Pros Weigh In

The Most Debated Etiquette Questions About Traveling With Kids, Answered

Here’s how to handle everything from interacting with nosy passengers to soothing a tantrum’ing toddler.

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The etiquette for flying with kids has been a hot topic in the news lately: A man threw a tantrum about a crying baby on a plane. A pro athlete tweeted about an airline that asked his pregnant wife to clean up after their toddler. And most recently, a woman changed her baby’s diaper on the plane tray table.

These stories have sparked conversation among parents: What should you do in these situations and others when traveling with kids on a plane?

Scary Mommy talked to a flight attendant and two etiquette experts to get their advice on the most common — and debated — etiquette questions when flying with kids.

Question 1: What should you do if your baby won’t stop crying or your kid has a tantrum on the plane?

We’ve been there: Your child is totally fine before you board the plane, but as soon as you’re mid-air, they decide to have a major meltdown and are inconsolable.

“Whether it’s crying due to pressure in a baby’s ears or a toddler’s desire to walk the aisles during food service, sometimes we just have to wait the crying out,” says parenting etiquette expert Evie Granville, co-author of Modern Manners for Moms & Dads: Practical Parenting Solutions for Sticky Social Situations.

You can try to soothe your child and acknowledge what’s bothering them (example sentence: “I know you wish you could get up and walk around”). “Not only will these comforting measures help your child calm down, they will also demonstrate to other passengers that you’re really trying,” she says.

Since there is no exit strategy on a plane, sometimes you may need to handle the tantrum differently than you would at home. “It's OK as a parent to say, ‘I'm going to give my child a distraction or a snack to try to soothe them that I might not necessarily give them if I were home,’” says Jean G., a flight attendant for more than 37 years and a mom of two kids in their 20s.

The reality is that kids haven't learned all of the same social expectations that adults have and at times are going to misbehave, explains Daniel Post Senning, author for the Emily Post Institute and dad of three young kids. “Staying calm is the best thing that you can do… and also helps you stay present.” Easier said, possibly, than done.

Question 2: Who should clean up kids’ messes: parents or the cleaning crew?

Whether your kid accidentally (or even purposely, SIGH) spills their apple juice or bag of Goldfish everywhere, who is responsible for cleaning that up?

Post Senning says to think of it like you’re a guest, and the members of the flight crew are your hosts: “Good guests try to minimize their impact and make an effort to treat the space that they're being hosted in as well as possible. Good hosting involves…being accepting of accidents or mishaps and doing your best to not be judgmental or critical.”

Jean’s rule of thumb is to try to clean up as you would want your space cleaned if someone came to your house. “The expectation isn't that you leave it exactly as it was, but that you're considerate of the people who are coming behind you.”

She adds that it also teaches kids a valuable lesson about straightening up after themselves.

Question 3: What should you do if you need to change a diaper / use the restroom when the seatbelt sign is on?

It is a parenting truth universally acknowledged that babies and toddlers always have a blowout or kids need to use the bathroom right after you leave the house. The traveling equivalent is right after the seatbelt sign goes on.

“As someone who’s had to do a diaper change in terrible turbulence and paid the price, it truly is best to avoid getting up when that seatbelt sign is on,” Granville shares. If you can’t avoid it, check with a flight attendant.

“It's not hygienic to change a child on a seat that someone else is going to put their hands and body on,” Jean says. The basic etiquette that applies to adults applies here too, wait until you can safely get to a bathroom.

As for kids who are out of diapers, she recommends trying to get them to use the bathroom before the last 20 or 30 minutes of the flight before the seat belt sign goes on.

Question 4: What should other passengers do if kids are misbehaving on their flight?

Let’s face it: when your kid is being disruptive in public, a stranger trying to discipline your child can get on your last nerve.

Instead of talking to the kids, Granville recommends passengers speak directly to the parent. “They can frame their concern with language that asks for a parent’s help: ‘Would you mind helping me keep your child’s feet off the back of my seat? I’d really appreciate it.’”

Jean advises reaching out to a flight attendant: “They've dealt with this a fair amount. They’re a good neutral [inter]mediary to come in and help diffuse the situation.”

Other Key Do’s and Don'ts From Our Experts

  • Avoid packing food that will make a mess or leave a bad smell.
  • Avoid bringing toys that make noise, and use headphones with entertainment devices.
  • Bring a change of clothes (for your kid and you!) in case someone gets sick or your luggage gets lost.
  • If your child removes their shoes, make sure they put them back on before leaving their seat for safety and hygiene reasons.
  • When reclining seats, be courteous to the person behind you (especially if they’re using a laptop or eating a meal).

The Bottom Line

At the end of the day, being packed in a plane with 200 people isn’t easy. Jean says something as simple as just saying “Hello!” or “How are you?” when taking your seats can make all the difference. “We all need to have a little grace for each other, and it makes the journey a much better one.”