How to Deal With Crying Children on an Airplane

I’ve stirred up some controversy in the past complaining about ill-behaved children on airplanes. But my position is simple. I don’t complain about babies and small children. I complain about parents who are clearing abdicating responsibility for those children.

I’m not talking about sometimes it’s just hard, and parents getting frustrated while trying.

I’ve written about incidents where children run into first class from coach and take electronics away from other passengers (strangers)… and the parents coming up and simply watching the child play somebody else’s video games while saying and doing nothing.

And I’ve written about parents seated in different rows sending their children running between them through the aisles, with the child’s screams getting louder with each trip (I understand the desire to tire the child out, but reeaallly?)

My frustrations are with parents at the very extreme end of poor parenting with children on a plane. Which also means my frustrations are very rare. And mostly limited to flights where by virtue of time of day most passengers are trying to sleep.

So even as someone who can sympathize at times, the way to deal with crying children on an airplane is not to do this:

The boy’s mother, Jessica Bennett, 33, of Minnesota told the FBI that she and her son were seated in row 28, seat B, on February 8 on Delta Flight 721 that originated in Minneapolis, according to an FBI agent’s affidavit filed in U.S. District Court in Atlanta this week.

The boy began crying because of the altitude change, and his mother tried to soothe him, court papers said.

Then Hundley, who was seated next to the mother and son, allegedly told her to “shut that (‘N word’) baby up,” according to court documents.

Hundley then turned around and slapped the 2-year-old in the face with an open hand, which caused the child to scream even louder, the affidavit said.

In this case I think that the man slapping the child was really the ‘baby’ behaving badly. Unsurprisingly, I suppose, this is not the first time he is facing assault charges.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community InsideFlyer.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. Well, obviously this cannot be justified or excused. But if we focus on bad parents, how can a fellow passenger get them to take charge of their misbehaving children? Suggest that you will otherwise tell the child the truth about Santa Claus? Something else?

  2. That’s pretty despicable behavior… I travel extremely frequently in and out of MCO and really have not heard many crying babies or seen running babies on board (and there are a lot of kids). At the gate, before boarding is a different story 🙂

    An interesting detail about the incident described: if the kid was indeed a “2-year” old, should not had been a lab baby, since the reg cut-off for lap babies is 24 months. So he needed his own seat. I know a lot of parents are probably trying to get away from bying an extra ticket, but in the already crowded planes these days, it is not a good practice…

  3. I may not have kids of my own yet, but I’ve been a babysitter for six years, and it’s not always an easy situation even when you don’t have the added stress of handling children in a cramped enviroment for several hours.

    Misbehaving children are one thing. Crying children are another. Even though your post ends with a story about a misbehaving adult, the overall message still implies that you view the two as similar, as though a parent is responsible for making sure a child doesn’t cry. I’d love to hear your experience with that.

  4. Sad behavior yes…. I had a 1 year old sitting behind me from HNL to SFP last weekend. While mommy slept the little one kept bashing our seats through out the 5 hour flight.

  5. Horrific. Wish people like that (with multiple assault charges) were banned from air travel. And I agree with Scott that while a parent can and should do what they can to ensure their child is fed, rested etc. to minimize the chance of him/her crying, ultimately sometimes a baby or young child will cry even with a parent’s best efforts. Fellow passengers should either be prepared to show some compassion and empathy, or if they are incapable of that, charter a private plane.

  6. Flying with young kids is horrible for parents. I take the position that anyone flying with a kid is doing it because they have something going on in their life that requires it. If a kid is screaming and crying, I’m pretty sure the parent is less happy about it than anyone else on the plane. I agree with Gary – if the parents are trying, have some sympathy.

    -been there

  7. @Scottrick – I thought I was making myself absolutely clear of my view on the difference between misbehaving children vs parents who encourage or ignore misbehavior. A parent that’s trying to be considerate of others is all good in the ‘hood.

  8. @bluto “how to deal with them” is to NOT do what that guy did. Which I kinda thought I got to at the end. Sorry if that was confusing!

  9. Absolutely reprehensible. Just a bit worse than my Air China flight where Chinese parents let their kids crap in a plastic bag and placed the bag under my seat! #lasttimeineconomyairchina

  10. Sounds like the kid was in pain because it could not deal with inner ear pain for pressure change, parents should learn how to deal with that. ( be it from congestion to just getting the kid to suck on a nuk nipple to equalize the pressure)

  11. There are lots of things a parent can do. But eventually each individual kid or parent is their own person. And if they are going to misbehave then no one can really stop it on an airplane. I always hoped that my children werent at their worst while we were on an airplane. We are lucky so far. I would be extremely embarrassed if my kids disrupted the other First/Biz Class passengers.

