Is this rude? Planes, babies and headphones

Most airlines have a rule: if you’re listening to electronics, you have to wear earphones. This makes sense—you don’t want to kid headphonesdisturb other passengers with your music or movies.

There is another rule for airlines, this one unspoken: do whatever you have to do to keep children from screaming. Food, drinks, books, toys, movies….whatever it takes! The reason is the same: you don’t want to disturb other passengers with crying babies.

Usually these rules work together just fine. I’ve seen kids as young as two with earphones on, watching movies on iPads, eating pretzels, having a great time. But occasionally a child is old enough to be entertained by a movie, but too young to keep headphones on. This happened on one of my recent flights. I was working on a presentation when I thought I heard some music. Assuming it came from a neighbor with headphones and a loud movie, I ignored it for a while. After several minutes, though, I started looking around and saw a family sitting a few rows behind me with a young-ish child (maybe a year and a half?) watching a movie with no headphones.

About a minute later a flight attendant passed by, then backtracked to their row to tell them to turn the sound off. He wasn’t super polite about it—said that he could hear it from five rows up, and there is a rule about headphones. The mother apologized, and immediately turned the sound down. I couldn’t hear it any sound at this point, but the flight attendant continued to give the mother grief until she just turned the sound completely off. The baby immediately started crying. The flight attendant said the child could have sound, but only if he put headphones on. The mother explained that he wouldn’t keep them on. The flight attendant reiterated the sound policy, then walked off.

I kept an eye on the family for the remaining hour of our flight. The baby cried about half the time, with the parents frantically offering various toys, books, and snacks to keep the wailing to a minimum.

Here’s the thing. While I get that there is a policy against sound without headphones, I feel like a crying baby disturbs people way more than intermittent noise from a kid show. To be fair, I am a mother with a toddler not much older than the child from the plane so it’s definitely possible I’m biased. But there is not much worse than being on a plane with a screaming child, and if it takes an episode of Mickey Mouse with a little bit of sound then it’s okay with me. People can’t control much of the noise on a plane—other passengers will talk (sometimes loudly), you can often hear the sounds from the movie your seatmate is watching, someone will fall asleep and snore. The only way to ensure that you are not disturbed by other people is to wear your own headphones, which I recommend.

I also have to say, as a mother and as a passenger, I was bothered by how unapologetic the flight attendant seemed.

Readers, what do you think? Is it more important to enforce the no-sound rule or to keep a baby from crying?

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  1. […] Is This Rude?  Babies, Planes & Headphones via Road Warriorette: Last week’s post from another BoardingArea blogger asks whether you’d rather put up with a little noise from a toddler watching an iPad without earphones or that same toddler having a tantrum because he couldn’t watch said device without earphones. […]

Comments

  1. Tough one. The reality is that the window of time where a child needs the sound but fights wearing the earphones is so small, if it even happens at all. When my daughter was that young (18 months), she was happy to watch with no sound. She wouldn’t watch that long anyway, so the iPad wasn’t much of a help for more than a few minutes. A few months later when we first tried earphones and her attention span improved, it was no problem and the iPad + earphones combination solved all our travel woes.

    Parents should really practice with earphones in advance of that first flight so that this dilemma doesn’t present itself. But I’d be totally ok with really low sound from a neighbor on a flight if it meant it kept a toddler from screaming. The problem is that people would abuse this, so I suppose it is easier for flight attendants to enforce a bright line rule.

  2. As long as the parent try to calm the kid down is ok by me. Some parents just ignore their kids while the kids kick the back of the seat in front or whatever.
    One time I told the parent to tell their kid not to kick my seat and the parent said “they’re just kids, I can’t control them.”. I wanted to strangle the kid and the pareant too.

  3. This is a hard one. My son has been flying since he was 8 months old. He is 10 now. During his first and second year were our worst for flying. We also didn’t have access to any electronics until he was 3 when he flew with portable DVD player.

    We now fly with ipads and headphones but I am constantly amazed at the amount of times I have flown with both families and couples that were playing their ipads or laptops without earphones. Usually it is a couple that wants to watch a movie together (we do that also but carry a splitter) or kids sharing an ipad.

    I find it totally distacting and frustrating on a flight if someone has the sound on their laptop or ipad. I can usually hear it even with my headphones on.

    While I agree that the low sound of an ipad is probably better than a screaming child it is the parents responsibility to keep their children occupied. I know at that age it is hard to do!!

