'I gave him some Phenergan. An hour later I heard a blood-curdling scream'

It's a common kids' medicine many parents use to help them sleep on long flights - but it gave this toddler a horrifying reaction.

Flying with toddlers is a verifiable shit-show. I've written articles about it, read articles about it and spent many a sleepless night plotting decoys and distractions to try and make long-haul flights easier.

The lead-up to a recent Christmas holiday with our two-year-old to Canada was no different, except that this time, the same suggestion kept coming up from pharmacists, mum friends and the internet alike: give him a dose of Phenergan, and he'll enjoy a long, uninterrupted slumber instead of kicking the back of the seat in front of him for 16 hours.

We've had some horror plane experiences with this little guy ... Image: Supplied

We've had some horror plane experiences with this little guy ... Image: Supplied

I'd always been a little bit dubious about using medication like this - but after being assured by the pharmacist that it was fine for kids over two, and that "loads of mothers come in asking for it ahead of long-haul flights," I pushed my doubts to the side. After all, my own mother had assured me just that morning that she'd used it on my brother and I several times with no ill effects.

"Make sure you try it a few nights before the actual flight," she'd said, "some kids have a different reaction and it keeps them up for hours."

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As it turns out, a different reaction was exactly what we were in for, but it was so much worse than a few hours of hyperactivity.

We were looking for something to make the flight go more smoothly. Image: Supplied

We were looking for something to make the flight go more smoothly. Image: Supplied

It all seemed fine - at first

A couple of nights before we were due to fly, I measured out the correct dose of medicine and gave it to our toddler, Frankie, at bedtime.

I tucked him in, read him a story and left the room as his eyelids were starting to get heavy.

About an hour later, I heard the most terrifying, blood-curdling scream coming from his bedroom.

I dropped the clothes I'd been packing and bolted to his door, colliding with my husband who had heard it from the other end of the house and come running.

Inside his crib, our son was thrashing and kicking like his life depended on it, screaming "no no no no no!"

I picked him up to comfort him but the thrashing continued as if he couldn't even hear me, at which point I realised that he couldn't - he was having a night terror.

He'd experienced a night terror once before, about three months earlier, and I knew that the only thing to do was to make sure he was safe and let him ride it out. After another 30 seconds, the thrashing subsided, his breathing slowed, and he fell back into normal slumber.

Related: The Real Joys of Being a Mom

My beautiful boy. Image: Supplied

My beautiful boy. Image: Supplied

A long, scary, guilt-ridden night

No sooner had we left Frankie's room and regained our breath, and the screaming started again. Worried he would hurt himself in his crib with all the flailing around, we moved him - crying, shrieking and still very much asleep - into our queen bed and lay with him. I have never felt so helpless.

What followed was a long, sleepless and guilt-ridden night for my husband and I as we watched our son writhe in terror at whatever had invaded his sweet toddler dreams.

Every half hour or so another terror would begin, lasting a couple of harrowing minutes each time.

He kept calling out for me in his sleep, but I couldn't wake him to make the nightmares stop. All I could do was watch on, powerless to help him.

Some furious googling revealed that "nightmares, irritability and hallucinations" were among a few of the drug's possible side effects.

Further investigation turned up some horror stories on parenting forums from people whose kids had experienced similar reactions - as well as a hefty serving of mum-shaming from other commenters.

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While Frankie had his last episode at around midnight and finally settled into calm sleep, I didn't sleep a wink.

Watching my son sleep is normally a joyful experience - not that night. Image: Supplied

Watching my son sleep is normally a joyful experience - not that night. Image: Supplied

I don't blame anyone except myself

I'm not here to bleat about the dangers of Phenergan. It seems like the majority of people who use it have no problems whatsoever.

Likewise, I have no intention of trying to shame parents who use drugs like this for a few hours of respite on long-haul flights.

But having watched my son suffer through a night of horror inflicted by my own hand, I thought it was worth putting the information out there. Our experience might be the exception, but it came about because I didn't really stop to consider that a drug, whose brand name is basically synonymous with 'getting the kids to sleep', could have such a profound effect on my son.

Happy to have my happy boy back with no lasting effects. Image: Supplied

Happy to have my happy boy back with no lasting effects. Image: Supplied

Worse still, it appears that a night of bad dreams is actually one of the milder risks of the drug. Because of the changes in oxygen levels on a plane, using a sedative on your child is not recommended at all.

"You have to remember there is a lower oxygen level, and it is just not safe to be using sedative in airplanes for children at all," says Professor Paul Colditz, president of the pediatric division of the Royal Australian College of Physicians (RACP).

Acknowledge your kid's strong emotions. When your child's meltdown is over, ask him, "How did that feel?" and "What do you think would make it better?" Then listen to him. He'll recover from a tantrum more easily if you let him talk it out.

"A sedative not only suppresses the respiratory system, but may also cause floppiness of the airway tissue. So while the brain might be saying 'let's keep breathing', structurally the airway tissue could get in the way of that. All this is compounded by the lower oxygen on airplanes which is why we never recommend sedatives for children while flying."

Instead, Professor Colditz recommends taking measures to try and help your child adjust to the timezone of the country they're travelling to before you leave.

"Putting them to bed an hour earlier or later could help this," he says.

While we're still deep in school holiday territory, many parents will be making decisions about whether to give their children sedatives on car rides or long haul flights. If this is you, I'd like to gently suggest you consider this information.

As for Frankie, I'm pleased to report he woke up with no memory of his horror night, and - as if to prove a point - slept for almost the entire trip to Canada, without pharmaceutical intervention.

llies

Lesson learned.