Why it’s not safe to drug children to get through a flight – Telegraph.co.uk

Ask any traveller and they will agree: young children are the worst people to fly with. Even if they’re old and well-behaved enough to not be screaming down the aisles, you still run the risk of them kicking the chair of the person in front and generally not being able to sit still.

However, I was shocked upon becoming a mother to learn that some parents think it is perfectly normal to give their babies and toddlers medicine to sedate them for flights. Why not just give them a gin and tonic?

A quick chat with friends and a scour of the internet (from the BBC to Mumsnet) revealed that drugging children in the hope that they will sleep is pretty common – sometimes even at home, and particularly when travelling.

“I’ve given Ben Calpol the last two times we’ve flown,” said a friend who goes regularly to Ireland. “I think it’s problematic if you do it weekly, but occasionally it’s fine. It doesn’t always make him drowsy, but he’s definitely more chilled.”

“Sophie’s never been a good sleeper,” another told me. “I’d rather give her something to help her along a bit than endure a screaming fit in front of hundreds of strangers.

“I’d feel like they were judging my parenting skills and it would ruin the holiday.”

Not that these parents plan on using anything strong, mind. Just everyday medicine, like an antihistamine or an age-appropriate dose of paracetamol-based Calpol. Both of these are used regularly by parents on babies and toddlers contending with a whole host of aches and pains as they grow – from teething to viruses and fevers they catch from other kids at nursery or pre-school.

Why was taking these approved medicines for flights so bad, they asked me.

So I decided to investigate.

Is it safe to drug young children when they are not actually showing symptoms?

For starters, Calpol is not the way to go.

Drowsiness is not a known side effect of liquid paracetamol. As it’s a painkiller, it is great at combating teething pains or a fever in youngsters, and so will help afflicted children sleep by making them comfortable and therefore more easily able to drift off.

Antihistamines, by contrast, are either sedating or non-sedating. An antihistamine for toddlers over the age of one sold by Boots contains Chlorphenamine, which has a sedative effect.

Benadryl’s children’s range, for ages 2+ and 6+, however, contains cetirizine, which lacks a soporific effect. Some experts argue that it is safer for children because of this.

There is a chance that allergy medication will produce another unexpected outcome.

“Antihistamines like promethazine which are available over the counter and are given for allergy or motion sickness will have the effect of making children drowsy by far the majority of the time,” said Dr Seth Rankin, a former NHS Commissioner and the founder of London Doctor’s Clinic.  

“However, just to remind us of our human frailty, it occasionally can have entirely the opposite effect, making them wide awake and hyperactive – exactly when you really don’t need it.”

Dr Richard Dawood, a specialist in travel medicine, agreed.

“I think trying a small dose of antihistamine-type medication can sometimes be reasonable, for an infant in distress who really can’t settle on a long and uncomfortable flight,” he said. “But there are some caveats. They can sometimes make a crying toddler even more fractious.

“I shall never forget a nightmare experience with an (unmedicated) infant of my own, who screamed every second of the way on cramped 5-hour flight, finally earning a round of applause from our fellow passengers when he stopped crying on touch-down.

“I don’t think anything short of a general anaesthetic – for his father – would have helped.”

Dr Rankin also questioned whether it is moral for adults to drug children for the benefit of others, and suggested trying to induce sleep in more natural ways.

“Medication is not the preferred option,” he said.

Result! A sleeping child means less dirty looks

Result! A sleeping child means less dirty looks

This content is subject to copyright./Vanya Dudumova / EyeEm

“Instead, do all you can to plan for a calm and peaceful flight, and to try and simulate the home sleeping environment to the extent possible – pyjamas, a light blanket, favourite bedtime toys, feeding or meals, a dummy, treats and distractions.”

It’s wrong to drug kids

I find it immoral, too. I understand that feeling of fear at not being able to quiet your child. I have felt a strange kind of pride when fellow passengers have noticed my daughter and said at the end of a flight: “Oh, I didn’t even realise there was a baby on the plane!”

But I also value my children’s health too highly to medicate for the sole reason of avoiding feeling embarrassed. How absurdly British! Perhaps I should care a bit more about disturbing others, but it’s just not my priority.

Over-medicating may be happening all around us in the adult world, and we read regularly of the consequences; why start down that road with our children?

I am concerned about the children building up a resistance to these drugs, which will see them popping pills more and more frequently in later life.

And then, there is this more immediate threat, which is why I would never give my child antihistamines to get through a flight.

I’ll let another friend explain in her own words.

“We were flying to Greece with my 6-month-old daughter and it was her first holiday, so I was nervous about it. I had heard that antihistamines make babies sleepy and rely on them myself each summer, so thought I’d give her some just before boarding.

“It was all going well and she slept more or less for the first two hours, but then woke up crying. I lifted her up and was horrified. An ‘accident’ in her nappy had been seeping through onto my lap unnoticed.

“I went bright red and endured a walk of shame down the aisle to the loo, hoping no-one noticed the stain or the smell. Then in the toilets, I had to try clean up this poo-nami, while banging my elbows and trying not to spread it everywhere. No-one warned me that they have a laxative effect, too.”

And that’s the most unwelcome consequence of antihistamines. Some, such as the Boots brand mentioned above, also act as a laxative: not, surely, what any parent wants in a confined space with limited access to the bathroom.


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