I took the 3 AM flight so pretty much exhausted after a long day spent on an emotional roller coaster. In the seat in front of me was a mother with a 12 months son in total distress, screaming and maybe roaring at times. A classic tantrum.
This situation lasted for forty five minutes, until take off. Next to me, sat a woman and a man. The woman shouted at the mother “I cannot believe this! Do something to make him shut up!” And the man said “don’t you have any toys to give this child?”. So I looked at them with the face of death and said nothing. I chose not to fight, yet.
The mother, with weak rounded shoulders, struggling to keep her stiff son in her arms, replied with these words :”I am surely not happy to see my son like this“. She was working hard trying to make him stop and hell how my heart broke for her.
She tried to talk to him and ask him what he wanted. She also tried to give him water and I was scared he would choke as he was not swallowing. She hugged him to strangle his loud voice and sometimes yelled at him and nothing seemed to work.
I wanted to tell her what to do but I couldn’t and the man and woman stroke again this time with a sigh and a “khalas!” Meaning stop it in Arabic. So the bug in my brain started biting and I looked at them and said ” Please stop stressing her and us all . The screams are reaching us too as you know but the child is in distress and the poor mother is doing her best. No one wants to be in her seat right now. The child is having a nervous breakdown“.
To the sound of my words, the woman looked at me as if she knew I was a specialist and she calmed down trying to be all cute again.
This mother had no clue how to deal with her toddler’s nervous breakdown. This doesn’t make her a bad mother and neither does this make the child a mean one. This mother is a hero. After take off and when the child finally surrendered to sleep, she held him on her arm for four hours and she kept rocking him. Can you do that at three in the morning, for four consecutive hours and then stand up with your son on one hand while holding two bags on the other? Noone likes infants and toddlers on planes but do you ever think how the mother is feeling the pressure and the hate all around her? You are the one hearing the screams but she is the one trying to stop it and this makes her burden surely heavier.
Allow me to explain why do infants and toddlers get distressed suddenly on planes:
- The sensory overload : too many strangers, too many bright lights, too many strange voices, so much white noise, too many smells and so much sudden movements.
- The change in routine: travelling days are not easy. People are on the run and their eating habits and resting habits change. Infants and toddlers absorb this stress fully. The more stressed you get, the more likely your child is to meltdown.
- The change of their sleep routine, they might skip a nap and the hardest is to make them skip their nocturne sleep. This is destrcutive to their ability to tolerate frustrations.
- The change of air pressure at take off and landing is too painful for their tiny ears. Remember to give them something to chew on or a bottle of juice or milk to stimulate the swallowing that releases the pressure tension in the ears through the Eustachian tube.
Bottom line, infants and toddlers cry on planes because of exhaustion. This toddler on my flight was screaming as he was failing to fall asleep. His nervous system went mad.
If you are a caregiver on a plane facing such a situation, understanding the child’s behaviour is half of the solution. Do no fight with them as you will make things worse. Use calming shushing sounds, sing in their ears with a low tone voice, comb their hair gently and repetitively with your fingers and massage their forehead. Make them feel your warm breath in their neck. Stay calm, speak gently and touch gently. Any stressed behaviour or facial expression from your side will make things worse. Rock the child and if you can, walk in the aisles. Movement is a calming sensory experience. Talk in their ears and sing to block all stressful noises and make them feel safe with you. Touch them with warmth and tenderness. All you’re trying to do is to calm their nervous system down. Have them hold their favourite toy or blanket and before the flight give them warm liquids to drink to calm them down.
This mother from my flight was doing it all wrong as her movements were sudden. She was overstressed by the people and the situation that she kept stressing her child, getting herself trapped in a loop.
I was waiting for the plane to start moving since I knew the impact this would have on the child. Indeed, when the plane started moving in taxi mode and the lights went down and music started playing, the child started calming down right away as all the sensory stimulations became soothing to him. Anxiety dropped and the child finally fell asleep.
A regulation in the sensory stimulations helped him “find his sleep” and helped the rest of us find some peace.
For more information about anxiety here is my other article Let it be, Let it go