Is it safe to sedate your child before a long-haul flight?

Parents are strongly divided on the practice of giving kids sedatives when they travel.
Parents are strongly divided on the practice of giving kids sedatives when they travel. Getty Images

For some people, travelling is one of life’s greatest pleasures and they’re not about to let having a child stop them from doing it. However, most parents are also painfully aware of the frustrations of travelling on a long-haul flight with a fussy child.

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That’s why U.K.-based journalist Shona Sibary gave her kids a nip of Phenergan, a medication that’s used to treat nausea, vomiting and allergy symptoms, on a recent long-haul flight to help them sleep. The mom-of-four appeared on British TV show This Morning on July 20, to discuss her tactic and received vastly differing reactions.

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She was joined on the show by guest host and celebrity TV physician Dr. Ranj Singh who couldn’t believe the journalist when she said her doctor had advised her to administer the drug to her kids.

“As a doctor, I would never advise any parent to do that, because technically speaking we shouldn’t,” he said. “You are relying on what is essentially a side effect of a medication which could be unpredictable.”

Sibary’s story received mixed reactions on social media.

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Despite Singh’s incredulous reaction to Sibary’s claim that her pediatrician had recommended the medication, a 2003 survey published in the journal Pediatrics showed that more than 75 per cent of doctors recommended non-prescription medication for children with difficulties initiating or maintaining sleep. The specific circumstances in which these medications were used most often were acute pain and travel.

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“What this shows is that in the trenches, a lot of doctors are recommending it,” Dr. Daniel Flanders, a general pediatrician at Kindercare Pediatrics in Toronto, says to Global News. These doctors, he says, are likely suggesting Gravol or Benadryl for kids.

“But you’ll never find any guidelines where associations or colleges actually do the analysis in cost and benefit and come up with a recommendation to [give your child this medication]. I don’t think anyone would go on the record recommending it.”

In fact, Health Canada changed their regulations for administering over-the-counter cough or cold medications to children under the age of six in 2009. The agency cites misuse and overdose as potential hazards.

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“The approach I take is that no medication in the world is without risk,” says Flanders, who does not support the practice of sedating kids for travel.

“You need to balance the risk of what one hopes would be the benefit of that medication — presumably it’s embarrassing, exhausting and frustrating for a parent to have to manage an irritable toddler on a plane — with the risk of all the side effects that go along with taking Gravol or Benadryl.”

Plus, in some cases, Benadryl can have what’s called a paradoxical effect. There’s actually a small portion of children who will become hyperactive after taking the medication. In addition, it comes with risks of electrical activity of the heart, dry mouth, dizziness, nausea, vomiting, headache and visual problems.

Similarly, Gravol also presents risks of drowsiness, restlessness, excitation, blurred vision, dry mouth, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, thickened mucus in the airways and irregular heartbeat.

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However, Flanders isn’t immune to the upheavals of travelling with small children.

“One of my colleagues travels to Israel with his children on a regular basis. We once had a debate about whether it’s appropriate to give kids Benadryl on the plane. He said to me, ‘Take a few trips to Israel with a baby and then we’ll talk.'”

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Although he still wouldn’t recommend the practice to his patients, he does think there’s one way to circumvent being blindsided by a negative side effect.

“If parents decide to do this on their own, there is some logic to testing it out before you travel.”