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Flying with Baby

We're not sure which is more stressful: being the passenger who first realizes he will be seated next to someone else's crying baby, or being that baby's parent. Fortunately for all involved, however, many young babies actually do travel well in flight; quite often it tends to be the crawlers and toddlers who get antsy and upset when confined, but that's a different book altogether.

High-Altitude Crying

Babies of all ages do cry for various reasons, so in the space constraints of aircraft, try to be resourceful when trying to calm your crying child. As you do, take comfort in knowing that the drone of the engines usually limits how far a crying baby can be heard. Keeping your own cool can go a long way when you're trying to soothe your baby and have to remain seated.

Check the usual suspects and respond accordingly: Is your baby hungry, wet or dirty, cold or warm, bored? If it's bright, try closing the window shade; if your baby wants a view, show her the one outside the window or in the pages of the airline's magazine.

If all else fails, try not to let a few dirty looks bother you and be assured that most people sympathize with the parents of a crying infant. After all, everyone was a baby once, many have had to try to quiet one in a public place at some time in their past, you're unlikely to have to face any of these people ever again and, lastly, they'll get over it.

The Ears Have It

Before we discuss ear pain on airplanes, let us first offer you the reassurance that a great many babies never show the slightest signs of discomfort. Until you know that your own child (and you) will be spared, the thought of a baby screaming because of ear pain is easily and understandably one of the most dreaded aspects of air travel. And from firsthand experience, we can tell you it tends to be all the more disconcerting when that baby happens to be your own.

Any of you who have flown before know that ears can be quite sensitive to changes in pressure. Switching to pediatrician-mode for a moment, this is because the outer ear is separated from the middle ear by a thin membrane called the tympanic membrane, or ear drum. Experiencing a difference in pressure across this membrane causes a sensation that as many as 1 in 3 passengers (children more so than adults) experience as temporary muffled hearing, discomfort, or even pain. Unfortunately, having a stuffy nose or a head cold can increase a child's chances of ear problems.

For an adult, chewing gum or yawning is often all that is needed for the middle-ear pressure to equilibrate return to normal and make plugged-up ears "pop." Perhaps part of the reason that babies tend to complain more about their ears than adults is because chewing gum is simply not an option and we have yet to meet an infant who can yawn on command.

If your baby has a cold or ear infection, discuss with your pediatrician whether you should give him an infant pain reliever. Unfortunately, decongestants have not been proven to help, and in fact are not recommended for use in infants. For children with significant ear discomfort associated with a cold and/or ear infection, it may simply be best, if possible, to postpone flying. If your travel plans are not flexible enough to cancel because of a cold, just be aware of your increased odds of dealing with ear pain when you do hop aboard.

Out of Earshot

Airplane cabin noise levels can range anywhere from 60 to as high as 100 decibels, and tend to be louder during takeoff. Using cotton balls or small earplugs may help to decrease the decibel level your baby is exposed to, and as a result make it easier for her to sleep or relax.

Sucking Away One's Sorrows

Once on board, it's useful to know that there is a practical and realistic alternative to the traditional gum-chewing approach(which, for obvious reasons, is absolutely contraindicated at this age regardless of your level of desperation) that works very well for babies when it comes to relieving ear pressure. That alternative is sucking.

Pediatricians, flight attendants, and seasoned parents alike commonly suggest offering a bottle, breast, or pacifier during the times when the pressure changes in the cabin are likely to be greatest-during takeoff and initial descent. You'll notice we said initial descent, not landing. That's because the pressure change is typically most noticeable as much as a half hour or more before landing, depending on a flight's cruising altitude. The higher up you are, the earlier in the flight the descent usually starts.

If you generally don't tend to notice your own ears popping and the captain doesn't announce plans for the initial descent, you can always ask a flight attendant to let you know when it would be a good idea to try to get the sucking started. If sucking doesn't cut it and your baby seems to be bothered, stay calm and try rubbing his ears and singing a soothing song. Even if you find that nothing short of reaching solid ground (and normal air pressure) works to calm him down, remind yourself that you've done everything you can, and that most babies who have difficulty with ear pain on airplanes tend to outgrow it.

For more information:

  • Learn more about how to keep children safe when flying by visiting this resource from the FAA.
  • Click here to read about how to find a pediatrician while traveling.
Last Updated
Heading Home With Your Newborn, 2nd Edition (Copyright © 2010 American Academy of Pediatrics)
The information contained on this Web site should not be used as a substitute for the medical care and advice of your pediatrician. There may be variations in treatment that your pediatrician may recommend based on individual facts and circumstances.
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