The biggest dream come true for anyone flying with an infant or toddler is having them sleep on a plane. In spite of booking flights at nap times and adhering to other travel tips and advice, that has rarely happened for us. Now my kids have slept a lot on lots of flights, but mostly they are too excited and quite nosy, so sleep does not come for them whenever I think it might. Typically, I bank on them (and me, obviously) being awake for the duration of a flight, and whatever shut-eye any of us actually achieve is viewed as a real bonus.
But I was mortified to read in the Globe & Mail about a father experimenting mid-flight with lorazepam with his 3 1/2 year old son to get him to sleep. I know that things like Gravol and Benadryl can make some kids drowsy, but when giving it to my kids for their prescribed reasons, it made them hyper. So–however I may feel about it–drugging my kids for a flight is not an option. The only consistent with my kids falling asleep on planes has been when we’ve taken a really early flight – they both pass out almost before take-off on every dawn departure. Other than that, I feel pretty ill-equipped to offer advice to get your baby or toddler to sleep on a plane without resorting to tranquilizers.
Luckily, I’m friends with two experts that are happy to share their expertise. Lianne Phillipson-Webb is a nutritionist and founder of SproutRight – Nutrition From Tummy To Toddler, and Tracey Ruiz is better known as The Sleep Doula – who has helped hundreds of families with infants and toddlers get their much-needed rest. I turned to them to ask about ways to help toddlers and little kids settle and fall asleep on a plane.
Tracey actually recommends night flights and red eyes, simply because there is less stimulation to keep your child alert and interested in their surroundings. She suggests following the bedtime routine you typically have at home, with a trip to the washroom to brush teeth, changing into pajamas, a snuggle with a story or song, and then cuddling into their special blanket or cuddly toy that you’ve brought on board. “Even if they don’t actually fall asleep right away, keeping distractions and stimulation to a minimum signals that it’s time to settle down and rest,” offers Tracey. That means switching off any gadgets or seat back entertainment, and turning off the reading light.
I turned to Lianne to offer a suggestion for snacks that would be good to induce sleep. I always try to limit sugary treats or juice until toward the end of the flight, so I would never offer them at bedtime. But I have heard about the power of a bedtime snack to induce sleepiness, and Lianne confirms this. “Oatmeal is a slow release carbohydrate, that is well liked and digested easily. Milk is also a sleep inducing food containing both tryptophan and calcium for restful sleep.” Sounds like for naptime flights and red-eyes, an oatmeal cookie (ideally juice sweetened or made with a minimal amount of sugar) and glass of milk are excellent go-to snacks for mid-flight rest.
But if you think a tranquilizer is the way to go, be smart about it. Consult with your doctor beforehand, and be responsible with the medications you choose and always use appropriate doses. For an article I wrote for Canadian Family magazine, Dr. Michael Rieder, chair of the Canadian Paediatric Society (CPS)’s drug therapy committee cautioned that “serious toxicity is rare, but rare is not never.” Remember – medicines like Benedryl and Gravol, that often have drowsiness as a side effect, also can have the opposite effect – hyperactivity. 30,000 feet in the air is not the best time to be experimenting with drugs on your child, so please make informed choices.