There are any number of guides to travelling with your own baby on long-haul flights, but what about when you're seated next to somebody else's bub? Here's how I maintained sanity on a recent Sydney to London flight.
Image: Upsilon Andromedae
I don't much enjoy the experience of plane travel at the best of times, because even in better class seats, it's still the case that flying Sydney to London is a long, uncomfortable trek filled with crappy movies and generally suspect airline food.
I tend to try to preselect my seat when available, because I've got a strong preference when it comes to seating, but for a recent flight due to a connecting flight and airline change, I couldn't do so online, so had to grab the best available seat when checking in.
That's when I discovered that I was sat at the front of the plane (hurrah!) but in the bulkhead aisle seat. That's most definitely not my preference, partly as I like to stow my inflight entertainment and work gadgets under the seat in front of me, but also because that's where the baby cots are stored.
The plane was full, and my status didn't mean that the airline would make any particular changes, so I boarded the flight hoping that whoever had the middle seat wasn't travelling with kids.
You can see where this is going, right? I'd boarded and sat down, and minutes later, a mum with a seven month old little baby girl turned up. So here's what I did.
Rearrange your flight plans
I'd planned to do some serious editing on my second novel in-flight, something that was well overdue. The presence of a tiny squawking infant put a serious dent in those plans, because a baby's cries are amongst the best concentration shatterers known to mankind. That's a biological plus, because otherwise as a species we'd have been eaten by the saber-tooth tigers thousands of years ago while ignoring our young.
So instead I decided to spend a bit more time catching up on crappy Hollywood movies inflight to pass the time, because when you're watching something mindless, it matters a lot less if there's crying or a need to move to accommodate an emergency nappy change.
Quick six-month-old movie reviews: Imitation Game: Excellent, albeit a historical mess. TMNT: Abhorrently stupid, but my kids might like it. Equalizer: I miss Edward Woodward so very, very much.
Create your own distraction activities
Book editing was out, and I could only watch movies for so long. So instead I got creative and did a little new creative writing, coming up with this decidedly strange short story instead. Writing may not be your thing, but if you do find yourself annoyed with the infant next to you for a stretch of time, doing something on the small-scale productive side can take that edge off for you, and you get that added psychological buzz of getting something, no matter how minor, completed.
Be thankful for attentive parents
This was far from the worst flight I've had where kids were involved. Indeed, babies are perhaps the easiest fellow travellers to be near, because while they cry and wriggle, that's pretty much the sum of their irritating behaviour. I've been on flights with slightly older kids that have thumped seat backs, shouted incessantly in the middle of the "night" cycle, and even thrown food, with parents who were seemingly unable or unwilling to control their offspring. Or possibly drunk.
The mum in question was brilliant, and having travelled with my own kids, albeit not at that early an age, I had nothing but admiration for her energy in dealing with everything her child needed. By the end of the flight I was pretty tired, but she looked utterly shattered.
It wasn't the case this time, but I would strongly argue that inflight probably isn't the time to be trying out that experimental abandonment cry therapy on your baby, because that's the one time that you should pretty much just attend to a baby as needed. Save that for at home if it's your thing, but a plane is not your home.
Adopt Wheaton's Law
Wheaton's Law, in case you're not aware of it is essentially simple.
Don't be a dick.
This is undeniably true for being stuck inflight next to a baby, because the very last thing a stressed parent needs is you throwing "advice" or complaints their way. I've been on flights where people have been stupid enough to try to "tell" parents that their baby is crying. Chances are that they know, and as long as they're making a reasonable effort to deal with their child, you've got little to complain about. Cabin staff have an entire plane to deal with, and being a dick about being sat next to a baby is going to be a fast route to being largely ignored when you do have an actual complaint to make.
Make your own noise cancelling headphones
The noise of babies can be quite shrill, and my own noise cancelling headphones had died the death just prior to packing for this particular flight. Outside of business and first class, where you're not going to be quite so close to a baby anyway, the headphones that airlines provide are truly rubbish at noise isolation, but by chance I had a pair of decent earbuds lurking in the bottom of my travel bag. They weren't great headphones by any stretch of the imagination, but along with the two-prong flight audio adapter that always travels with me, they made a decent pair of noise isolating headphones. Not quite the same thing as active cancellation, but enough to mute the worst of the cries and allow me to grab a few moments of sleep with them installed within my ears.
Accept the upsides
Image: Liz Mc
There's a simple distinct upside to having a baby next to you, and it's to do with cabin service. Airline staff tend to take extra care with babies inflight, which means that they'll check if everything is OK with mum or dad far more frequently than with other passengers. If you've adopted Wheaton's Law as per above, then cabin staff are more likely to be responsive to your own requests, plus they're already right there checking on the baby, so it's relatively easy to request an additional drink or snack if you need it.
Babies are seriously cute, and despite improvements in planes over the years, inflight cabins are not. There were plenty of times during the long flight when I could enjoy the sight of a giggling, wriggling infant in the cot to my side with absolutely none of the responsibility of caring for said infant. It's like free, cute entertainment.
It's also a very nice way to destress during a long flight, and that's probably the single best bit of advice I can give. Parents struggle with kids on long flights, and it's not fun for them in any real way. Adding your own stress by bitching and moaning doesn't add anything constructive and simply raises your blood pressure for no real gain. Instead, take on the positives of having tiny wriggling toes peeking up over an airline cot, and relax in order to enjoy your flight.