Nicolle Wahl was worried her two kids, Meghan, then age 6, and Erik, then 3, might become nauseated on an eight-hour flight—destination, Denmark!—so she gave them the anti-nausea medication Gravol. “I didn’t want to risk having them get sick on the flight, and just have that be a horrible start to the vacation,” she recalls. But the medication was helpful in another way as well: her kids slept through most of that overnight plane ride.
Helping with nausea is one of the benefits of Gravol, but it and the antihistamine Benadryl are also known to make kids sleepy. Because of this, many parents choose to give their kids these medications to help them settle and get some sleep on a plane ride.
Having your kid sleep through a long flight is a dream, but is it actually OK to medicate them for a smoother trip? We asked experts to weigh in on whether or not giving kids medication to help them sleep on a plane is recommended.
Janice Heard, a paediatrician in Calgary and a member of the Canadian Paediatric Society’s (CPS) Public Education Advisory Committee, says the CPS does not recommend parents sedate their kids with medications like Gravol or Benadryl on a flight. There are two reasons for that: first, it might backfire. Some kids have the opposite reaction to taking these medications and actually become irritable and hyperactive.
The second, more serious, concern is there’s a small chance your child could get so sleepy that it could affect their breathing. That’s because oxygen levels are lower at flight altitude, so if kids take medication that causes them to get so sleepy that their breathing rate slows down, and you combine that with a lower intake of oxygen, they can start to retain carbon dioxide, which can potentially cause them to stop breathing, Heard explains.
She says there’s no evidence that this has actually ever happened, but after undertaking a massive scientific literature search in 2007, the CPS put out a position statement, which was reviewed in 2018, that said because this risk exists, they don’t recommend physicians suggest this type of medication for this purpose.
Toronto paediatrician Dan Flanders follows the CPS’s advice. “If there was no risk associated with giving a child a medication to make them sleep on a plane, then it would be a fantastic idea,” he says. “My position is that it’s a parent’s decision, not a medical recommendation,” he explains. Note that generally, neither Gravol nor Benadryl are recommended for kids under 2.
The CPS says if a child has taken anti-nausea meds in earlier circumstances and they’re older than two years old, it’s OK to give them this medication to help them from getting sick on a plane ride.
“Most children who have motion sickness have used Gravol or similar medication before, and their parents are aware of how they react—if they get sleepy versus irritable—so it is somewhat less risky to take the medication that way,” Heard says. And there is the fact that nausea can lead to vomiting, which is both uncomfortable and can cause dehydration. “Sometimes you have to weigh the risks and benefits,” she notes.
Still, you should check in with a doctor before giving your kid any medication. This is especially true if your kid has any health conditions or medical concerns. And of course, follow the dosing recommendations on the package carefully. Heard notes that even though breathing issues are very rare, if parents do decide to give their kid medication that can cause drowsiness, they need to be vigilant and watch their child and make sure that they are breathing well, and that they don’t look off colour.
While many parents may be nervous about how their kid will behave on a long flight, in the end, Heard notes, they may not need to worry. “Probably because there is lower oxygen, people often get sleepy on an airplane flight, and tend to go to sleep anyway,” she explains.
But there are things you can do to set your child up for success on a long plane ride without choosing sedation. If they’re old enough, talk to them about what to expect. “Kids have imaginations and they may have seen on TV what an airplane’s like, but they don’t really know what it means and they can have a lot of anxiety,” she explains. Heard says reading books about plane rides can help.
If it’s a night flight, try to get them to sleep at their normal time. And if they’re relatively new to potty training, wearing a pullup diaper may be a good idea. Finally, if they’ve recently had an ear infection, she suggests you should anticipate they may have ear pain, so it would be fine to give them acetaminophen or ibuprofen 30 minutes before takeoff or landing to alleviate pain.
In the end, though, there are no guarantees for how a kid will react to a plane ride, whether you choose to give them medication or not. After her experience with Gravol on the way to Denmark back in 2011, she tried it again this past summer. They didn’t get sick, but while Erik slept through the flight, Meghan was up for the whole late-night journey.