The drugging debate

Sedating howling children on long flights may be practical -- but is it ethical?

By Sarah Elizabeth Richards
April 25, 2006 5:23PM (UTC)
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So you're taking your toddler on an overseas flight and you've brought along your carefully selected, age-appropriate books, toys, DVDs and snacks. You've diligently monitored naps and mealtimes for optimum cooperativeness. But still, your kid decides to have a total meltdown -- and now the whole flight is shooting you mean looks. What's an exasperated parent to do?

Well, a little dose of children's Benadryl allergy medicine could knock him out and give everyone a break. But is that the right thing to do? That's the conundrum Sue Shellenbarger, a work and family columnist for the Wall Street Journal, took up last week in her piece "A Guilty Secret."


The Travel Industry Association estimates that leisure travel will rise 2 percent this year following a 4 percent increase last year, and that nearly one-third of travelers will be toting little ones. As more families travel with their kids, parents are increasingly dealing with the question of whether to sedate their children to avoid travel tantrums.

The issue is incredibly divisive, according to a poll conducted for the Journal by Of more than 3,600 respondents, about 33 percent said they'd never sedate a child in the air, 24 percent said they've never seen the need, 20 percent have thought about it, and 18 percent have done it and would do it again.

One mother posted a message to the site defending the practice as "the right thing to do for the child, the other passengers, the flight crew and yes, the parents as well," reports Shellenbarger. But another protested: "What kind of parent sedates their child?"


Pediatricians haven't reached a consensus, either. "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, former chairman of the American Academy of Pediatrics' National Committee on Drugs.

Most doctors do agree that Benadryl, which includes a sleep-inducing antihistamine, isn't dangerous. But it can backfire -- since 10 percent of children experience an opposite effect, becoming more alert and agitated.

Of course, drugging your offspring isn't an ideal solution to an in-flight frenzy. But it may be a rational response to a very unnatural situation, namely 100 or so people sitting arm to arm and knee to rump for hours on end in a metal tube hurtling through the sky. And regardless of one's child-rearing philosophy, it certainly doesn't help to give stressed-out parents a guilt trip -- especially if you want to watch the movie.

Sarah Elizabeth Richards

Sarah Elizabeth Richards is a journalist based in New York. She can be reached at

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