screaming babies on planes

While a screaming baby on an airplane is never going to be much fun, you’ve got to imagine there’s a huge difference taking a flight with a squalling newborn nearby in today’s world than, say, in the 1970s or even 90s.  In the 70s, you could smoke on a plane.  So not only is there a fussy baby drooling and screeching in the seat next to you, there’s someone on the seat just in front chain-smoking camel straights.  In the 90s, maybe there’s no smoking – but there’s no fun little devices to distract you, either.  Maybe a Walkman with one of those new-fangled “CDs” would be able to womb you in indifference, but that was nothing compared to the number of insulating devices which exist today.  Once you reach 12,000 feet, you’re able to tune that baby out by diving into your iPad, your kindle, your smartphone, or start up a movie on your laptop.  You’ve got a half a dozen options to create a diversion for yourself.  Not bad.  And nobody’s blowing smoke in your face, either.  

There’s a lot of doom and gloom out there today.  Not much has changed in the sky-is-falling department, though.  People have been saying that the world is going to hell in a hand basket, that the end is nigh, that man has removed himself from God’s sight, or any number of euphemisms decrying how we turned a corner somewhere have been around for centuries.  Even millennia.  It’s true that it’s taken us the past couple of decades to really absorb and sort out all of the changes which have occurred in the last fifty, or hundred years, and it’s likely that certain changes are exponential, and things will be happening even faster as we continue forward.  During this sort of evaluation, or this humanitarian introspection which has been occurring since, say, around those smoky-flight 70s, we’ve made lots of modifications to our habits and come up with some key ideas about how we even got here.  We’ve strived to become healthier.  While we’ve seen the birth of fast food and its geometric expansion in the last fifty years, and the side effects of obesity and heart disease, we’ve come up with every sort of diet to combat the effects of ennui and low nutrition.  As big agribusiness has grown, we’ve been trying hard to become healthier and more local, and so the slow food movement has grown, too, and people have educated themselves about pesticides, chemicals, red meats, fat, antibiotics, and other carcinogenic agents.  Eliminating smoking from nearly every public place is only one thing we’ve done – we’ve seen a green movement in the world of diet, and vegetarianism was arguably born this century.  We’ve come to understand the importance of whole foods and a planet-based diet.  We’ve learned that our sedentary lives aren’t good for us, and that we need to get out and exercise.  It’s true that we still pack ourselves into boxes – the box of the car, the house, the cubicle job – but it’s also true that we unpack ourselves on the therapist’s couch, at the gym, and travel to exotic locations.  There are pros and cons to everything we do, but we’re learning, and we’re trying. 

What’s fascinating about all of this is that as we enter what may or may not be this “enlightenment era,” a time-between-ages sort of predicted in the Mayan calendar, or even the Zodiac, and certainly among our environmentalists and economists who believe we’ve reached a turning point – a peak in oil production and a hard look at the reality of finite resources on a planet who’s denser, developed civilizations tend to believe in infinite growth – is that we’ve come to see food, in effect, as what got us here in the first place.  Or, more precisely, agriculture.  As we shifted from a nomadic lifestyle of hunting-gathering, following wildlife, and moving on to greener fields once we’d depleted resources in one spot, we changed everything about how we live and relate to planet earth.  The first granary marked a momentous occurrence – food storage told us we could stay in one place for a while, that we could cultivate the land and keep our food for a while during the off-seasons.  We didn’t need to keep moving.  Thus began our domestication of crops – we started selecting and shaping crops as we chose which ones were the best yield, and which ones were inferior.

Agriculture also sparked a relationship which had never been before – man and animals.  As we domesticated the tamer, herbivorous animals and used them for milk, meat, and hide, we lived in close proximity to them, opening up a Pandora’s box of new viruses and germs which we still feel the effects of today (smallpox, for example, comes from cows, and the H1N1 flu virus was thought to be a hybrid starting with birds and pigs.)   This relationship with animals and germs later became a huge part of territorial distribution and the development of civilizations – guns, germs & steel are thought to be the three prime factors in how a civilization like the United States came to be, for instance, as opposed to somewhere like Papua New Guinea.