    I remember my son NOT wanting to wear his headphones at 3 but he knew he could not use the sound unless he had them on. He would have to do something else to pass the time or watch without sound.

    So I guess I am siding more with the flight attendants enforcing the rule!

  4. As a parent of a toddler almost 2, I remember a few flights between the ages of 10 months to 1.5 years where the only way to keep our son quiet was to let him watch a Baby Einstein video on the ipad with a little sound (not terribly loud) and no headphones. Fortunately nobody on the plane seemed to mind but I can see how the old me with no kids would have been upset. If you’re a parent, you understand. If not, you want the cabin as quiet as possible. Kudos to the parents for trying different things to distract their baby. You certainly can’t fault any parent who tries to keep their child quiet, but in the end, it’s really up to the baby whether or not they want to keep quiet. We would often apologize to the people on the plane and 99% of the time people were pleasant. We did bring with us a few packs of disposable ear plugs and a few plastic bags with some wrapped candy and a little note from our son’s point of view, saying “I’m sorry if I prevent you from relaxing on this flight. I’m not used to flying yet. I am usually as sweet as this candy.”

  5. If the Mom has noticed about the loud noise at the beginning, she should have lower the noise and none of these will happened later.

  6. I actually support the FA on this. Would I rather listen to a video than a crying baby? Definitely, but if the rule isn’t enforced, others will think it’s fine when it’s not a special case like this. Most people fly so infrequently that seeing something once on a flight can signal “this is the new etiquette for what’s okay”.

  7. I would definitely rather hear a little noise from a show than a crying baby. Plus, kudos to them for at least trying to keep their baby from crying – I was on a flight once where the mom let her child (2 year old maybe) scream for the entire 2 hours, even getting up and going to the bathroom and leaving it to scream while she was gone!

  8. I would favor allowing no headphones with low volume. However, it sounds like the parents (both, not just mother) were less than attentive to their child. An 18 month old has no social awareness, so it is the parents’ responsibility to ensure that the volume is low enough not to disturb surrounding passengers. We were fortunate that our daughter was enthralled at watching cartoons on Mama’s Ipad at 2 1/2, and didn’t mind having to wear headphones in the slightest. It made flights much more pleasant for everyone.

  9. This brings up a related question which perhaps can be the topic of another blog post:

    Is it better for the BABY not to travel by plane?

    We all love to travel so we gloss over the physical toll of travel: the stress, dehydration, improper sleep cycle, RADIATION EXPOSURE in flight, etc etc…

    Would it be best for the baby if the parents spared the baby from all of this?

    While the parents might want to go on vacation with the baby, the baby doesn’t care…a Caribbean beach or sandbox, same to the baby.

    Sure Grandma wants to see the baby…then Grandma should travel. The baby doesn’t know Grandma from neighborhood cat lady…

    A long time ago babies didn’t fly because very few people did….and not so long ago babies didn’t fly because of the cost.

    It just seems to me that society has never addressed the issue that just because babies CAN fly doesn’t mean they SHOULD fly…

  10. @Conway,

    This is the most idiotic comment that I’ve ever seen on this topic, and I assume you are not a parent yourself. And if you are, you’d keep your kids in your basement while on vacation.

  11. I’m a former FA, and my son had his first flight at 6 months. Now I’m traveling with my granddaughter 18 months. Why would a parent fly with a baby and have only one option to entertain baby, and it’s knowingly one that might irritate other passengers? My son was before ipads, 40 pound strollers, car seats for the aircraft, and we took small toys, games, and BOOKs. Remember those? It also takes the attention of the parent to keep baby happy during flight. Babies aren’t made to be plopped down in front of the TV or a video and be able to concentrate on a flight where so many new things, smells, people and sounds will distract them. If you must have an ipad to keep your child from crying constantly on a flight, you need to rethink things. The flight attendant has my vote.

  12. I don’t want to get on a too high of a horse here, but we didn’t let our kid watch videos until well after the age of 2, even while flying, which we did a lot of. I agree with the last poster, that it really should be up to the parents to come up with other ways to entertain their kids. That’s what we did when we flew with ours – books, games, stuffies, funny noises. Personally, it drives me a nuts when parents don’t use earphones. The sound from devices (whether it’s from a show or a game just cuts through all the white noise a plane generates). Talking to them (reading, making noises, etc. does not). Plus, all that interaction is a lot better for the kids than videos anyway. http://content.time.com/time/health/article/0,8599,1650352,00.html

  13. I’ve seen this on planes here, but WAAAAYY worse: kids playing games on their device with the sound on. It’s got to be the most irritating sound on the planet if you are not the operator of said game (and often even if you are), and no-one’s told them to turn it down. I wish that FA had been on those flights I’ve taken.

