Medicating Your Toddler Before a Flight?

The pros and cons of medicating your toddler for a flight

medicating-child-for-plane“Are you gonna try it?” “I dunno, are you gonna try it?” “I think we’re just gonna do half.” “Half? I dunno. I think I’m too chicken.”

That is an excerpt from an actual conversation. It wasn’t at a high school dance. It was while waiting at the gate for a flight to Florida with my then 20-month-old daughter. I was chatting with a fellow mom on the same flight with twin toddler boys. The substance being considered for experimentation? Benadryl. After some consideration, I opted not to give it to my daughter, keeping her quiet on the flight with chips and cookies instead. The brothers seemed to fare okay with their half-doses of antihistamine, but I’m not sure they slept. Ultimately, we want to keep our children off drugs. So why are we tempted to dope them up just to survive a flight?

the not-so-friendly skies

A recent TripAdvisor survey revealed that 44 percent of parents surveyed considered air travel to be the most stressful mode of transportation and that 11 percent gave their children a dose of antihistamine before a journey to help them sleep. Allergy medications like Benadryl or anti-nauseants like Gravol seem to be the drugs of choice, since a usual side effect is drowsiness. But what are the risks involved?

The trouble with over-the-counter (OTC) medicines is that there aren’t that many dose studies for children this age and it’s the dosage that’s the real concern, cautions Dr. Michael Rieder, chair of the Canadian Paediatric Society (CPS)’s drug therapy committee. “That’s why Health Canada pulled recommendations for using OTC cough and cold medications and required drug manufacturers to change the labels, because parents were accidentally overdosing their children. Serious toxicity is rare, but rare is not never.”

Plus, some drugs produce the opposite effect of what you are hoping for. “Paradoxical reactions are the most common,” explains Dr. Rieder. “There are some children who get all wired and fired up, instead of drowsy, and no one really knows why.”

The thought of a wired and squirming child was what ultimately stopped me from attempting to sedate my daughter, but if you decide it is the route for you, Dr. Jeremy Friedman, head of pediatrics at The Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto, has this suggestion: Administer a test dose at home in the week or two preceding the trip to see if it makes your toddler drowsy or hyper.

the case for and against

“Thinking back, maybe we should have sedated him to get him off to sleep,” laughs Ashling Clancy, a Toronto-area mom of two, recounting her family’s trip to the Dominican Republic when her son was one. “He was at the age where he could not sit still so we made many, many trips up and down the aisle.” With two kids in tow, Clancy said she wasn’t expecting an easy flight, but the thought of medicating him didn’t actually cross her mind. “I see nothing wrong with a little Tempra to help if their ears are bothering them, but I wouldn’t go messing around with other drugs that aren’t medically necessary.”

But Ali Bergstrom, a New York City mom of three-year-old Chille, sees things differently. “I fly back and forth between Sydney, Australia, and New York City several times a year, and I always medicate my son. The pressure changes in his ears can be extremely painful. My son sleeps for most of the flight, and when we land, he is happy and ready to start the day, no matter what time zone we are in.” She agrees, however, that it is a personal choice — “but one I am grateful for and remind others of when their kids are screaming and unhappy during a flight.”

have a nice flight

I will admit to sometimes wishing I could sedate myself on the most stressful flights, but thus far I’ve managed eight return flights with a person under two and have done so without medicating her. Various snacks, ideally with a low sugar content, can keep little hands and mouths busy. Sucking on a lollipop or a pacifier at take-off and landing can help with troubled ears. (The CPS does recommend, if possible, not flying with your child within two weeks of having an ear infection.) Plus, lots of books, toys and in-flight movies — and hopefully some understanding fellow passengers — can make the trip a little smoother.

Corinne McDermott, founder of, enjoys lugging her two kids around on planes and trains but not automobiles.

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