A six-month old baby recently died from an overdose of antihistamines given by her daycare provider. Here, an expert weighs in on whether it’s ever safe to medicate your babies before bedtime.

baby with pills on wooden table
Credit: MCarper/Shutterstock

In March 2019, a Vermont daycare provider was arrested in connection with the death of six-month-old Harper Rose Briar. Baby Harper died after being found unresponsive during her third day at Stacey L. Vaillancourt's licensed in-home daycare in January. Harper's autopsy showed the infant's body had high concentrations of diphenhydramine, the sedating ingredient found in Benadryl and other over-the-counter antihistamines.

 Per the Vermont Police Department, diphenhydramine should not be given to an infant without an order from a physician. Investigators determined there was no physician order regarding diphenhydramine for Harper, and the little girl's tragic death was ruled a homicide.

Harper's heartbroken parents, Marissa Colburn and Blake Briar, are upset and outraged over the infant's cause of death. As Colburn confirmed to Local 22 WVNY, neither she nor a physician had ordered diphenhydramine for Harper. "There really was no need for it," she said. "There is no need to give a healthy, happy baby anything to sedate them." 

This case raises a concern often expressed by parents: Is it ever safe to give antihistamines to a baby?

Are Antihistamines Safe for Babies?

Exhausted moms and dads may be tempted to give their kids antihistamines like Benadryl before road trips, airplane rides, and other big events. In fact, a 2011 poll by TODAY Moms and Parenting.com found that one in five mothers admitted to doing such a thing. The poll also found that one in 12 moms give their kids drowsiness-causing medicines on a normal night. The main reason: They simply want some peace, quiet, and alone time.

Although this practice seems innocent enough, parents should never give babies antihistamines without consulting their physician – especially if the child is under two years old. “We use antihistamines in babies all the time, but that’s under a doctor's order and used in a controlled setting,” says Dr. Dyan Hes, Medical Director of Gramercy Pediatrics. For examples, doctors may prescribe Benadryl for motion sickness or allergic reactions, but only if the treatment seems necessary.

There are several medical reasons why parents shouldn’t give their baby antihistamines without approval from a physician. For starters, ten percent of people have a contradictory reaction: hyperactivity. Antihistamines can make some babies completely hyper, says Dr. Hes. She adds that other possible side effects are convulsions and irregular heartbeat. Accidental overdose is also a concern, which is why it’s vital to get a doctor’s opinion on dosage based on your baby’s weight.

What’s more, Dr. Hes emphasizes that inducing sleep with antihistamines won’t cure a baby’s insomnia. Rather, the medications will mask your infant's problem instead of treating it. “It’s like putting a bandaid on it,” she explains. “The babies will never learn how to fall asleep on their own when they’re always given antihistamines.” To promote sleep in a healthy way, try establishing an effective bedtime routine that works for your little one.

But what if you’re heading on a super-long flight, and you're scared that Baby will cry the entire time? Dr. Hes gives straightforward advice: plan for the ride and keep them occupied. “Most babies fall asleep without antihistamines on a plane,” she says. “If babies cry on a plane, they might cry at home during that time, too. It's not because they're on a plane necessarily.”