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Children and air travel

Photo of Dr. Patrick J. McGrath
Dr. Pat

By Patrick J. McGrath, OC, PhD, FRSC


I seem to have been constantly plagued by crying babies and rude children in airports and on airplanes. Parents let children run and shout in the lounges. They whine and cry on the airplane. I scowl and bury myself in a book or pretend to sleep. Why can't parents control their children when they are travelling?

Dr. Pat responds:

Air travel is stressful. Security is more intense than it used to be and most places are crowded. People's normal schedules are disrupted. The seats are crowded together. The services are minimal. Everything is made worse by delays.

Parents with infants or children have a more difficult time than the rest of us. Many infants and children find it difficult to adapt to lounges and airplanes. They may be sleep deprived. Infants and young children cannot understand why there are delays because of security or weather. All they know is that everything familiar is changed.

Apart from providing change tables in washrooms, airports and airlines are often not very family friendly. Some airports have child play areas but most places where children have to wait are not designed for kids. Row upon row of seats in lounges, long hallways and rushing people do not prompt quiet play.

Parents can ease the stress of travelling with good planning. They can bring a small bag of favourite toys or books to entertain the kids. They can try to bring comfort foods (but this is made more difficult by security restrictions). Parents can try to arrange that they and their kids will be as well rested and calm as possible before they begin their journey. Parents can set reasonable expectations for good behaviour by their children.

This is true of non-parents too. You might want to bring a favourite book and some earplugs. Bring a comfort pillow for yourself. Take a deep breath and calm down.

During takeoff and landings, air pressure changes can cause pain in children's ears. Swallowing can equalize the pressure and reduce pain. If children are stuffed up because of a cold or allergies, consult a doctor before flying.

I travel a fair amount and I am impressed that, by far, most kids are pleasant and well behaved. Sure, some cry and a very few are rude. But I have met more rude obnoxious adults when I travel than difficult children.

Consider smiling at the next child you see during your travels. A positive approach will make you feel better and is likely to calm a child more than a scowl.

Patrick J. McGrath OC, PhD, FRSC is a clinical psychologist and a researcher. He is Professor of Psychology, Pediatrics, and Psychiatry at Dalhousie University and Vice President - Research at IWK Health Centre in Halifax. He is also the CEO of the Strongest Families Institute, which provides mental health care to families across Canada.

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Dr. Pat will respond to as many letters as possible with evidence-based answers. We hope that the column will be interesting and helpful for readers; however, Dr. Pat cannot provide health care through the column. Please contact a physician or other registered health care professional to provide health care guidance or advice.