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32 tips for surviving (and parenting) crying babies on planes

Sanity-saving tips from real parents and non-parents.

32 tips for surviving (and parenting) crying babies on planes

(Illustration: Graham Roumieu/The New York Times)

Flying with an unhappy child is no fun for anyone, everyone knows that. But it wasn’t until I asked you for your tips, tricks and traumatic tales of babies on planes, that I realised I didn’t know exactly how many different victim groups were involved.

The kids are in misery. The parents are dying a thousand deaths from shame and frustration. The flight attendants suffer stress. And everyone else on the plane is either irritated or graciously pretending that they’re not.

The stories you shared could fill a book, to be shelved under either humour or horror:

“I have a four-year-old, which is akin to having a monkey-cat hybrid,” wrote Wren West. During a departure delay, her son became a thrashing wild man. “If it didn’t cost US$600 (S$800), I would have just asked to be taken off the plane right then and there,” West noted. “I bet all 100 passengers would have pitched in.”

Matt Hubbard’s son was on his shoulders at baggage claim as he approached his parents, who had come to greet the flight. “Just as I was able to catch their eye,” he wrote, “my son threw up all over the top of my head, covering my glasses.”

On a flight from Mexico City, the woman sitting across from Roxann Steinberg “took a urine-soaked cloth diaper off her baby and wrung it out onto the carpeted aisle floor. She then put the ‘dry’ diaper back on the baby and resumed her magazine reading.”

Whether you’re a parent, a baby or someone trapped in the same flying metal tube with them, help is at hand.


While you’re still in the airport, don’t break out the electronics, Lesley Golkin wrote. “Move around, talk, eat, play games. Don’t sit still until you have to!”

And hit the bathroom. “You want brand-new diapers and empty bladders all around,” she said.

Many fliers board early, at the “travelling with small children” announcement. Brandon Cornuke, however, takes the opposite approach; why endure more time on the plane than necessary? “Wait until the last minute, overhead space be damned.”

Or, if you’re travelling with a fellow parent, steal Julie Murrell’s idea: “One parent boards early and stows baggage. The other parent boards last, giving the little ones maximum time to work off some energy.”

Oh – and bring balloons.

“Un-inflated balloons don’t weigh anything and don’t take up any space,” noted Gwen Wong. During one delay at the airport, “we inflated the balloons, and instantly we had a fun game of knuckle volleyball. One of my better ideas.”


“A window seat is a must,” wrote Gina Sitaraman. (She undoubtedly means for your child.)

Jessie Keyt tries to get the bulkhead (front) seats, “so you can set up a little play area, with a blanket on the floor, out of the way of other passengers.”

When Debbie Ettington’s daughter was just old enough for her feet to reach the seat in front of her, “we chose seats that put one parent in front of her and one beside her. It was much easier to be the one whose seat was kicked than to deal with unsympathetic fellow travellers.”


Ear pain from the changing cabin atmosphere is a frequent cause of crying or fussiness. Louise Joy’s best trick: “Have a bottle or drink ready – or breast feed – when you are taking off or landing. Drinking helps the baby or toddler clear their ears.”

Carry lollipops; the sucking and swallowing relieves pressure problems, too. And, as Alyson Cahill wrote: “They can also be used as bribes. Yup, I said it.”


Some things to bring on board with babies are obvious, like plentiful snacks. And if your youngsters are explosion-prone, bring extra clothes (for them and for you).

But here’s a frequently endorsed suggestion: A time-release goody bag. “I would always buy a few very small gifts, toys, etc and wrap each one separately. Then, I’d give one to my little boy every hour or two. Kept him entertained all the way,” recalled Chrissie Hill.

For her two small sons’ gifts, Amy Howard used lots of tape, which, she wrote, “added time to the unwrapping.” (Upon reaching the destination, she’d rewrap the same items but swap recipient sons. Sneaky!)

What should these little gifts be? Puzzles, snacks, animal figures, books, games, crayons, dollar store items, Happy Meal toys, Matchbox cars and magnets are all good suggestions.


