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In a Heartbeat: How to help kids crying on planes

| Monday, May 16, 2016, 9:00 p.m.
Dr. Patrick Tate
Dr. Patrick Tate

Airplane travel can be a frightful experience for children, caregivers, and nearby passengers, says Dr. Patrick Tate, from Children's Community Pediatrics, part of Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC. The fatigue, hunger and boredom that come with long-distance travel may be the cause of their cries, but other factors could be at play, Tate says. He elaborates below.

Why do kids cry on planes?

Ears can certainly be cause for crying on airplanes. The membrane that separates the inner ear from the outer world is sensitive to pressure differences. These changes, especially during takeoff and landing can cause pain, muffled hearing, or a popping sensation that might cause kids to cry. Children with colds, allergies or ear infections have more pronounced symptoms. Talk to your doctor before traveling if your child is showing signs of an infection or has recently had an ear infection.

What can I do about it?

There are many ways to soothe a crying child. Here are three things to keep in mind when traveling and your little one has had it:

Bottle, pacifier or breast: The action of sucking may help to decrease the symptoms associated with pressure changes during takeoff or landing

Look for the usual suspects: Change the environment to accommodate your baby. Maybe it's too bright, or they might need a change of view. They might be hungry, sleepy, hot or cold. Offering your complete attention to a bored baby or child can be the difference between a happy camper and a difficult passenger. Remember, you're good at this — draw on your normal routines to calm your baby or child.

Remain calm: Much of the disturbance caused by babies on airplanes is drowned out by ambient cabin noise. It's never as bad as you think it is and getting worked up alongside your baby (or nearby passenger) prevents you from being as attentive as you need to be.

At what age do they stop?

For children that have problems adjusting to pressure, I'd expect them to “grow into” their ears around 4; but this isn't always the case. Additionally, just when your child's head anatomy begins to cooperate with flying, their imagination and fears may begin to pose a hurdle. Have a talk with your older child about flying if you think they might be frightful during your trip. Practice techniques to combat common fears with distraction (reading, singing, coloring, etc.) especially during takeoff and landing. Be patient. Some of us never quite get over our fears of traveling in the sky.

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