  12. And people complain about pets on board.

    I’d put my pug up against anyone’s kid for good behaviour and friendliness. Pets make flights more relaxing. Kids, not so much.

  13. @Gary – The omission of “not” in the title and the lead-in with stories of bad behavior, when the title talks about crying, could cause confusion. I understood you were trying to separate the two, but there are mixed messages before you get to the story at the end.

  14. Can anyone say “assault” ? Behavior not tolerated on the ground certainly shouldn’t be tolerated in the air.

  15. Some suggestions:

    1) “Excuse me, ma’am, could you please step outside with your child?” (Note: I haven’t had much success with this one.)
    2) Buy both the parent and baby/young child a drink (Note: Admittedly haven’t been taken up on this offer, either)
    3) For bratty kid with ineffective parents, give them the stare or stern voice from hell. Example: Young kid kept kicking my seat when I was trying to sleep. I looked at his mom, and she shrugged her shoulders as in, “Er, boys will be boys.” I whipped around, stared the kid in the eye, and said in a firm, menacing voice, “You will stop kicking my seat RIGHT NOW.” Scared the crap out of the kid, and I enjoyed a kick-free flight from then on. The mom looked at me like I was mean / insane / all-powerful.

  16. Rule in Life; Never touch someone’s kid, or anyone!
    Not listening to above might put you in Jail, where you belong.
    I flew with my autistic son who presented behavior issues. I explained that he is legally permitted to fly and the disturbance was unavoidable but he is a protected class and whining sounds were unpleasant but legal. A seat neighbor put it very simply. noise is unpleasant but legal. Legal rights end at my face, if he touches someone that is a problem.

  17. I believe I’ve read that some airlines are going to have a baby section on the plane. I think that’s a great idea to lump all the crying,running, under seat poop, and legal noise in one area for them all to enjoy for themselves.

  18. Mileageupdate, why NOT give the kid benedryl?
    – It’ll make the kid much more relaxed and, for those with allergies, make them likely much more comfortable on a plane with all the dust / mold / etc.
    – It’ll make everyone around the kid (including the parent!) much more relaxed and comfortable, since the kid will be more likely to be napping/sleeping/less-fidgety.

    It’s not like we’re telling the parent to give the kid an Ambien or some other drug with potentially troublesome side effects. Benedryl is about as harmless as drugs come…

  19. Jack, please remember, Kid sections are OK with me but it would be unwise to assume that there will never be noise. I have flown with almost drunk fellow passsengers in all classes.

  20. Oh, and I LOVE LOVE LOVE the idea of a “noisy” section for the plane. Shouldn’t be baby/kid-specific IMHO, but rather it should be a place where kids/babies/people-acting-like-kids-babies/people-who-want-to-be-social can all set together while the rest of us can catch some shut-eye on long international flights, or even just some peace and quiet on shorter flights.

    Again, this’d be a winning situation for everyone, I think.
    – People who want to chat loudly with their buddies can do so without feeling uncomfortable (e.g., if there’s someone trying to sleep next to them)
    – Parents with unhappy / very happy and loud children will feel less uncomfortable because, well, they ARE in the Loud section, so there!

    Now the only questions remaining, IMHO:
    – How to soundproof sections of planes adequately
    – How to thoughtfully and fairly enforce appropriate seating arrangements (e.g., if your baby is screaming, it’s time for you to move to the Noisy section)
    – How to deal smartly with load balancing (what happens if 2x as many people as you have seats want to sit in the Quiet section?)

  21. Not really concerned about mold, the air seems too dty.
    Benedryl can cause a child to be very grogy and both physically and mentally unstable for the period after waking up.

  22. Okay, then only give ’em Benedryl on really long flights, so it’s totally worn off by landing time. I don’t believe Benedryl has a substantial half-life 😉

  23. @Adam

    Benadryl is a bad idea not just short term, but long term too. Surprised that this needs to be explained.

    You want the child to learn to cope with reality, however painful and unpleasant it is. And as much as it might annoy you personally, it is actually in the best interest of society to have children with coping abilities.

  24. FlyingBear, I definitely understand where you’re coming from on this, but I nonetheless do feel that reasonable people can disagree on the idea.

    Though perhaps taken to an extreme, your idea would suggest we eschew novocaine in pediatric dentistry; after all, the kids are gonna have to learn to cope with cavity filling, however painful and unpleasant it is!

    And frankly, I think there’s plenty of “coping with reality” that’s possible outside of the comparatively rare air trips — all of which have your* child negatively affecting potentially dozens of other people who need to be well-rested upon arrival far more than your young’un needs to be practicing coping / 100% awake upon landing. Car rides, for instance, would present a great coping practice 🙂

    * “your” child in the broad sense… not picking on your kid specifically, FlyngBear!

