Should kids on planes be sedated?

Some parents claim Gravol helps ensure a calm flight, but one mother vows never again


Sedate kids while travellingThis article was originally published Aug. 11, 2009

At a workshop at UBC called “Travelling with Kids,” the subject of sedating children for long-haul flights came up. The workshop was hosted by Sallie Boschung, a Vancouver French immersion teacher who has flown extensively with her two children all around the world. Boschung came with a list of tips for handling kids on the ground and in the air. How to spot a lost kid in the crowd? “Dress even teenagers in really bright clothing like fluorescent pink,” she told the group. For children younger than 11, tag their wrist with a hospital-type ID bracelet with an emergency number.

Boschung is against using any medication for the sole purpose of knocking a kid out on a flight, though she told Maclean’s, “I did mention that parents might consider using a decongestant for taking off and landing, in order to help unclog their child’s sinuses, thereby minimizing discomfort from changes in altitude—but first to consult with their family doctor. One of the side effects of decongestants is they may make children drowsy and I joked that on a long flight this may have an unintentionally positive benefit.”

Attending the lunch hour workshop in July was Sheila Thornton, a research scientist at UBC’s faculty of pharmaceutical sciences, because “I have a three-year-old son and my husband is Brazilian so we foresee a lot of travel in the future.” Also in attendance was her colleague, research scientist Dr. Kristina Sachs-Barrable, who has two young children.

Sachs-Barrable confessed that in June she gave Gravol to her two-year-old daughter on a return flight to Vancouver from Frankfurt. The drug did the opposite of what she’d hoped for, however, making her daughter unstoppably hyper. “I was scared,” Sachs-Barrable told Maclean’s. “Sheila probably told you we both work in pharmaceutical sciences. We have a little bit of experience with drugs and pharmaceutical ingredients but you don’t know what the reactions are going to be under that particular circumstance.” She was hoping “she would get some rest and we’d both be rested by the time we got back home because daddy was waiting at the other end and I wanted her to be in a good mood.”

Sachs-Barrable gave Gravol in tablet form to her daughter shortly after boarding. Soon she realized, “ ‘Oh God, what have I done to my child?’ She was running up and down the aisle, hiding behind the seats, and making eye contact with everybody around her and playing peekaboo.”

“I think her child was already excited,” said Thornton. “Every child is different. Every drug response is different. With respect to Gravol, the product drug monograph states the following under the ‘adverse effects’ heading: symptoms of excitement (especially in children) have been reported.”

Yet some parents aren’t afraid to praise the benefits of inducing a child’s sleep. Canadian biologist Dr. Katherine Barrett has a blog called TwinUtero. At No. 6 in her “ten tips for international travel with kids” is “sedate the children.”

Two years ago, she and her developer husband relocated from Ottawa to South Africa. The journey with their three toddlers involved an overnight flight to London, a full-day layover in Heathrow and another overnight flight to Cape Town. The flight to Heathrow was “hellish.” “Before the second flight, we decided to give them Gravol so we could get some rest. Parenting three young kids, especially during a transcontinental move, means we have to be functioning and responsive. We needed some sleep!” she told Maclean’s. “We gave Gravol to Alex and Thomas on the second flight. Just one shot—the recommended dose. I’m reluctant to give sedation my wholesale recommendation. But this time, for us, it worked.”

Barrett says, “When it comes to sedating a child for a flight, parents are less likely to admit it than, say, [saying they gave] a dose of Advil because the child seemed hot.” Using the term “sedating,” she says, “seems more selfish and less responsible.”

Sachs-Barrable now believes her daughter’s hyper reaction was caused by stress “she inherited from my nervousness. I was sad because I had to say goodbye to my parents. I think my daughter sensed something. And then the stressful environment of the airport, and the aircraft and the noise, and I think it went boom, completely the other way.” Never again will she give Gravol to her daughter on a flight, she says. “Absolutely not. On a plane, no way.”