Plenty of passengers get peeved at parents when the kids are upset, but here’s a news flash: The parents already know.

If you’re that parent, expressing your own self-awareness can work wonders. On a recent flight, a young couple handed, to my wife and other nearby passengers, a baggy containing apologetic tokens like candies and chocolates. A note read: “Hello! We’re twin baby boys on our first flight! We’d like to apologise in advance if we lose our cool, get scared or our ears hurt. We hope you have a great flight!”

Similarly, when her daughter was a baby, Amy Adams Harding handed out earplugs. “That simple gesture seemed to diffuse the dismay of those unlucky enough to get seated near a lap child.”


Most of your suggestions for surviving toddler transit terror involved supplying distractions. Of course, there are always phones or tablets, but electronics aren’t the only options:

Pipe cleaners: “They can be twisted around fingers, pens and other objects to make instant, unique toys that can be straightened and repeatedly recreated,” wrote Vicki Lee. “Fold under the wire ends to avoid sharp pokes.”

Josolowitz brought Cheerios as well. “My son and I threaded the pipe cleaner through the Cheerios to make a (partially) edible bracelet.”

Ice cubes: A flight attendant suggested this one to Deborah Fels: Put some ice cubes into a couple of airline cups. “Little kids are usually fascinated with the movement, sound and the visual of ice and clear plastic.”

Sticky things: Many of you mentioned the miracle of mild adhesive.

Ruth Martins: “Painter’s tape provides endless entertainment (stick it on your nose, make a bandage, create a road for a car), doesn’t leave residue and is disposable.”

Victoria Wilson: “Band-Aids.” Her two-year-old “spent at least an hour methodically taking each one out of the box, carefully unwrapping it and then moving onto the next. Worth every penny.’”

Lisa Bain: “Post-it notes. Tell your toddler it’s her job to decorate the window, the tray table, the seat back, your face, whatever. Have her scribble something on each note and stick it up.”

Ramona Layne: “Bring a sticker book they’ve never seen before.”

Soapy things: On one international flight, Megan Wyatt walked her almost-two-year-old to the bathroom. “He pumped the foamy soap, squealed with delight as he lathered up, rinsed and walked back. Walk, lather, rinse, walk back, repeat. For 11 hours.”

Beth Martin went with shaving cream. “Hoist him onto the sink and let him finger-paint on the mirror. It worked like a charm and cleaned up easily.”

Speaking of the bathroom: Once Laurel Braun made it there with her hysterically crying son, the engine drone “calmed him right down. It was like magic.” It also makes a superb soundproof booth of last resort.


You, dear readers, seem polarised on the topic of slipping your offspring a sleep-inducing medicine like Benadryl – even when your paediatricians made the recommendation.

Apparently, the concern isn’t the moral principle of drugging your child; it’s that Benadryl sometimes makes kids wired, not tired. “Our 18-month-old ‘lap child’ spent the flight running up and down the aisle of the plane,” remembered Carrie Stewart.


Dozens of you wrote not of pipe cleaners and shaving cream, but of understanding. “Being supportive to parents in their worst moments, when they have no control over their environment, should be the norm, not the exception,” noted Catherine Pearlman.

Indeed, many readers described deriving pleasure from chatting with young seatmates; exploring the pictures in the airline magazine with them; playing peek-a-boo through the seat cracks; or making puppets from the airsickness bags.

Joy goes even further. “Help the parents out. Watch one of the kids while the parent takes the other to the bathroom. Help with the overhead bin.” Less stressed parents, she notes, often leads to happier kids, too.

Dozens of people wrote that they still remember these kindnesses years later. Regina Ottman, in fact, wishes to post a personal ad here. “If you were on that flight from Vietnam/Korea to Newark Liberty International Airport in June 1999 and offered to hold a tired baby so her parents could rest: We have thought of you often over the years, and we wish you every blessing!”

Finally, one last recommendation for harried parents, supplied by Ariane Le Chevallier: “Have one glass of wine or one cocktail. One takes the edge off. Two makes you leave things on the plane.”

By David Pogue © 2018 The New York Times