We cannot go back.  The likelihood of returning to a hunter-gatherer way of life, as in a movement which spreads throughout entire nations, is not very high.  We will see the fringe groups practicing this lifestyle, and maybe someday an overwhelming catastrophe will force all of us into this practice – like massive food shortages or coastal erosion, or the lack of a sufficient alternative fuel as oil runs out forcing to completely reshape our paradigm and our relationship to material goods, but it will never be a major self-starting event.  What will probably happen, instead, is more of what has been happening throughout human history.  We will continue to grow and learn and tweak how we live and what our habits are.  Learning new habits is the key to everything.  Teaching our basal ganglia new automatic behaviors is what we do – everything we are is an accretion of our habits, and we are always refining those.

So the next time you’re on a flight to Vegas or Cabo San Lucas and you hear a screaming child and it makes you feel a little frustrated, don’t give the parents that nasty look.  Instead, tuck into your shiny little gadget with your headphones on, click on the noise-reduction button, and settle back into your blissful bubble of entertainment.  You’re flying in a machine thousands of feet above the biosphere at hundreds of miles an hour, probably able to travel somewhere because you’re a blessed, privileged person.  Keep your weight down, keep your smoke in the alleyways, and smile at the babies when you see them cry.



  1. Hmm. You make some good points. It’s easy to lose perspective and focus on a minor annoyance in the context of the larger miracles of life, including high-speed travel. But it’s just as true that for many people travel, high-speed or not, air or surface, is a heavy burden, often imposed by work requirements. It reasonably strikes such people as glib advice to say, “Just relax and glory in the wonder of it all” when confronted with extreme physical discomfort, sleep deprivation (sorry, noise-cancelling headphones do not block loud conversation or babies’ cries), or the crass behavior of fellow travelers on long flights. Such involuntary travelers would say that technology actually forces us to travel, makes a prisoner of us. The cotton gin was also a technical miracle, but one that drove pickers to the brink of death by forcing them to keep up.

    Air travel is stressful enough. More needs to be done to ease the burden that noise and confinement place on passengers. This could include reasonable measures to separate families with young children from those who need to rest, work, or sleep on long flights. It makes no sense to force business or first-class passengers to endure a sleepless night on the way to an important meeting, for example, because some parents want the extra treat of luxury. On some routes separate “quiet flights” could be tried. I would also advise (at the risk of indignation by outraged parents) that every reasonable effort be made to avoid unnecessary long flights with infants.


    • excellent points! in our recent (and only) airborne trip with our baby, we first considered the alternatives. we calculated the cost and time to drive and stay in hotels, all the way to florida. we considered going at another time of year, when flights would likely be less crowded. we were NOT fond of the idea of being the people who crowded in at the last second (and paid through the nose) to take to the skies over spring break, but we had not counted on our original airline, direct air, going suddenly out of business either, and forcing us to chose another flight, or stay home. our trip was not entirely frivolous either, but to see a family member whom we see only once a year. granted, everyone has their excuse to burn tons of jet fuel in order to get their little water-filled bodies from one place to the next, we felt that it was reasonable enough for us to take the trip. and our baby didn’t even create a stir, actually. at the end of the flight, people nearby us actually commented, bewildered, “you actually had that baby the whole time??” this whole thing about screaming babies on planes was just something i imagined.
      not to throw southwest under the bus, but we were surprised that there was no designated seating. i agree with you, mike, that there ought to be some basic seating arrangements for different types of travelers. it was only because we were allowed to board just ahead of the “C” passengers that we weren’t displaced and sitting separate. …imagine the screaming baby is just sitting there in the seat next to you, alone. haha, of course that wouldn’t happen, but it still was discomfiting to consider our family being broken up.
      thanks for reading my rant and commenting. of all the marvels in the world, it is a wonder just to think about the very different types of travelers that use air travel all mushed into the same flight together, with such unique purposes and needs.


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