Until recently, I thought there was nothing to be done about crying babies on airplanes, and I'm sure most people believed the same. The mother might try jiggling the baby, feeding it, or any number of old-fashioned techniques thought to quiet the screams. But nothing seems to work much of the time, so you have to practice defensive tactics. I have noise-canceling earphones, which I augment with rubber earplugs, but nothing really drowns out the noise completely. You have to hope something will cause the poor child to fall asleep, and sympathize with the anxious parents, embarrassed and exhausted as well. Everyone within earshot is affected by these situations, adding unexpected stress to that of a normal flight.
Then I heard about Dr. Harvey Karp's Calming Reflex training. According to Dr. Karp, what bothers the infant is the lack of noise that it experiences beginning immediately upon birth. Apparently, in the womb, the baby is subjected to constant noise, around the clock, similar to a vacuum cleaner, he says, with other distractions such as jiggling, constant touching and more. When the child is born, there follows about three months of sensory deprivation, of stillness and quiet that seem unnatural to the baby, so that this "fourth trimester" can be hell for child and parents, who wonder why the infant is crying so much.
The good doctor's solution is to try to recreate the ambience the child had in the womb, and to activate a "calming reflex." This can be done with five techniques, he says: (1) swaddling (tight wrapping), (2) putting baby on stomach or side, (3) shushing (like white noise or that vacuuming sound), (4) rhythmic swinging (to replace the jiggling) and (5) sucking (on anything, including a pacifier). And you need practice to get these five points right, he says.
Training the Parents
Two-hour training for this technique is available at Gymboree Centers in the United States. They say they have 597 locations in 30 countries, and have been in business since 1976, with headquarters in San Francisco. Their class, "The Happiest Baby," also includes "The Cuddle Cure." Contact them at tel. 877/4-GYMWEB or at www.gymboreeclasses.com.
Dr. Karp's book, The Happiest Baby on the Block, goes into his five techniques at length, and is also available as a DVD. The paperback costs $13.99, the DVD $25.99, a CD version $15.99, all at www.babycenter.com.
The "Miracle Swaddling Blanket" is offered by Miracle Blanket, based in Medford, Oregon. They say their product is used by such customers as Kaiser Permanente, Baylor Medical Center, and the Duke University Health System. The price on the company's website is $29.95. Phone tel. 866/286-6386; www.miracleblanket.com. It is also sold at the USA Baby chain stores
Experts say you can take a child on board immediately after birth if necessary, and I have friends who brought their baby across the continent one week after birth. Most problems concern air pressure changes in the plane, most often supplied at an assumed altitude of about 8,000 feet on long flights. The resultant pain to the child's ear can usually be stopped or alleviated by getting the baby to swallow. Adults already know how to chew gum, spray their noses or do whatever it takes to swallow, and if swallowing fails to clear the eardrum, to try holding the nose and blowing it. In the case of babies, you have to get them to swallow, whether it be with food, baby formula, milk, breast feeding or anything else. Also, many parents recommend feeding the baby before the flight and make sure it is well burped before boarding, as changes in air pressure could cause swelling in the stomach and colic-like symptoms. All seem to agree that a perfect flight means the baby sleeping all or most of the time, even during take-off and landings.
Some wags have suggested helmets over the baby's head, like that of a deep-sea diver, but I doubt that one will fly, forgive the pun. There's at least one reported incident of a drunken passenger drenching a crying baby near him with a glass of water, which didn't stop the crying and got the passenger arrested on arrival.
Other passengers believe their foam earplugs, electronic earphones, iPods and other devices will protect them from the noise. Some even take sleeping pills and hope to drift off. A few order more alcoholic drinks to help fall asleep, they think. Some passengers ask to be reseated away from the baby, which is less possible these days of full airplanes. To avoid children, a few noise-haters fly first or business class, and hope the babies won't be there, but you can never be sure of that in these days of indulgent parents and frequent flyer upgrades. A few people who dislike others complaining about crying babies suggest the complainers just go hire a private charter plane to be sure there won't be noise-makers on board.
Some want to ban children from airplanes or for airlines to charge the under-2 set, who now fly free on many airlines. They suggest that taking the babies to see grandparents is wrong, and that the grandparents should fly to see the little darlings instead. There are reasons, however, why toddlers have to be on the plane with their parents, and so none of these "solutions" is practical.
Happy Baby Solution
The ultimate answer, of course, is that screaming babies will always be with us, and we can only hope their parents take lessons lessons and learn how to calm them down. In a perfect world, some airline flight attendants, moreover, might take the course, use the blankets on board to swaddle the child, and teach the parents a thing or two.
Note: The author is the Vice President (pro bono) of IAMAT, the International Association for Medical Assistance to Travellers, a registered charity, tel. 716/754-4883; www.iamat.org.