Work & Family: Should parents medicate kids on long flights?

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When Ginger Ogle suggested giving her 3-year-old son an antihistamine to help him sleep during an eight-hour flight to Europe, her husband "was appalled that I'd even consider drugging our child," she says. He bought a portable DVD player instead, to play in-flight movies for his son.

But after four hours on the plane with a kicking, whining, irritable child -- who was unconsoled by the movies or grab-bag of other distractions the Berkeley, Calif., couple had brought along -- he reluctantly agreed to try a dose of Benadryl. The medication didn't seem to have much effect, Ms. Ogle says, but the incident shows how divisive the issue can be.

Should parents medicate their babies and toddlers to calm them on long flights? As the summer travel season approaches, this question will drive a wedge between more mothers and fathers, grandparents and parents -- and sometimes, it seems, between stressed-out parents and almost everyone else on the plane. Leisure travel is projected to rise 2 percent this year after an estimated 4 percent increase in 2005, says the Travel Industry Association, a Washington, D.C., trade group, and some 31 percent of travelers will have children in tow.

In an online poll conducted for this column by the parenting Web site, 33 percent of 3,657 parents who responded said they'd never sedate their children for a plane flight, and 24 percent said they've never needed to. But 18 percent said they have and would do so again, and an additional 20 percent said they've considered doing so. "It's sort of the guilty secret of parents," says Erik Budde, San Carlos, Calif., owner of, a family-travel site.

One mother, on a message board attached to the poll, defended her use of Benadryl to calm a frightened toddler, asserting it's "the right thing to do for the child, the other passengers, the flight crew and yes, the parents as well." A critic fired back: "What kind of parent sedates their child?"

The controversy seems to arise more from differences in parenting philosophies than safety concerns. The American Academy of Pediatrics doesn't have a position on the matter, and individual pediatricians vary in their views. "If you asked 100 pediatricians, you'd get 20 strongly in favor, 60 who didn't think about it much, and 20 strongly opposed," says Richard Gorman, past chairman of the American Academy of Pediatrics' National Committee on Drugs. "Good doctors can disagree about this, just as thoughtful parents can disagree."

Children's Benadryl Allergy liquid, with antihistamine as the single active ingredient, is widely regarded as safe for children; because drowsiness is often a side effect, it's a common choice among parents. Its maker, Pfizer, recommends parents consult their pediatrician before administering the medication to children under 6 or to any youngsters with breathing problems such as chronic bronchitis. While Benadryl is "very safe" when used as directed, it isn't intended to be used as a sedative and "we don't promote any off-label use," a spokeswoman says.

To be sure, antihistamines can have an opposite effect in some children, making them agitated and hyper-alert; Dr. Gorman estimates this happens in about 10 percent of children. If you have a doctor's OK and are considering an antihistamine, pediatricians say try it with your child first to see what effect it has -- not just at bedtime, but at the time of day you're likely to travel.

Most kids can do fairly well on flights with a well-planned series of distractions, says Linda Murray, executive editor of And some pediatricians say parents should worry less about what other passengers think. Dr. Gorman, who practices in Ellicott City, Md., doesn't recommend medications for what he considers a social issue. For parents who fear passengers will complain if their kids cry, he administers a little assertiveness training instead. "I give them little comebacks, like, 'Please be nice to them, they're going to pay your Social Security someday.' "

As humans, we're hard-wired to respond when we hear kids cry, and it isn't always in annoyance. I wrote much of this column on a four-hour flight seated directly behind a family of four with a screaming baby. By the time we landed, my stomach was in knots -- not in anger, but because I felt so sorry for the miserable baby and her beleaguered mom. To avert similar anguish for my two kids when they were babies, I occasionally used Benadryl to calm them on airplanes, with good results.

Avoiding long flights isn't always possible for today's far-flung families who want to stay connected. Most parents who use sedatives do so only when other modes of calming children -- cuddling, rocking, bags of toys and games, books, conversation, walks down the aisle, DVDs or in-flight TV -- have failed. "Anyone who's ever flown with an inconsolable infant can understand why" a parent might use medication, says Eileen Ogintz, a family-travel author.

Sometimes, however, antihistamines don't work and you have to come up with other solutions. Eager to show their firstborn baby to his grandmother two years ago, Emily Ingrao, Belmont, Calif., and her husband embarked on a 23-hour journey to Sicily from San Francisco. On a turbulent New York-to-Rome flight, he cried almost the entire time. "It was just awful," Ms. Ingrao says. "Every time he would settle back to sleep, the captain would come on the intercom," and he would wake up.

Ms. Ingrao tried Benadryl, but it had little effect. Pregnant again, she says she and her husband will break the family's next Sicilian journey into two days.


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