillion times more. That point where you can’t even muster up a return smile for a kind stranger because you’re just that exhausted. So I didn’t let it bother me. I continued to try and be empathetic and compassionate.

For about forty-five minutes. That was it. That was my limit. Forty-five minutes into the flight, that baby girl was still screaming like someone was stabbing her with red-hot knives. About every fifteen minutes she would stop suddenly, having dropped into exhausted sleep, and Lincoln would gratefully close his eyes and bury his head in my shoulder. This momentary reprieve would last less than five minutes before the baby would resume screaming in her sleep, which would wake her up and intensify the screams, which naturally woke Lincoln up, who added his own plaintive cries to the hellish cacophony happening within that unassuming Southwest airplane.

I started to hate that poor baby’s poor mother. Despite knowing how she felt, despite feeling the exact same way at the exact same time, I still had to fight back the urge to leap out of my seat and snap, “Holy shit, lady, don’t you know how to take care of your own baby? The two of you have been passing her back and forth and bouncing her with increasing vigor since the plane took off. Clearly, it’s not working! For the love of all that’s holy, try something besides the bouncing already!”

My exasperation was visibly echoed by the people around me, particularly one young man. Seated directly in front of the mother and baby, he had initially expressed warmth and pity for them. His offers to help were matter-of-factly rebuffed by the mother. She wasn’t ungrateful, just honest about the fact that the baby was overly tired and it couldn’t be helped. As the flight wore on, however, he became less empathetic and more distressed. After an hour and a half he was  curled over, holding his own head in his hands in obvious anguish. I was struck by his reaction because it clearly did not manifest itself as anger at the mother, but as genuine torment brought on by a baby’s vocal suffering and his inability to do something, anything, to help.

When Leah wrote this post about babies on airplanes six months ago, I was embroiled in the babies in Mass debate, so I took her side with a vengeance. After all, haven’t I flown with babies too many times to count? Haven’t my babies cried? Haven’t I had to suffer the double indignity of being unable to soothe my agitated child and being blamed for the poor baby’s piercing shrieks?

The thing is, I didn’t actually know until last week that it was physically possible for a baby to scream that shrilly for that long. I don’t think I’ve ever experienced my own babies screaming like that for such an extended period of time…or if I have, I’ve blocked it out of my mothering memory in the interest of self-preservation. Now that I know it is, I think I’ve been wrong about the whole “babies on planes” debate.

More than one of Leah’s commenters observed that an airplane is unique because one can’t just get off it. We’re stuck in there together for the whole long, bitter journey. It’s an unusual and inordinate strain on the human psyche to basically sit in a stranger’s lap for several hours, much less to have to endure the ceaseless cries of a baby. And here’s the salient detail about the crying baby factor: people who can’t handle the sound of a baby crying aren’t always just crabby old curmudgeons who hate puppies and sunshine. As it turns out, adult humans are biologically programmed to respond swiftly and emotionally to the sound of a crying baby, even if that baby is not our own. So that jackass three rows up who finally slams his tray table up and yells something like, “can’t you shut that thing up?!?!” might just be completely overwhelmed at the paradox created by his biological instinct to help the child in distress and the social conditioning that forces him to keep his nose planted firmly in his Sudoku. (Alternatively, he could actually just be a jackass.)

I think this is crucial to remember when we think about the new social spaces created by modern technology. The suited Bluetooth guy who glares at me from across a Starbucks eclectic (TM) table because my baby is crying and my four-year-old spilled her chocolate milk gets no sympathy from me. It’s a public space, I’m already cleaning the milk up, you can walk five feet and sit at the exact same table and the world will still continue to turn. But the other downtrodden, unfortunate, Southwest cheapy-cheap-seat-flying masses who morph into Hydes after hours cooped up with a crying baby get all my sympathy. Flying is hard work. No one likes it, unless they’re rich enough to fly first class and get drunk on mini single malts.

It isn’t that parents have to apologize for having babies and participating in society at the same time. They shouldn’t, at all. I wish more parents would bring their babies into society. Children keep us human. But airplanes are an essentially inhumane creation, a necessary evil of modern travel. Parents with babies can’t, and shouldn’t, just eschew air travel until their kids are old enough to sit still and be quiet. But we should also recognize that the visceral reaction to babies crying on airplanes is not just some manifestation of ageism. Any little thing we can do to acknowledge that would help the situation for everyone. Me, I tend to be overly grateful for every offer of help to try and convey how much I really appreciate it. After witnessing the young man’s distress on the flight last week, I think I’ll also try and find some way to accept every offer of help, even if it isn’t strictly necessary. At the very least, accepting help could alleviate some of the helplessness fellow passengers feel. It might even forge a kind of superficial unity, so that everyone feels like we’re all trying to just survive this nightmare while doing what we can to help, instead of the other passengers becoming increasingly hostile the longer the flight wears on.