  14. I am a mother of a 6 year old and am also 7 months pregnant with my second child. I am also a frequent business traveler. I agree with @Conway 100%. I personally do not think children necessarily need all of the airline travel they sometimes have to endure. My son took his first flight at 26 months of age and I hated it – Hauling the car seat onto the plane, making sure we had enough entertainment for the 1.5 hour flight, etc. He did fine, but it was the pits for us. There is no way in h*ll I would have flown with him any younger than that. Why, when I can travel with my husband alone and let my son enjoy trips later on that he will actually remember!! We flew to Orlando a few weeks ago and he was awesome. At 6 years old he was polite to the flight attendants, was thrilled with take off and landing, knew better than to kick the seat (he in fact complained about the kid behind him kicking his seat) and was perfectly behaved watching movies the entire flight. It was a fun experience for all of us!!

    The iPad with sound turned low wouldn’t have annoyed me at all.

  15. Thank you Jayne!!! My thought exactly – what about a … BOOK? Paper and crayons? Stickers? I have 2 kids, 20 and 17, and OMG, believe it or not, we travelled by plane BEFORE THERE WERE IPADS!!! How could we possibly have kept our kids from screaming the whole flight? HOW?

    Well, we made sure they were rested before we flew. We made sure they were not hungry. We brought a combination of old favorite books and new ones. Paper and crayons. We read to them. We talked to them.

    Don’t expect your electronics to babysit your kids!

  16. When my kids wouldn’t wear headphones they just watched stuff with no sound. But they also got used to headphones pretty early, before 2 I would say. I agree that if they are too young to wear headphones the parents should have had other options for them!

  17. It is definitely a fine line, but I would rather hear the video than the child screaming (and the parents’ attempts to calm the child). On the other hand, if you let one person do it, what about the next. The frustrating part is that I’ve often heard the sound from someone a few rows away when they do have headphones on. They are obeying that rule, but are possibly disturbing more people than someone with the sound low without headphones.

    I’ll be flying across the country with DD (3 years old) in a couple of weeks to visit family. We’ve been talking about how she is expected to behave on the plane and I’ve been accumulating many ways to entertain her on the plane. I’ll have the iPad with a few shows & apps (some new ones), a dvd player with dvds, books, coloring and other activities, small puzzles that will work on the tray table, new little (and quiet) toys and a few other things. I’m probably taking too much stuff, but at 35,000 feet I want as many options as possible. I’ll never forget a flight years ago where a lady let her daughters bring (and use) a whistle as a toy on a plane (the flight attendant put a stop to it quickly) or where a lady had a bag of magazines and makeup, but no toys for her 2 year old–she just let him throw the pillow (in first class) until the flight attendant stopped her. The same lady got mad when the flight attendant repeatedly told her that her son must remain seated for landing.

    As for the person who says babies shouldn’t fly…I’ve been on flights with plenty of babies that aren’t flying for vacation–they’re moving (often military families), visiting family or at times going for medical treatment. There is absolutely nothing wrong with a baby flying!

  18. I just got off a flight with my two year old and one year old by myself. Our departing flight was blissful as the plane wasn’t full so there wasn’t as much for my one year old to watch.

    This flight was horrid. My two year old did really well but my one year old was a mess. I was really lucky and everyone on the plane was fantastic and smiling instead of glaring at me. My two year old was content to read and play iPad games but everything I tried with my one year old was immediately thrown on the floor. It made me not want to fly alone with the two of them for a few more years because I couldn’t get up with my one year old and leave my two year old so I was stuck.

    To those who were talking about babies maybe not flying, both of my kids had their first flights at 6 weeks and have been flying tons since. My two year old is almost always polite to flight attendants and other passengers. He is a great little traveller. My one year old is usually great but had an off day considering she didn’t sleep well last night (which also caused me to be less than happy about the situation)

    Moral of the story, a baby crying is the worst. Not only is it hard on other passengers but it’s 100 times worse for the parents. I may have been in tears a few times during the flight because I just couldn’t get anything to work…

  19. This is why small children whose parents can/will not control them should be stowed in the overhead bin or put in the baggage hold in a carrier.