    P.S. — Inspired by this post, I started a parallel-topic post here on Google+ (so far without any mention of Benedryl 😉

  25. I wish there were adults only flights. I would pay extra. I have been on plenty of flights with children playing electronic games that beep loudly or misbehaving tantrum kids with parents letting them their angels go nuts. I especially like the flights where the parents have 2 seats in one row and i the another row and they seat the kid in the the seat alone as that is a middle seat. Spoiled and disrespectful kids and parents are being more and more common.

  26. Sigh….the American way – just give them a pill or medicine to make them “behave” (ie sleep). No way I am giving my kid anything unless she is medically needing it. Kids can learn to be good travelers if the parents are willing to be good parents. There may be a few rough moments when they are young, but that’s what ear plugs and noise cancelling headhphones are for if you are the unfortunate passenger near the upset kiddo. A little Benadryl won’t fix bad parenting anyway and doesn’t guarantee a peaceful kiddo as it can cause hyperactivity.

  27. Hmm, weren’t Bose headphones invented to block out noise? Last flight DTW-ICN 1st class Delta, there was some poor adult with a crying baby. Babies cry to develop linguistic ability at time. 🙂

  28. I think people aren’t getting the issue here, and there are several. One, when you have an unruly kids who is running all over the plane and the parents don’t do anything, that is one thing, when you have a kid who is scared or hurting (ears need to pop) and the parent is TRYING to console them you applaud the later and scold the other. Giving medications or alcohol isn’t the cure, and their are people who are allergic to benadryl.

  29. Regarding the passenger assaulting the baby – ground personnel and flight crews need to be extra diligent in spotting intoxicated passengers. Passengers should also speak with authorities if they suspect a fellow passenger might be intoxicated.

    @Matt said,

    “Classy. If I was sitting next to him I would have beaten the everloving bejesus out of him.”

    Yeah keyboard warrior sure you would have (rolls eyes)

  30. Though it seems we’ll have to agree to disagree on the Benadryl issue…

    One thing I think we all can agree on is that there are a number of really-bad-parenting examples that give the rest of the parents (and their thoughtful kids!) on a plane a bad name. I’d be curious to know how some of you have dealt with that in the past; I shared an example earlier in the comments about how I (effectively!) gave a stern talking to directly to a misbehaving child. Has anyone else done this? Or tried reasoning with the parents to, well, actually Parent? Or asked a flight attendant to intervene?

    All that aside, I believe the majority of parents on flights are sincerely doing their best for their kids and those around them… and indeed, I believe in the goodness of most kids, too (infants can’t help having their ears hurting and so on!).

  31. I’ve faced a similar problem where a kid kept banging on the window and flipping it open and closed and open and closed loudly while the plane was supposed to be in darkness so people could sleep. I was just across the aisle and told the child (prob around 12 years old) sternly to stop that.

    When her mom came back the kid complained that I scolded her. The mom freaked out and berated me. She said, Don’t you have children yourself? She was sooo scared! I smiled and said, I would never allow my child to do that and then just ignored her. Then the mom complained to the flight attendants who told her to buzz off. Then she kept walking by me and making rude remarks as I watched a movie and ignored her. She then bumped me on purpose. I just said menacingly, If you touch me again, you will regret it.

    She kept talking loudly to all around her about how terrible and rude to kids I was. And what is the world coming to!!

    Frankly I have zero sympathy for many parents I see. I’ve traveled internationally with young kids and worked very hard to keep them under control. I see much more than negligence but gross indifference to the space and comfort of others. I’ve had a kid with autism whack me a few times and his mom just kept repeating He’s autistic! as if that’s all she needed to say.

    P.S. I definitely belong in the pro-Benadryl camp.

  32. Spoiled children and indulgent, clueless parents are a scourge these days. They should be banned, just like smoking has been, as the same logic applies. If you allow your brats to behave badly and ruin my trip, you shouldn’t be allowed on the flight, any more than an unruly drunk is allowed on a flight.

  33. One of my friend’s had experience an opposite effect of Benadryl on their kid and the poor kid ended up bouncing off the aircraft’s wall cuz the medicine got him so hyper… 😀

    Crying kids on plane due to being uncomfortable is a major challenge. I’m extremely thankful to flight attendants that show a lot of sympathy, care and patience. For most flights, I had experienced that except for Thai Airways, not bad bu not good either. Singapore Air and United had been really good to my youngest (1-2 years of age) every time we travel abroad. Once he wondered off to the flight attendants while I was sleeping and they played with him until I woke up. Thankfully he was well behave as well on the plane.

