Is it OK to drug kids on longhaul flights?

PAIN-FREE TRAVEL: Is drugging kids the answer to peaceful flights?
PAIN-FREE TRAVEL: Is drugging kids the answer to peaceful flights?

Anyone who has ever flown long haul will have witnessed the distress caused to fellow passengers by screaming children, but what about the anxiety felt by the parents? Uncomfortable under the glare of irate travellers how far will some parents go to control their children?

The actions of a British mother, Shona Sibary, who admitted medicating her children to get them to sleep on long flights has sparked a furious debate on parenting and travel forums about the use of drugs in sedating children for convenience.

Sibary, a journalist, defended herself in the UK's Daily Mail: "I was held hostage to the relentless, nerve-jangling wailing of my inconsolable infant.  And so were the other 300 passengers. It was the looks of hatred on their faces - glares saying: 'Can't you do something about that dreadful noise, you ineffectual mother?' - that made me reach, in desperation, for the bottle in my handbag. One spoonful of a sedating medicine was all it took to knock out Flo. She slept for hours, blissfully drugged."

Sibary had used an over the counter medicine, Phenergan Elixir, containing promethazine a sedating antihistamine, on the recommendation of a friend who travelled regularly between Britain and Australia to visit family. "Usually administered on the advice of a GP to treat motion sickness or discomfort from certain allergies, it has become the secret weapon for many middle-class mothers embarking on long-haul flights. And it's one that has the PC brigade out in force, claiming that to drug children on a plane is tantamount to child abuse" she wrote.

Sibary's actions were pilloried on website forums. "I would never do that" wrote a member of the Australian migration forum PomsinOz. "You never know how your kid will react to meds and most importantly, drugging a kid for your or other passengers' convenience is unacceptable."

"I wouldn't dream of doing that. If they don't genuinely need it it's just wrong and can be seen as abuse," agreed another.

However Sibary is not alone. As one anonymous person posted on the Essential Baby website. "Phenergan. Yeah, I'm going to admit it. We trialled it before leaving (it makes some kids hyper) as DD gets travel sickness and the Dr said it would have the added 'bonus' of helping her sleep. It worked. I don't travel without it now."

"This is me" said another parent. "Wouldn't get on a long haul flight without it."

Dr Scott Dunlop, consultant paediatrician at Sydney Paediatrics says he would generally advise against giving it. "Overdosing might sedate a child too much, leading to breathing concerns," he says. "The main concern is that some children respond in the opposite manner to the intent, that is they become hyperactive. The induced sleep is often not very refreshing, but I suppose that's not what parents are giving it for."

Sydney mother of two Renee Welsh says she was close to trying Phenergan on her children to make them sleep on a flight, "We were travelling to Hawaii and we were considering using Phenergan. We had spoken to a number of friends that had used it when they were travelling just to calm the children down for a long haul flight and we for some reason we decided against it."

Welsh then witnessed an adverse reaction to the medicine first hand. "We met this other family and their daughter was literally climbing the walls of the aircraft. They were UK doctors living in Australia and they had used Phenergan on their three older children all the time and this was the first time they had used it on their daughter and what I didn't know at the time and I've since learned is that you can have the opposite reaction so instead of being sedated you can go completely hyper and she was an absolute nightmare the whole ten hours. She did not sleep once. She was just completely wired."

Welsh later discovered her son had a hyperactive reaction to the medicine when she gave some to him for a grass allergy. "I've never seen him so hyperactive and we were just thanking our lucky stars that we did not try that on the flight to Hawaii."

As for Sibary, she admits that even after giving another one of her children, who was then aged four, too much of the medicine and being unable to wake him when the flight landed, she has not been deterred. "Did it put me off using the medication on my children again, including my youngest, Dolly, three? No more than turbulence or the threat of terrorism have put me off flying. I've just got better with the timing of the teaspoon."

Would you drug your child on a longhaul flight?

- Sydney Morning Herald