By Vicky Anscombe on 30 October 2015

Medicating children before a long flight or car journey is a hot topic for parents.

Whether you’ve got just the one or a large brood, whether they’re well-behaved or a little jumpy, it’s a question that often crosses parents’ minds; and, as expected, it’s hugely controversial.

We spoke to some parents about their views on medicating children before journeys - and the reaction they’ve had from other parents.

“I always used to give my youngest son Calpol before a long flight; he was always over-excitable and used to get overtired so quickly, so I didn’t want to risk it. It used to work, to be fair - he’d often sleep soundly, and my husband and I never gave him more than the recommended dose.

“I did sometimes come up against some parents who didn’t like what I was doing, especially if they saw me giving him Calpol on a flight, but I did it for others, too. What would you rather have sitting next to you - a sleeping child, or an overexcited, tearful one who won’t sit still? I don’t regret what I did, and I’d do it again now. He was always absolutely fine and it never had any nasty side effects. It’s the same as an adult taking a sleeping pill.”

Carol, Manchester

“I’d never, ever medicate my child, not even to keep them quiet on a flight. What happens if something goes wrong; if they have an allergic reaction, or you accidentally give them more than you should?”

Twiggy, Bury

“A few years ago, I gave my 12-year-old half a sleeping tablet before a flight, as she was a bit nervous. It was fine. I didn’t tell my husband, though - we just kept it between ourselves.”

Sarah, London

“I’d never medicate my daughter; there are plenty of distraction techniques that you can use to entertain children on long journeys. Having said that, my longest flight with Ena has only been four and a half hours. We’ve also survived a ten hour journey home from Somerset because our car broke down, plus an eight hour wait at Faro airport after flight delays, without the need to drug her!

“I would never self-medicate myself for that purpose so I wouldn't even contemplate doing it to a little human, but everyone is different and has different experiences I guess. I can imagine some children can get themselves very worked up. Ena has, so far, been a very good traveller.”

Emma, Surrey

Boy at window

We decided we’d get a doctor’s opinion to settle the matter for once and for all, so we spoke to Philippa Kaye, who is a GP specialising in babies and children.

What are your views on medicating children before journeys?

Travelling long distances with children can be a fraught experience! Tiredness, irritability, being cooped up for a long time combined with sore ears from the pressure changes can lead to fretful children, and we have all experienced a flight with a crying baby.

However, it is not recommended that children are medicated to sleep during journeys. The medications used are generally antihistamines, which do not have sedation as their primary purpose, rather as a side effect, and may have other risks including over-sedation.

Also, while I realise that travelling with children can be difficult, it is a choice and there are ways to make the journey easier without resorting to medicating a child unnecessarily. There is also the risk that they can have the opposite effect, making a child more hyperactive and alert! Other more dangerous reactions can include changes in heart rate or seizures.

Why has it become such a commonly-known practice?

Parents have been using medication to sedate children for many many years, with mothers in Victorian times using gin and even laudanum to keep their babies quiet. However, it's something I disagree with.

What do most parents tend to use?

If you are going to use a medication, and obviously as mentioned above it is not recommended that you do so, then speak to a pharmacist or doctor first so that you give the correct dose and to be sure that any medication does not interact with any other medication they may take, or is not contraindicated for any other reason.

Do not give the first dose of any medication for the first time when you are in the air, and therefore away from medical help.

What are some safe alternatives?

There are not any medications which should be used for the purpose of sedating children for travel. Instead, you should focus on how to help with changing time zones and keeping your children well-fed, hydrated and distracted with plenty of toys!

Several parents say they’ve medicated their children, and everything was ‘fine’. What are your views on this?

I think that we have to be careful of anecdotal evidence where people talk about their own experience, or that of a few people, as opposed to large studies involving many hundreds or thousands of people, which give a better view of a medication. So even if a few parents say that their kids were fine, it does not mean that yours will be.

Dr Philippa Kaye works as a GP in London. She is a regular contributor to BBC Radio and magazines, and is currently the resident medical expert for leading pregnancy magazine Junior. Her website is here. You can also follow her on Twitter here.

Dr Philippa's new book, The First Five Years, is available here.

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