Many parents dread taking a baby on a plane or other public transportation for extended periods. Will your baby scream the whole way, and are fellow passengers going to give you dirty looks? It’s not unusual for parents to consider avoiding such potential problems by using medication to make their baby sleep.
Medication is a tempting way to keep your baby quiet for a few hours during a trip, but I don’t recommend it.
Certain medications that children sometimes take (most notably, the over-the-counter antihistamine diphenhydramine, or Benadryl) cause drowsiness in addition to their intended results, such as treating allergy symptoms. Diphenhydramine does have a long track record of safety and efficacy as an antihistamine, but it’s not recommended for children under two. And some children get wired or hyperactive instead of sleepy when taking such drugs!
Even more important is that, with any medication, there can be dangerous side effects, such as a fast or irregular heartbeat, seizures, and changes in blood pressure. Because the risks of serious adverse reactions often outweigh the benefits, over-the-counter medicines must be used with caution in babies and young children.
I recently flew halfway across the world with an infant (a 20-hour travel day), and even though I'm a a pediatrician I briefly considered the idea that sedation might be a good thing. Ultimately I decided that any potential conveniences were not worth the possible health risks, however rare they may be.
I try to counsel families about ways to make travel with babies a little easier without using medicine. Scheduling flights during sleep times, getting babies their own ticket so they can sleep in their car seat, and bringing a goody bag of new books, toys, and favorite snacks to keep babies occupied while they're awake, for example, can make a big difference.
If you do decide to try sedating your baby for travel, be sure to follow these tips:
- Discuss your plan with your child’s doctor. Some medications are unsafe if your baby has certain health conditions or is taking other drugs.
- Talk to your doctor about the correct dose. Medications are dosed based on a baby’s weight, so you may need to visit the doctor's office if your baby hasn’t been weighed recently.
- Do a test run of the medication before you travel, and monitor your baby for side effects. It’ll be easier to deal with any unexpected reactions while you’re still at home than when you’re on a plane, train, or other form of public transportation.