How To Survive Plane Flights Next To Babies

How To Survive Plane Flights Next To Babies
Babies are very cute. There are worse things to stare at for twelve hours straight.

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.


  • If you see the baby as annoying, you will be annoyed by the baby. If you smile at the baby and are friendly with the parent/s, you will usually have a much more pleasant experience. But, if you think you’re a victim of circumstance (why me, this always happens to me, I hate babies), you will definitely have a bad experience.

    Any time you build walls around yourself, you make yourself unhappy and you invite conflict. People do this based on any wall they can think of. It a shame, but I see more walls today than ever before. There is far too much preciousness and “me me me”. Most of the time, I don’t think people realise they are doing it.

    • Absolutely right. Like Alex’s last point if you go in focus on the upsides you will have a better trip.
      The poor bub is scared and worried in a situation that is new and different. Having somebody being angry and grumpy is much more likely to upset them. A smile and a quiet word can go a long way to settling the baby and making the flight nicer for everybody.

    • Any time you build walls around yourself, you make yourself unhappy and you invite conflict.

      Great statement.

  • On a flight to Brisbane late last year, there was a toddler in the row in front of me. He wasnt used to flying so was having a bit of a hard time….

    Until I started playing Peek-a-Boo between the seats (I had a row to myself). I was watching TV on my iPad with noise cancelling headphones so I could barely hear what was going on, but he had a great time, and the parents were very appreciative as we disembarked.

  • I use to be one of those people that couldn’t stand babies or kids on any flight. But then i had my own and went to Hong Kong when he was 9 months. We consider ourselves to be very pro active parents and we were more stressed about the flight with a baby rather than travelling with him. Turned out he was great to fly with.
    Anywho, ever since then, i have been very sympathetic with people travelling with children, especially on a long haul with only the one parent. I now understand the stress and have no issue sitting next to one, as long as i haven’t forgotten my headphones!

    • It sounds like you guys are good parents, which makes all the difference. It’s the toddlers who run around, kick the seats, and yell/scream without their parents doing anything (“mum? Mum? MUM? MUM!!!!” – with no response) that are frustrating.

  • We’ll be taking our son on a long haul in September. He will be 22 months at that point. Not looking forward to it but it’s a necessity as my wife’s sister has a heart condition and could pass away any time, plus her own grandfather is not getting any younger. We need to take him to meet them this year or possibly they will never meet.

    He’s actually already flown on domestic flights twice and was fine with it but there’s a big difference between a short 1 hour flight and a 12 hour flight. Hope he copes well and the people around us are sympathetic

  • You’re lucky that the mum did her best to occupy and distract her child. The parent(s) are crucial to determining the experience for everyone else.

    On the whole, my experiences are similar. With parents managing to admirably control unwell or unruly children. And credit to them for penalising their in-flight relaxation for the benefit of other passengers.

    This isn’t always the case, and I still vividly remember a flight from JFK to SIN. The kid was (best guess) ADHD and chattered at a high volume throughout the flight. And I mean the whole flight. I don’t think there was more than 15 minutes of silence. And rather than attempt to distract or engage their child, the parents just plonked an iPad in front of him and then studiously ignored (or so it seemed) him throughout.

    I struggle to sleep well on planes anyway, but on this flight it was absolutely impossible. Towards the end, the father (clearly frustrated) tried to “shush” the child. Now I’m not a parent and not kid-savvy but even I know that strategy is going to be completely useless on a restless 4 year old. Needless to say it was. In the words of Jeff Albertson: “worst … flight … ever”.

    P.S: Noise-cancelling headphones don’t actually work that well for speech/crying.

    • Drugging children isn’t the solution. Firstly, you can’t give this medication to kids under 2. Secondly, expecting parents to drug their child/ren for a 30 hour flight is selfish and unreasonable.

  • I think the worst flight experience I ever had was a relatively short one. There was a mum travelling with a baby and a two year old. The two year old was seated across the aisle from his mum, and I was next to him. His mum had her hands literally full with the baby on her lap, and the baby wasn’t coping with the flight. At one point the baby projectile vomited all over the aisle, and the flight attendants really struggled with the cleanup.

    So I pulled out my DS and helped keep the little guy entertained until we arrived.

    Travelling with young kids is hard. Most adults struggle with long haul flights but they (usually) have the emotional maturity to keep their behavior under control. Even the best behaved children have their limits.

    Also, remember that babies under one can’t de-pressurise their ears without assistance (they need to be sucking on something), and the discomfort and confusion from that can be enough to make a baby scream. They don’t have any other way of telling their mum that it hurts.

  • Every plane has that special sealed baby transport compartment downstairs… next to the dogs and cats and landing gear….Pros: 1. They’re close to their luggage if they need anything. 2. It’s quiet, no pesky food service keeping them awake. 3. All kiddies just love animals. Con: It may cost more than an economy seat on some routes.

  • I apologies to anyone who may be seated next to or near my toddler on our upcoming plane trip. I would rather have a baby near me as they will at least sleep at some point, than a feral little toddler like my own who will make it his mission to piss off anyone and anything on the aeroplane.

    For those wondering my flight is next Tuesday from Perth to Melbourne just in case you are on the same flight.

      • Virgin

        Forgot to say as well you cannot say no to the youngest he goes full on Hulk mode and lashes out. For some reason he has a heap of pent up aggression.

  • Was lucky enough to be bumped up from premium economy to business class. Seat next to mine was occupied by a toddler.

    Good thing I’d discovered how to make noise cancelling headphones even more noise cancelling – foam ear plugs and crank up the volume.

  • Noice cancelling headphones and prescription medication. That or use one of those little pillows to… err… no that would be going too far

  • By the end of the flight I was pretty tired, but she looked utterly shattered.
    Some kids have ADD or ADHD and other issues which makes it really hard for them to sit down in one spot and remain focused for a long period of time. The parents might know the issues with their child but obviously arent going to disclose it to those around them to seek sympathy. I know I wouldnt.

    Some children are also just naturally active (I’ve normally seen this in boys) and are hard to get to sit down or sit still for extended periods of time. For this parents require a bit of sympathy and understanding. Its mentally and sometimes physically exhausting.

  • My Bose QC15’s do the trick very very nicely. Was on a flight recently with a very unsettled baby. Mother was doing her best and no-one was upset with her or the baby, but I was the only one with decent headphones within sight and man I was happy about it! My friend on the flight put on a brave face but he wished he had my headphones haha!

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