The biggest dream come true for a traveling parent is having their toddler sleep on a plane. In spite of booking flights at nap times and adhering to other toddler travel tips and advice, that rarely happened for us.
Now my kids have slept a lot, on lots of flights, but mostly they are too excited and quite nosy. 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 sleep 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 I gave 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 and sleep 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.
Using Drugs to Get a Toddler to Sleep on a Plane
Years ago I wrote a piece for Canadian Family magazine (RIP!) about how I considered giving my then-two-year-old daughter some Benadryl to knock her out before a flight. Another mom and I were discussing trying it at the departure gate like two teenagers considering trying weed for the first time. I chickened out. She gave it a shot. We all survived! I’m not sure if her toddler slept. Mine ate cookies and chips and fell asleep as we were landing (as always!).
For the article, I interviewed a pediatrician about using drugs to get your toddler to sleep on a plane. 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.” For me that was enough of a warning to find other things to do to survive flying with a toddler with the bonus of getting them to sleep on the plane.
But, if you think a tranquilizer is the way to go, be smart about it. Consult with your doctor beforehand. Be responsible with the medications you choose and always use appropriate doses. And remember… Medicines like Benedryl and Gravol, that often have drowsiness as a side effect, also can have the opposite effect: hyperactivity. Regardless, being 30,000 feet in the air is not the best time to be experimenting with drugs on your child, so please make informed choices.
Drug-free Ways to Help a Toddler Sleep on a Plane
Luckily, I’m friends with two experts who were happy to share their expertise. Lianne Phillipson is a nutritionist and the founder of Sprout Right – Nutrition from Tummy to Toddler. Tracey Ruiz is better known as The Sleep Doula. Tracey has helped hundreds of families with infants and toddlers get their much-needed rest. I turned to them to ask about ways to help a toddler sleep on a plane.
To Red Eye or Not to Red Eye?
To help your toddler sleep 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.
Bedtime Snacks for Sleepy Flights
I turned to Lianne to offer a snack suggestions that would be good to induce sleep on a plane. I always try to limit sugary treats or juice until towards 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.” For naptime flights and red-eyes, an oatmeal cookie (ideally juice sweetened or made with a minimal amount of sugar) with a glass of milk is an excellent snack idea for mid-flight rest.
5 Tips to Help Your Toddler Sleep on a Plane
- Follow your bedtime/naptime routine as closely as you can on the plane. This includes changing into PJs, brushing teeth, songs and stories, etc.
- Keep distractions to a minimum. No screens, and turn out the reading light.
- Consider using your toddler’s car seat on the plane. Even if they are over two-years-old, they may feel more safe and comfortable (and likely to sleep).
- No sugary drinks or snacks.
- Consider something containing oatmeal and milk as a bedtime snack.
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