  34. I was once flying AA Manchester uk to ord with my ~18 month old. This is one of those terrible ages where the child is too big to just snuggle or sleep most of the flight, but too small to be kept interested in books or movies for very long. So, I was holding her and kind of walking around in the galley area. She was silent with this movement and change of scenery, but I was scolded by the FA to go back to my seat because there were fa’s on their sleeping break right next to there and that we would be disturbing them by walking around on the other side of their curtain. So, I had to go back to my seat and have a fussing child that no doubt was more disturbing to everyone, including the FA’s trying to sleep 6 rows away. That’s a terrible route bc of the service and ever since bmi quit flying it, then went away, we connect through lhr to avoid it.
    Kids on flights are a tough issue, I definitely think that older kids who should know better are a bigger problem than babies crying.

  35. It’s funny, I read a number of travel blogs, and this topic comes up regularly. Inevitably, there are a flood of comments about how there are so many terrible parents who don’t control their kids and how kids shouldn’t be banned from flights or relegated to back-of-the-bus status. But while I’ve endured plenty of crying babies and running toddlers on flights, the most extreme examples of bad behavior I have witnessed from other passengers have all been other adults. In my experience, parents who refuse to control their children are no more common than adults who refuse to control themselves.

  36. I don’t agree with what that man did, he’s a horrible human being. But come on most of us have been on flights where a baby/child cried and screamed for the entire flight….makes me wanna smack the parent for not being able to console or control the child. I dont believe they should allow children below a certain age to travel by plane or (rather they should have special planes for families traveling with small children if they have to pay more oh well thats the price you pay for having to travel with your offspring)…. It is so frustrating especially for international flights when you’re stuck on a plane forced to listen to a child scream for 9 fricken hours its enough to make you go insane!! Drunkards and drinks don’t belong on planes…neither do screaming babies!!!

  37. people are so touchy about their children….just because you view them as precious angels that can do no wrong doesn’t mean everyone else has to put up with their crap!!! I really feel most people do not have a clue how to raise children…and thats coming from a person who doesn’t have any. All I know is when and if I ever do have kids they will be respectful, they will be quiet when told to be quiet and they will not annoy other people because I will make sure of it. Passive parents do not deserve to have children just saying…

  38. @Adam/@jn, speaking as a parent of a young child (and one that was one not so long ago), I’d be happy if someone my child was bothering would speak to her sternly, because it makes me more credible when I tell her to be quiet / stop kicking the seat, etc. I’m pretty sure I’m as conscious of her bad behavior as the person affected, but it’s a challenge on a long flight to get her to behave, especially when she’s tired/hungry.

    OTOH, I was on a full flight when my older one was <2 yo, and my wife and I ended up sitting on two middle seats in the bulkhead row, separated by a man and his teenage son, who weren't willing to give up their aisle seats to allow us to sit together and manage her. They did halfway through the flight though, since she decided to run back and forth between the two of us every ten minutes or so, or scream her head off if we tried to stop her. It's far more funny in retrospect, but I can tell you I was at my wits' end.

  39. WHY THE FUCK COULDN’T THE MOTHER HAVE GIVEN THE KID CANDIES TO SUCK OR GUM TO POP HIS EARS? I DON’T THINK THE MOTHER IS AS INNOCENT AS SHE TRIES TO PORTAY HERSELF.

    I HAVE WITNESSED TO MANY PARENTS WITH SCREAMING TODDLERS WHO JUST TUNE IT OUT, NOT CARING ABOUT HOW IT’S DRIVING OTHER PEOPLE CRAZY. PARENTS DECADES AGO HAD MORE RESPECT FOR OTHERS; NOW PARENTS ACT LIKE THEY’RE THE CENTRE OF THE UNIVERSE.

    PARENTS TODAY ARE LAZY & STUPID. THEY LET KIDS AS YOUNG AS 2 OR 3 STAY UP TILL 10-11 P.M. (SO THEY CAN SLEEP IN. THE LITTLE ONES DO NOT HAVE AN AFTERNOON NAP. THE KIDS TODAY ARE SLEEP DEPRIVED. THAT IS WHY THEY ARE LITTLE MONSTERS WITH THE PARENTS TOO LAZY/TIRED TO CORRECT THEM. LACK OF SLEEP IS KNOW BE TO A FACTOR IN KIDS HACING ADD OR HADD.

    GOD HELP US AS THESE LITTLE KIDS MAY SOMEDAY BE LEADERS OF OUR COUNTRIES.

  40. What’s worse is that these same parents never teach their kids how to use (or not use) the CAPS LOCK BUTTON, resulting in people posting painfully shouting comments on blogs :(.

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