Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Baby Behavior in the News: Toddler Tantrums on Planes

Yesterday morning on MSNBC, we noticed a segment that had aired on The Today Show about a family who was told to leave a flight after their 2-year-old threw a tantrum when she was being strapped into her seat. Apparently, she wanted to be held by her mother rather than sit in her own seat. The family had been traveling for quite awhile and toddler had missed her nap. While the details of what happened on the plane were not provided, it is likely that she was screaming and fighting while the crew were preparing for take-off and it had taken the mother some time to get the child strapped into her seat. The airline said that they had told the family to leave the plane because they had failed to comply with crew member instructions. An online poll among Today Show viewers indicated that 71% of those responding to the survey agreed with the airline's actions. As you might expect, the comments on the story are, on the whole, harsh and unsupportive of the family.

The fact that this was considered national (though morning) news is a good indicator of how unusual something like this is. Not that the toddler had the tantrum but the fact that the tantrum got her family removed from a plane. This story provides another illustration of the distorted views of parenting and childhood that have become so common (at least in the media). The comments and the results of the poll made it clear that people who responded thought that lack of discipline was the problem and that the parents should have had more control over the situation. Of course, we have a different point of view. Let's look at some pertinent facts.

The toddler involved is 2 years old. A 2-year-old has very little control over their emotions and if she gets overtired, overstimulated, or frightened, she is likely to have a tantrum. While some tantrums can be short and relatively low-key, others can get completely out of hand before the child settles down and all the parents can do is protect the child and others. Many people believe that very young children and toddlers can control their emotions if they only try but their brains are not yet capable of dealing with strong emotions. It is not a matter of choice or discipline, its related to brain maturation. If the child had been 4 or 5, the expectation would have been different. We encourage you to read our series on tantrums (see the links below) to learn more about the research in this area.  

The toddler had missed her nap. Given that the parents couldn't ask the airline to schedule the plane according to their toddler's routine, it is not surprising that the child was overtired and stressed. Traveling can be overwhelming for babies and overstimulation can lead to a lot of tears and difficult behavior. Parents can do a lot to reduce but not eliminate overstimulation while traveling (see the links below) and sometimes difficult behavior will result. Most of the time tantrums are short and self-limited when parents recognize what is happening.  

The parents did not have options typically available for dealing with tantrums. In a restaurant, most parents would take a fussy baby or toddler outside or at least hold them in their laps to limit stimulation or distract them. Getting ready for take-off, these options were not open to the parents but the 2-year-old had no way to know that. The 2-year-old had an expectation that her mother would hold her when she was distressed. At 2, children are not capable of understanding that a plane is different than a restaurant or any other place away from home.

Next time, we'll share some ideas about what might have been helpful in this situation. In the meantime, let us hear from you if you have any traveling stories with your children, good or bad.


Traveling with Babies:


  1. As a mom of a 2 year old toddler I agree with the airlines. If the parents are unable to manage to put their toddler in her seat and strap her in with the seatbelts ...then they should leave the airplanes. I would rather leave the airplane then taking off without my daughter securely strapped in her seat. No brainer on this.

  2. We were definitely not suggesting that the child should not be strapped into her own seat. In fact, the decision to take the family off the plane was made after the child was strapped in. The problem was that the child was still making noise.

  3. Children under two can fly on a parents lap. It doesn't seem like a huge stretch to let this family try something other than forcefully strapping their tantrumming child down. I wasn't there but it sounds a little

  4. That is hard for all involved. If only the parents had more time to validate the childs feelings / frustrations and to provide alternatives like allowing the child out of the seat once the plane took off or sitting on her moms lap stapped in. Airports and traveling are an anxious place for everyone toddler and adults.

  5. Why is it that the airline could manage to let the family off the plane because the child was making noise, but if they have boarded and people are forced to wait for hours "on the runway", they can't let people off? I'm getting kind of tired of the hypocrisy with airlines. I have a two year old and I know it's every parent's worst fear while traveling that they'll have a situation like this. I think we should show this family some compassion, especially those of us who have children and can relate.

  6. Seriously? What makes a baby who is 729 days old and on mama's lap safe, but a 730 day old baby on mama's lap is unsafe? I wear my baby when flying - way more secure than a lap belt anyway, and keeps baby somewhere secure and familiar. I really feel for this family, and agree that tantrums are NOT a discipline issue. The world is just becoming increasingly hostile to children and families - nursing moms kicked off planes, this, restaurants banning kids...

  7. I just returned from traveling with my 25 month old daughter - and this time, (as opposed to last time when she was 20 months old) was amazingly stress free.

    When we traveled last October, my daughter pitched tantrums every time we had to strap her in her car seat. She wanted to sit in the "big people" seat, but of course, being 20 months old, wouldn't sit still. I believe it was mostly our fault though, as neither my husband or I really explained to her we were going on a trip and what was expected of her - we just up and left and expected her to be able to deal with it.

    This time, however, I spent the entire week prior to our flights explaining to her that we were going to be flying on an airplane, and that she will have her car seat on the plane, and she needs to sit in it and be buckled in so she is nice and safe. I also explained to her that Momma and Papa have to sit in their own chairs and be buckled in as well. When we got to the airport - I explained EVERYTHING that was going on to her (from getting our tickets, to going through security, to walking to the gate, boarding the plane, etc). I also had a few little surprises in my bag for her that she didn't know I had (low sugar lollipops, new books, etc) for immediate distraction if she got fussy about being put in her chair. We continued to explain things to her on the plane, and what was expected of her when we hopped off the plane. On our flight back - she picked out a plane toy that was a model of the plane we were flying in and absolutely loved it. Much to my surprise (well, surprise after the nightmare travel last time) - my daughter was absolutely amazing and took everything in her stride, even when she was tired and missing naps. We continued to explain during our vacation - and she continued to be really well behaved and mellow. It was such a different experience to last October.

    It really drove home to me just HOW important communication is, even at such a young age. While they may not have the verbal skills to let us know they understand or comprehend completely - I do believe explaining each step and including them really helps. It won't solve everything, but it should help prevent confusion and bring a level of comfort that everything is ok.

  8. I understand the airline removing the family if the toddler was not strapped in. The fact that they made the decision AFTER the child WAS strapped in, is ridiculous, and they have a right to be upset with the airline.

  9. I think that in a world where traveling has become such an everyday occurrence and in some cases a necessity, there should be some more options out there for traveling families. "Family Flights" or something like that would be helpful. We seem to be in a sort of baby boom. This problem in not going to go away, and while I am totally sympathetic to the family involved, I also understand that all of the other passengers on the plane would prefer to not be trapped in an airplane with a screaming child. It is a tough situation to be in.

  10. I think people are forgetting a very basic idea here. Why do parents put their children in situations that the children are not ready to handle? It is unrealistic to expect a two year old not to tantrum in this situation. That is just setting the child up to fail. I have a two year old son who rarely tantrums. I believe this is due, in large part, to the fact that we set him up to succeed and do not have unrealistic expectations of him. And, no, he's never been on a plane. I value his comfort, as well as the passengers, too much to do that.

    1. Elise, sometimes there is a family emergency and you have to fly. I've waited to take my twins to fly to see their grandparents, however you really can't dictate who can or cannot fly at what age. Part of life is experience, including flying on a plane. These folks just happened to have a bad day with their toddler. Who are we to judge.