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My Toddler’s Epic Meltdown on a Plane

One mom's in-flight nightmare—and what she learned from it


My mom is never shy about sharing how she used to haul three kids (by herself, usually) on three-hour plane rides when I was growing up—you know, back in the Dark Ages when tablets and in-flight TVs didn’t exist. So, I've never had much luck protesting the idea of taking my only-child daughter on a short flight to visit my parents. After a few easy plane rides with my husband, I eventually dared to go it alone...and there were just a few minor hiccups. So, I was totally unprepared for what would go down when Baby Mila became a 2-year-old toddler.

I made what some might say is a rookie mistake: I put us on a flight that took off at naptime and I didn't push for her to sleep, either. Mila happily waved to everyone sitting around us, shoveled snacks into her mouth, put on a fashion show with her dolls, and watched her favorite shows. All was well—until the half-way mark when Mila wanted more milk.

Milk was the one thing I hadn't stocked up on, and the closest thing the flight attendants had was powdered creamer. They offered apple juice, which Mila then insisted on drinking straight from the plastic cup, despite that she hadn't yet mastered this skill. That's when the meltdown began: As I hoped to gently guide the cup to her mouth, she refused my help and spilled apple juice everywhere. Sliding to the plane's floor, my tearful daughter curled up and pulled her blanket down with her.

Even though I knew she shouldn't be down there, I assumed it would be quick and I'd be able to scoop her up when she passed out and put her back in her chair. Wrong. The seatbelt sign came on, the plane started rocking, and what happened next was straight out of my nightmares. Hell bent on staying on the floor, Mila began a tirade of screaming, crying, kicking (me, the floor, the wall, the seat in front of us...), and sliding under her seat belt and back to the ground whenever I could finally pull her up into her seat. Finally plopping her on my lap, I restrained her there and tried to soothe her. But it was more like a wrestling match as her tantrum hit its high notes...

The angry and exasperated whispers began. Three flight attendants swarmed around me, demanding that Mila stay seated in her own chair. “Ma’am, she has her own seat, and she needs to sit in it.”

“But can't two-year-olds technically sit on a lap?” I pleaded.

“She has a ticket for a seat and she needs to sit in it. If you can’t do that, then we’ll get the pilot.”

The whispers of disgruntled passengers started to grow louder...until finally I heard a voice boom from a few rows behind me: “JUST SLAP HER!” 

Hot tears started rolling down my face. This tantrum was not Mila’s norm. She picks flowers from our yard and insists on doling out extra hugs and kisses at bedtime. I looked at the faces behind me. Some were filled with compassion while others were clearly stressed out. Who, I desperately wanted to know, was the person who said that?

Just then, a woman with a sleeping baby on her chest reached across the aisle and touched my wrist.

“I’ll handle this,” she whispered. “You take care of your daughter.”

I slowly turned back to restraining Mila. The irritated flight attendants muttered something about not wanting to deal and they stomped off. Mila spent the remainder of the flight in a hold that would do a pro-wrestler proud.

Of course, the moment we landed, Mila instantly reverted to her sweet, happy self. I desperately tried not to make eye contact with any of the other passengers. But the woman whose chair Mila had kicked the entire flight? She gave me a knowing look and softly said, “She’ll sleep well tonight—but you’ll sleep even better!” And several women of all ages stopped to pat me on the arm and share stories from the days they traveled with their kids. It seems that plane tantrums are a rite of passage.

As for the mother who promised to “take care” of the passenger who wanted Mila to be slapped, she gave me a warm hug as we waited for our strollers.

“Don’t turn around," she whispered. "You Know Who is walking by, but we don't need any more stress. I already explained why they were out of line."

I didn’t even bother to try and get a glimpse of the person who spewed the hate; I was more in awe that this other mom had used the word “we.” Her baby slept the entire flight and her trip was uneventful, yet she felt we were in this together—and this struck me deeply. Next time, it could easily be her tired, overwhelmed child and she’d need that same support and empathy.

Mila's meltdown in the sky reminded me that as parents, we really need to be there for each other. We’re all doing the best we can and even the most put-together moms still endure tantrums, experience guilt, and need reassurance that other moms have their backs. That way, just when you think you've been blacklisted and are about to get bombarded with nasty smirks, you'll get a hug instead.