I do think that parents of babies who are likely to cry should be considerate enough to request a seat in the back of the airplane (and I mean the last possible row, like where you can smell the toilet every time the stall door opens). In my experience, the noise from the engines tends to drown out, or at least neutralize, the screaming baby. I also think that little goody bags, like the one Leah was none too thrilled with, are a pretty thoughtful and generous touch. Rather than implying a tone of incessant apology for having something so inconvenient as a baby on an airplane (which is how I felt about it at first), I now think it’s a way of acknowledging that yes, the next few hours are going to be hell for everyone, and we’re deeply sorry about that.



  • Kate Friend

    It sounds to me like the baby wasn’t overtired – her ears probably hurt! Poor thing needed to suck on a bottle or a boob or a pacifier so her little jaw muscles could clear her eustachian tubes! I mean, yeah, kids are freaking nightmares on planes and parents are always frazzled with the effort of keeping the kids happy and their own feathers down so the dirty looks slide off their backs, but that crying you described sounds like PAIN. And with all sympathy for parents doing their best, I can still say, if that mom and grandma didn’t bring something to help baby’s ears not build up excruciating amounts of pressure, then shame on them! That baby’s a person with human needs, not a piece of luggage.

    • Calah Alexander

      Yeah, Kate, I thought she was in pain too, and offered the mother infants ibuprofen, which she refused. She did try to nurse the baby, but the baby was in that frantic-arms-waving phase that makes it impossible. I was miffed because they kept turning her outward, facing a billion strangers, and bouncing her instead of snuggling her close and just holding her until she calmed down. It seemed like pain combined with overstimulation. I wasn’t pleased with the way it was handled, but then again, I let my kids eat dirt. So what do I know.

  • Jenny Uebbing

    Oh Lord I feel this one. If I make it to Purgatory, it’ll be shaped like a United jet and populated with colicky 4 month-olds on a neverending transatlantic flight. Now I’m having a highly realistic flashback to taking our younger son to Italy at 7 weeks old..

    • Nicole

      Yes, yes, yes indeed!! That was Lucy on the return flight from hell back from Rome. We ended up dead stopped on an emergency landing in Logan on the Tarmac for over an hour and a half, which was AFTER she’d already been wailing on and off the entire 8 hours of flight, which was AFTER we’d waited 4 hours at Fiumicino to board the damn delayed flight. So there we were, stuck, not even moving, not even air conditioned, and none of the blessed white noise or earphoned entertainment that had blocked her out up to that point. She hadn’t slept more than one hr since we’d boarded in Rome, so she was doing the shrill shrieks that nothing could soothe. The whole time they “tried to fix the electric issues on the plane and get us back in the air.” Haha! I am forever scarred. The end. Also, the people were really sympathetic, and pretty much said, “She’s saying what we are al thinking!”

  • perpper

    There’s something neurological about that kind of baby’s cry and adult response to it. I guess it must be evolutionary, but no longer relevant? Or something. Oh, wait you have a link there that probably refers to just that. Well, anyway, it’s neurological … cool word, eh?

    Also, the trapped thing … what old atheist was it who said Hell was being shut in a room with other people? That kind of thing. Being trapped kind of thing …

  • Emily McDonnell

    I agree. Awful. A few months ago my family and I moved to Guam (thank you, US Navy), and due to a paperwork snafu, my husband ended up going a week ahead, which left me to fly there with a one-month-old and a two-year-old alone. By myself. On a 20-hour trip with two layovers (which were only long enough for us to rush to the next gate just in time to board).

    The one-month-old was fine (you know, they’re oblivious at that age), but my poor toddler, though she was about as good as can be expected, had a major meltdown over the middle of the Pacific. Like, throwing herself on the floor, writhing, screaming that she wanted to go outside. Nightmarish.

  • jen

    I have a 4 year old and have flown with him screaming the entire way for 4 straight hours (we were sitting right behind first class — sucks to be them!) twice. Parents who are honestly trying everything to keep their kid quiet and who have read all the flying blogs to know that sucking on a bottle helps are not the people with whom I have a problem.

    The people who make me want to open the emergency door and throw their kid out of it are the people who take their 4+ year old kid on the plane and let them jabber at top volume for two or more hours and/or bring nothing to amuse their kid to make them SHUT UP!!!!!!!!!!!

  • Nancy

    We will be traveling soon to bring home our new daughter, and I’m dreading the flights back with a 2-year-old who has only known us for a week. Hoping for some compassion, and for sleep to use up some of her time, poor thing. Our first daughter didn’t do too badly, and people were kind, but she was only 1, and had not discovered temper tantrums or control issues yet . . . ;)

  • Kathryn L

    I just got off a flight with my almost-6-month old. Thankfully, she was perfectly well-behaved, but I was very grateful for the multiple offers of help I got from the Delta crew. They placed me in the back row by myself, repeatedly begged to hold my baby so I could go to the bathroom, and gave me extra snacks. It was almost a pleasant flight, and I was not in first class half-drunk!