Friday, August 12, 2011

Baby Behavior in the News: Poll shows that 1 in 5 mothers medicate children to sleep

A few days ago, I signed onto the internet to check my email and I saw this headline: “What’s your deepest, darkest secret? Moms confess in our survey.” Given my roles as a mom and researcher, this headline caught my attention. This article, the first in a week-long series on the reality of motherhood, summarizes the secrets and confessions revealed in a online-survey of more than 26,000 moms, conducted by TODAY Moms and Most of the article focuses on assuring mothers that they aren’t alone, that parenting is a hard job, and that it’s normal to feel overwhelmed. Even as I got to the bottom of the page, my mind kept going back to the very first “secret” listed at the beginning of the article: “Nearly one in five moms admits medicating their child to get through a special event like a plane flight; one in 12 does it just to get some peace and quiet on a regular night.”

It turns out that this “secret” was the topic of the next article in the series, titled "Medicating your kids for peace and quiet: Is it ever ok?" In this article, the authors provide quotes from moms who describe using medications like Benadryl and Tylenol on a regular basis and commentary from NBC’s Chief medical editor, who seems to downplay the practice and the risks associated with it. Although she mentions the risks of overdosing or experiencing unexpected reactions, she also states that “every doctor she knows who’s a parent has tried this trick at some point.” The practice of using medications to “improve” sleep in young children is not new to us; we’ve posted on this very practice in the past (click here). In our previous post, we described several research studies about the use of antihistamines as sleep aides, but until now we haven’t seen it discussed so casually.

Before we continue discussing the survey results and article, I want to clarify a few things:

1. We completely understand what it is like to be a desperate parent who will do almost anything for a good night’s sleep. Having young children is a full-time, physically- and mentally-demanding job. I can honestly admit that it is the hardest job I’ve ever had.

2. Just because a medication is available over the counter, that doesn’t mean it is safe for everyone, nor should it be used for reasons other than intended. Children’s Benadryl is an allergy medication, not a sleep aide; the box clearly states “Do not use to make a child sleepy” and that it shouldn’t be given to children under 4 and only to 4-6 year olds with a doctor’s instructions.

3. We have not seen the actual survey used to collect these data. This is important to mention because the structure, wording, and order of survey questions can have a huge impact on the survey results.

While we acknowledge that dealing with infants can be challenging and we hope that the survey results are an overestimation, the fact that any parent feels like there is no other way to get peace and quiet is alarming. As a society, we need to ask ourselves 2 questions:

How did we get to the point where we drug our children to get them to sleep?
Like I said above, we get it. We’ve been sleep deprived and we’ve met mothers all over the country who’ve expressed dismay about their babies’ sleep patterns. Being overwhelmed as a parent is not something to be ashamed of; it is a fact of life. It seems that some parents have lost sight of the responsibility that comes with being a parent. While the short term goal is met by drugging children to sleep, parents don’t seem to be considering the long-term damage they could be doing. All medications come with risks for side effects and just as the article says, using medication to put babies to sleep on a routine basis is “depriving them of the chance to learn how to calm down and put themselves to sleep.”

What can we do to prevent this from happening?
This is a much harder question to answer. As a society, we need to change the belief that medicating children to sleep is acceptable and, in my opinion, that starts with doctors. If, as the physician interviewed for the article says, doctors condone this technique, that is the first thing that needs to change. Parents trust their doctors’ advice and by recommending that parents deal with their stress in this way, they are not only putting the child’s health at risk, but they are also harming the relationship between parents and their children. As we described in our original post, only one study has tested the safety of these medications in infants and another study suggested that over 50% of pediatricians have recommended them as solutions to sleep “problems.” Instead, parents should be educated about what to expect, how babies’ sleep patterns change over time, and why babies sleep the way they do. Parents need to be given tools to deal with the stress of parenting and support for when they feel overwhelmed. If you are a parent of newborn, reach out to friends and family and let them know you need some help with the chores or other children while you get a little rest. If you are a parent of an older child, call a friend with a newborn and offer to take the kids to the park or to fold the laundry.

When we started this blog 2 years ago, we started our welcome message saying “It's time to use a little common sense and readjust our thinking” (see the message on the left side of the screen, under the baby picture) and it still applies today. The purpose of this blog is to provide research-based information combined with real-world experience to help parents understand their babies. Over the next few weeks, we will be summarizing our past sleep posts to help our readers find the information they need. If you are a new parent, please look through our past posts and if you don’t find the answers to your questions, send us a comment. We’ll do our best to answer your question quickly.


  1. Wow. Personally, I think that if you are a parent who thinks that you have to medicate your child to get them to sleep on a daily basis, then you should probably be on medication yourself. I think it's disgusting. It's part of being a parent. If you can't handle a fussy baby for days on end without sleep, maybe you shouldn't be having babies. Just sayin'...

  2. Thanks for your comment. We do want to make sure that we all remember that sometimes people make decisions under pressure that they normally wouldn't make. Although we believe that this should never happen, we also understand that parents need ideas and solutions first and foremost. We'd love to hear advice from our readers about how they handle those tough long nights.

  3. My son had a serious and unexpected surgery at 9 months that permanently changed him from a 12-hour, through-the-night sleeper into a baby with all kinds of issues with sleep. All he wanted to do was nurse. All night long. I complied, having come so close to losing him. He is almost 3 now and still has some sleep issues, but the fact that he is alive and healthy is worth every sleepless night.

    The reason for my comment though is that when he was in the midst of regaining some form of a routine following this traumatic event, his doctor recommended that I give him Benedryl to try and help him sleep. I took the advice, but never gave it to him. Those following weeks were the hardest part of my life with him, even harder that when he was a newborn because he had been such a great sleeper. But me is what he needed at night, and that would only go away with time, not medication.

    I hope that moms reading this will allow time to help with the struggles of sleep, rather than any other intervention. It's hard to do in the midst of a troubled time, but things really do get better. They did for us anyway.


  4. I have never given benadryl to my girls to help them sleep. In fact, I've never had children's benadryl in the house to give them. I know it's the active ingredient in Tyl. PM for adults, but I just won't do it for my girls.

    However, I have given children's Tylenol in extreme cases for my girls. It was a last ditch effort on the thought that, in the midst of all this chaos and she's not hungry or have a dirty diaper, not hot or cold ... maybe she's teething or has a headache. I know I'm cranky when I have a headache. I've done it, but it's very rare. It is ALWAYS the last thing I try.

  5. This is horrifying! I hadn't seen the articles before you pointed them out, and I cannot believe that anyone would think is is okay to drug a child. Children's needs don't stop at night.

    We have never given our nearly two year old any medication, EVER. It's such a serious thing...I couldn't imagine giving drugs just "to give mommy a break".