Benadryl Baby: Should You Give Allergy Drugs to Calm Kids Before Flying?

Would you give your child Benadryl to calm her during a flight? (Getty)

My nightmare began at 10 p.m. on March 15 at John F. Kennedy Airport and lasted 12 long hours.  I boarded a transatlantic flight with my one-month-old baby girl and my 18-month-old son.  My goal was to spend the final month of my maternity leave with my family before going back to work.

My friends assured me that because it was a night flight, my children would sleep right through it. While no one conceded it would be a breeze, none warned me it would be akin to a scene from Dante's Inferno.

I do not blame my friends.  After all, I had travelled overseas with my son when he was 4 months old and then again two months later with no major issues.  The difference was I only had one child and he was a baby who could be calmed by breastfeeding.  This time, he was a fully mobile and highly opinionated toddler who, as my mother would say, "is very, very hyper."

Upon boarding the plane, my son proceeded to wreak havoc (screaming at the top of his lungs, "Aaaaalllll done!" throwing his beloved toy cars and and food treats at nearby sleeping passengers, climbing onto aforementioned passengers while running down the aisle away from his desperate mother and, of course, hysterically crying for no discernable reason).  He napped for only 30 minutes, during which time I sobbed while sitting on the edge of his chair.  Half way through the trip, one flight attendant who had retrieved my son far too many times tapped me on the shoulder and said, "Why didn't you give him something?"

"Give him what?" I asked, genuinely puzzled.

"You know!" she snapped, "Something to make him sleep!"

"But he's a year and a half," I retorted.

"So, what?!" was her comeback.

After I recovered from my trip, I recounted my misadventure to a group of mothers who regularly travel with their toddlers, fully expecting them to dismiss or condemn the flight attendant for her unsolicited advice.  Instead, they looked at me in shock and said - almost with one voice - "you didn't give him Benadryl or cough medicine or any antihistamine?"

The same advice was reiterated by two friends of mine when I returned to the U.S.  One friend endorsed it saying, "I'm all for it! Morphine!" while another  recalled how his sister had wanted to give her son 10 times the recommended dosage before boarding (he stopped her) and humorously added, "I believe we should petition the airline industry to remove emergency exits because I was going to use one mid-flight. It happened on the same flight as the one with my dear sister and my (non-Benadrlyled) nephew."

My flight attendant was not a lone voice in the airline industry.  I discovered that "Good Morning America" had done a story on it in 2007 when a flight attendant from Continental ExpressJet flight gave the same advice to Kate Penland, who was traveling with her 19-month-old son, Garren.  Her trip did not end as well as mine did, even though it seemed her son was much better behaved.

I decided to consult America's leading sleep and toddler expert, Dr. Harvey Karp, the creator of the DVD and Book, "The Happiest Toddler on the Block," and whose new book, "Happiest Baby's Guide to Great Sleep," will be on-sale June 12.  He laughed when I told him my story and said, "It's so funny because I had a patient with the same experience.  Their family was traveling from Los Angeles to South Africa.  So I recommended Benadryl, but their child had a 'so-called' paradoxical reaction to it, which means that the child was acting like she had taken speed and she was driving everyone absolutely crazy."

"You recommend Benadryl?" I asked in disbelief.

His response: "Benadryl can be helpful when you are taking young children on a plane."

He explained that in his first book, "Happiest Baby on the Block," the key premise is that all babies are born three months before they are fully ready for the world and, thus, there is the "fourth trimester."

In "Happiest Toddler," the most important concept for parents to understand is that toddlers are not as much little children as "little cavemen!"

"No wonder they want to run up and down the aisles of the plane," said Karp.

When you do decide to take your little primate friend on a plane, Karp advises parents to be armed with lots of treats and toys, which should be given to them in stages (keep some hidden in a pocket that you only reveal when you are halfway through the trip), and to be prepared to walk them up and down the aisle for as long as they need.

Benadryl, he added, may be a help to put them to sleep and make them less jetlagged.

"Always start with the dose on the package, but ask your doctor if you can give more if it does not make your little one sleepy," he recommended.

However, Karp cautioned, to find out whether or not your child will have the opposite reaction, the best strategy is to try a dose on an afternoon a week before the intended trip.  If the child becomes hyper, at least he or she would have time to run off their excess energy by bedtime.  If not, then it would be close enough to nap time without disrupting his or her sleep pattern.

Once you are at your destination, Karp advised exposing your child to a lot of sunlight during the day to regulate the brain's melatonin (a sleep hormone) and to dim the lights one hour before bedtime to fool the body into adopting the new time zone.

Dr. Blair Hammond, who is a general pediatrician with a focus on medical education at Mt. Sinai Hospital, has a slightly different point of view.

"People ask me all the time" about giving their children Benadryl or any antihistamines, Hammond said. "Technically, it is not recommended to give your children anything before they fly."

She agreed with Karp that you run the risk of your child becoming hyper from the medication instead of drowsy. (Hammond said about 5 percent of children will have a "crazy" reaction.) If at all possible, she advised doing other things like "packing a good game bag" and "treats."

She conceded that Benadryl is "technically safe" for children older than six months and if a parent opts to do it, and that, apart from testing it out first, the dosage is 1.25 mg per kilo and should not be given more often than once every six hours.  Hammond urged parents considering Benadryl before a flight to consult with pediatricians first because "every medicine has a side effect."

"I have two horribly behaved children on planes, but I have never given them Benadryl.  I would rather give them lollipops," she said.

However, Hammond does recommend that traveling parents should pack Tylenol, ibuprofen and Benadryl, along with a thermometer, in their travel pack because Benadryl would be used should your child suffer from an allergic reaction.

Good advice, Drs. Karp and Hammond.

However, I have no imminent plans to take my son on a plane any time soon.  My baby girl, for the record, was an angel and, thus, will not be relegated to my "no-fly list."

For all you traveling parents out there, please consult with your personal pediatrician before giving your children any medication. Treats, on the other hand, are a must!

Read Traveling With Young Children: A Survival Guide