    This is especially annoying for long haul intercontinental business travelers when parents insist on bringing their spoiled brats up front. But that seems to be more of a problem with American parents than European/Asian parents.

  20. Those of you saying never travel with tykes must have luxury of alive and week relatives nearby to park them with. Some of us do not. The choice becomes then travel with them, or never leave home. We do our best.

  21. I had this situation a few weeks ago on a transatlantic in Biz. i had sympathy for the mother but the sounds were just too annoying so I had to ask the FA to do something. The FA was reluctant but did. The child cried for a moment (i felt bad) but she calked down and was fine with books etc for rest of flight. I think the FA did the right thing, and thank you to her. No head phone on planes is becoming too common.

  22. 1. I FULLY AGREE with Conway, and his comment that “It just seems to me that society has never addressed the issue that just because babies CAN fly [on commercial airlines] doesn’t mean they SHOULD fly.” His/ her comment is NOT idiotic at all. Or is someone gonna say that MY comment is idiotic too???

    2. Why should other passengers BE SUBJECTED to the noise of crying babies because parents DO NOT KNOW HOW to deal with the crying and put it to a stop???

    3. My spouse and I have raised FIVE children, we have lived in TEN countries, travelled to many more, and NOT ONCE has another passenger complained of our children crying. For one, we KNEW how to deal with the crying even BEFORE IT STARTED.

  23. When I travel with my kids I have a backpack full of items (food, new toys, books) to keep them occupied at all times. I don’t understand parents who can’t do this; for goodness sakes something as simple as a box of band aids to unwrap keeps a young baby occupied for awhile! Several times I have received compliments on how well behaved my kids were while flying, all due to my “magic backpack of fun”.

  24. I have a 22 month old and we just traveled to New York from MN, about a 2&1/2 hour flight. My daughter LOVES her iPad. It keeps her still, happy, and entertained! I never thought about headphones for her. But this flight we had 1 couple sit infront of us that tried to sleep the entire flight. They complained the whole entire flight to us and the flight attendants about her iPad and her not having headphones, her toys making too much noise, and just HER babbling… Needless to say, my husband had a few choice words to say to the couple and I even let her kick the back of their seats and didn’t tell her to stop! (hahaha!) Kids will be kids!(; But com’on! Low iPad volume, kids toy, and a kid happily talking is more annoying than a SCREAMING toddler? I think not. People should really think twice about complaining about children. When you complain and make us stop what is making the child happy, makes the child upset, which is way worse for both of us!
    So just out your headphones in and drain out the noise, like every other person on the goddamn plane!!!!

  25. Alicia, you sound like the kind of parent that should not be allowed on a plane. I am currently booking flights to New Zealand and am checking headphones policies with airlines in advance so that I have some comeback should I be unfortunate enough to sit in front of you. A flight may cost up to £1200, the other flyers may have work, funerals, all manner of things to deal with at the other end, some may be on a schedule where they are required to sleep. Why should they have to put in ear buds? This is the point: you want electronic noise, you pipe it into your ears. You’re too young? Then do something quietly. Your children are going to grow thinking up the world revolves around them. Good luck with that.

  26. Thanks for the post!!! I recently purchased Puro Sound kids headphones online, and they are wonderful!! They are limited to the safe 85 dB limit you mentioned, and when I tried them out, they sound louder than you expect. I think partly because they block out a lot of background noise. Thanks.

  27. Alicia: you are an embarrasment to other parents who actually give a thought to the feelings of others. Did it ever occur to you that the electronic sound of others may be very uncomfortable for others, say, for people with hearing aids, people with migraines, people on the spectrum? I’m guessing you didn’t give it any thought. Why on earth should you be bothered to buy child headphones when others should just suck it up? It’s all about you.

  28. I have two kids. I get it.

    I just got off of a 5hr 50min flight where two boys were sharing a pad, blaring the entire time… loud enough that I could hear the sound over the movie I was watching on earbud headphones. These boys were around 5 and 7 years old. Splitters are cheap. Headphones are not expensive.

    On a flight several months ago, I sat near a 5-ish boy who was playing a computer game, loud/no headphones.

    These are not borderline cases. The FAs should have intervened and enforced a “headphones or sound off policy.” For littler kids, I can see the dilemma, but I am with the other posters who said “if they are too young to wear headphones, entertain them in other ways.” It is your job as a parent to ensure that your kids don’t needlessly bother others. Blaring audio is not cool on any form of public transportation.

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