What's the Proper Etiquette For Dealing With Crying Babies on a Plane?

Don't match a tantrum with a tantrum.

We've all been on a plane, desperate to get a few hours of shuteye, only to have our plans halted by a crying baby. It's annoying, sure. (And you can bet its equally nerveracking for the tot's frantic parent.) But do we have the right to complain?

Not really, according to some experts."The baby has no control over crying and the parent is trying their best not to disrupt others. We're embarrassed already — no need to shame someone," says Jess Zaino, a parenting expert and star of of New Mom Diaries on TLC.com.

If you do feel you must ask to get that baby quieted down however, it's important to follow proper airline decorum. That means you ask through the flight attendant, rather than approaching the parent or child directly, experts say.

The rules of etiquette apply in first-class too, even though that's where people pay the big bucks to fly, ideally, in peace and comfort. "[The parent with offending child] paid the same high price tag that you did. Ask for noise-cancelling headphones, and a glass of Chardonnay," says Zaino. Obviously the parent must accompany the child, so both should be treated with sympathy in the cabin — disappointing and disruptive as it may be for fellow passengers.

Zaino — and everyone else, whether a parent or a chid-free flyer — knows that crying babies disturb peace, and are simply no fun to be around. But airline passengers could all benefit from a code of mutual respect. "I hear the whispers and see the eye rolls all the time when I board the plane. Until there is a designated section on the plane for families (mid-plane would be ideal because of convenience to get off plane first and for baby's delicate ears), airlines should offer free noise-cancellation headphones, blankets, and alcohol for any customer who asks because of baby," says Zaino.

As many celebrity moms have said in public forums, it's hard to fly with a young child, especially if that baby is sick or uncomfortable. "Customers flying without babies should express more compassion and not shame those of us that need to get from A to B, for work, pleasure or something more serious — like caring for long-distance friends or relatives. It sucks to feel shame around air commuting and believe me... we're embarrassed already," says Zaino.

Indeed, when a parent is traveling with a crying baby, you can bet the situation is just as upsetting to the parent as to a seatmate; the parent is acutely aware that the baby is annoying other passengers, and is bracing for fallout. "There could be many reasons that the child is crying — he or she is sick and their eardrums are blocked, and that can be painful. Or like all of us, they are tired of being in that seat for a long period of time," says former flight attendant Lisa Dinsmoor. "I remember flights when the parents were so frustrated that they couldn’t get their child to stop crying that they would be in tears too. The child can pick up on the parent's emotions so if you have a stressed out mom or dad, that’s only going to make things worse."

As a kind solution, she added that in the past, "I would offer to hold the baby for them just to give them a break. If the baby is hungry and the bottle needs to be warmed, the flight attendant could bring them a cup or even a coffee pot filled with warm water to warm the bottle," says Dinsmoor. In other words, flight attendants can use tools to effectively help mitigate a bad situation.

She said that when passengers give parents dirty looks or make under-the-breath comments, it's not helpful and can only make the situation worse. "I’d ask the passenger to understand that it’s just as upsetting to the parents that the baby is crying, probably more so — because they are doing all they can to stop it, and they know it’s bugging the passenger. Then might be a good time to ask the passenger if they’d like ear plugs. A smart flight attendant would carry a couple spare pairs of them," Dinsmoor says.

Flight attendant Heather Poole, author of Cruising Attitude: Tales of Crashpads, Crew Drama and Crazy Passengers at 35,000 Feet, also urges sympathy. "It's a baby. Babies cry. It's ridiculous to think you can stop a baby from crying by complaining about it. I imagine the only people who think that will work are people who don't have children. I'd like to remind these people that they were once crying babies that got on other people's nerves. Most parents do everything possible to calm their babies when they're on the plane. Nobody wants to see or hear their young child in distress. Then to have to deal with angry seatmates makes it a million times worse."

She recalled this story: "Once during a flight, a man seated in the exit row turned around to yell at a woman who held a crying baby. 'Do something!' he demanded. 'What exactly do you want her to do?' I asked. We were in the aisle doing the service. The seatbelt sign was on. I spent the rest of the flight consoling the mother who started to cry after he snapped at her."

Of course, onus falls on parents too: Some parents bring on board goodie bags including ear plugs, mini bottles of alcohol, snacks, and a nice note, to curry the good favor of other passengers. But it's a controversial move among parents, some of whom resent the implication that moms and dads should be expected to beg forgiveness for the natural human behavior of their offspring.

That said, any parent knows that there’s no such thing as being too prepared. You have to expect the unexpected, especially when it comes to airline travel with your child. "It's impossible to predict what could go wrong. That being said, it is possible to baby-proof as much as possible pre-flight, keeping in mind that we can [try to anticipate and] prepare for any kind of situation," says child and family psychologist, Dr. Kathryn Smerling of Upper East Side Family Therapy. "I recommend bringing a toolkit full of the child’s favorite soothing items. Think beyond a pacifier and a bottle. What are the child's most coveted toys, books, and electronics? What is something you regularly use to comfort your child that works? What's guaranteed to always make them feel better when they're in a mood?" Smerling says.

In the end, though, she notes accurately, "Babies are babies."

So, ultimately, crying-baby situations are going to happen... and they're going to be rough on everyone: Those who came with the baby, and those sitting near the baby. The best passengers can do is follow the protocol of asking a flight attendant to mediate — and exercise an abundance of patience and understanding.

Or, of course, you could opt out of the age-old conflict by flying private, which is becoming ever-more accessible.

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