"I can't stand crying babies," my 25-year-old daughter said. "They are so irritating."
We were sitting at an outdoor California mall where legions of parents were pushing strollers filled with cranky babies, toddlers and preschoolers.
"That's true," I said. "They are irritating. But after you have your own children, you get more tolerant."
"I doubt it," she said.
I looked at her earnest face. There, for a moment, I saw not the grown woman she was, but the wriggly toddler she used to be.
In poll after poll, crying babies are named as a top irritant on planes, right up there with shrimpy seats and people with body odour.
Sixty per cent would choose to drive 10 hours by themselves in silence rather than take a 10-hour flight with a crying baby, found a recent Hilton Honours survey.
Malaysia Airlines has banned infants in first class on its Boeing 747-400 jets after some passengers complained they could not sleep on international flights.
Sitting next to a crying baby is better than sitting next to someone with body odour, but a lot worse than sitting next to a "boring talkative" person or obese person, found a recent poll by DDB Worldwide Communications Group.
Fifty-four per cent of respondents in a recent Skyscanner survey favour family-only sections on planes, with all families with children relegated to one area.
Soon after the conversation with my daughter, I boarded a plane from Los Angeles to Detroit. Sure enough, at 35,000 feet, crying began in stereo, with two tots screaming. Dads passed babies to mums. Mums passed babies to dads. The crying continued - two minutes, three minutes, four minutes. One baby finally quieted but the other, a girl about 18 months old, kept up the wail, arching her back, screaming her misery.
Passengers started staring at the mother. They ruffled their newspapers. Turned up their overhead fans. Blasted the volume on their headphones. Anything to make the noise go away.
I glanced at the frantic mother. She looked embarrassed. "Shh, shh," she kept murmuring, standing up, walking her daughter up and down the aisle, bouncing her slightly. "Shh, shh."
Finally, the toddler whimpered and fell asleep like a limp rag doll on her mother's shoulder.
And all that time, I felt not irritation, but empathy.
Once, about 24 years ago, I took a certain toddler on a delayed evening flight between Florida and Michigan, and she cried and cried.
No matter what I did, she would not stop. I walked her. I bounced her. I tried to feed her. I tried to ignore the stares. I remember the episode lasting 30 or 40 minutes, but probably it was more like 5 or 10 minutes until she fell asleep, exhausted by her own screams.
I still remember the mortification and the feeling I was a bad mother.
But babies cry. That's how they communicate.
A baby's cry activates a distress state in the listener, but a person's "egotistic or altruistic motives may then be activated, depending on the empathetic capacities of the listener," according to a 1996 paper from the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.
But could one's life experiences determine how irritating a baby's cry actually is perceived? Recent polls don't address that.
So here's my suggestion. The next crying-baby-on-an-plane poll should ask some extra questions. Are you a parent? Have you ever had a baby who cried on an plane? Before you had kids, did you think all babies' cries were irritating? What do you think now?
I'd love to poll my daughter on this topic, preferably right after she has her own baby someday.
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