true crime

Benadryl and baby care don’t mix…

Some time ago, I remember reading a story in the news about a woman who was on a flight with her toddler and the baby kept saying “Bye bye, plane”. A flight attendant told the mom that the child’s babbling was unacceptable and she needed to make him be quiet. The attendant said, “It’s not funny anymore. You need to shut your baby up.”

The mother asked the flight attendant if she was joking, and the flight attendant said, “You know, it’s called baby Benadryl.” Mom and son were kicked off the flight when Mom refused to drug her child. I remember being shocked when I read that story from 2007, but apparently, it’s not uncommon for people to slip diphenhydramine into their babies’ bottles in order to “shut them up”.

I was reminded of that story this morning as I read about the tragic case of 7 month old Abigail Lobsich, who died in February while being “cared for” by an unlicensed child caregiver at at Aliamanu Military Reservation in Hawaii. The babysitter, Dixie Denise Villa, was arrested July 20th, after investigators determined that little Abigail died from antihistamine overdose. The baby’s blood tested positive for diphenhydramine, the active ingredient in Benadryl. Abigail had a level of 2,400 nanograms per milliliter in her system. That’s almost twice the over 1,400 nanograms per milliliter reported in other babies who have fatally overdosed on the drug. Villa is being held on a $1 million bond. She’s unable to post that, so Ms. Villa remains in jail.

Villa, who is a Navy wife, was operating an unauthorized childcare facility on the base and had been investigated for neglect. Anna, Abigail’s mother, stated that her baby had been “perfectly healthy” since birth. Anna also left her son in Villa’s care, and on the day Abigail died, they had gone to the pool, along with Villa’s own two kids. After fixing the children dinner, Ms. Villa claims that she fell asleep on the couch with Abigail on her chest. When she woke up, the baby was “splotchy” and “cold to the touch”. But she claims all she did was put lotion on the children after they got sunburned.

Having taken Benadryl a few times myself, I know that just one tablet is enough to knock me out cold for a few hours. While Benadryl is very safe for adults, it is a powerful sleep aid. I know that some people think dosing a baby with antihistamines is a good way to keep them quiet. While Benadryl is basically a safe drug, it shouldn’t be given to children under age 6 without a doctor’s approval, and infants should never be given medications to make them sleep. Babies need to be able to wake up easily to protect themselves from choking when they spit up. Sleep medications can interfere with an infant’s ability to wake up enough to prevent choking.

Abigail is not the only baby who has died from a Benadryl overdose. Childcare providers, stressed from having to take care of several children at once, have been known to slip sleep medications into their charges, forcing them to sleep longer than they might naturally. It’s more convenient for the babysitter when the child is sleeping. They stay out of trouble and don’t make so much noise, which certainly makes the sitter’s job easier. But drugging children with an over the counter medicine like Benadryl is absolutely the wrong thing to do and, as we can see from Abigail’s case, it can lead to tragedy.

Naturally, I had to read the comments regarding this case, which was shared on Military Times and Army Times. Not surprisingly, some commenters focused less on the parents’ grief over losing their child and more on who’s to blame and what the punishment should be. Some posters felt the parents should be held responsible for using an unlicensed childcare provider. They seem to think that losing their baby due to a totally preventable cause isn’t punishment enough for Abigail’s parents.

While I agree that it might have behooved the parents to do their due diligence about whether or not Ms. Villa was authorized to run a childcare facility, I also know that in the civilian world, people hire teenagers to babysit all the time. I was babysitting when I was fourteen years old. I’m sure Villa seemed like a responsible woman to Abigail’s mother, particularly since she has her own children. Having a piece of paper from the authorities doesn’t necessarily make someone a good caregiver– it just means they have proven they received training and/or went through a vetting process of some sort. On military installations, there are stringent requirements for caregivers to be “licensed”, but first and foremost, a caregiver must have some intrinsic qualities that can’t necessarily be taught. Good judgment, kindness, work ethic, patience, and capacity to love can’t necessarily be measured by a license.

According to an earlier article about Abigail’s death, Ms. Villa’s childcare facility was shut down a few times for being unlicensed and having many violations. Unfortunately, good childcare facilities are hard to find and expensive. It’s been this way for a long time. I was even involved in a campaign regarding childcare when I worked in public health in South Carolina, before I became an “Army wife”. Many parents have trouble finding childcare that is accessible, affordable, and of good quality. I can see from the articles and social media that Abigail’s mom is quite young. I’m sure finding affordable childcare was a real challenge for her, moreso than it might have been for someone older, wiser, and perhaps more affluent (not that I’m claiming I know anything about Anna’s financial status).

Other readers think Ms. Villa should “get the chair”. I disagree with that notion, and she is not in any danger of that, since she’s being charged with manslaughter and Hawaii doesn’t have the death penalty, anyway. While Ms. Villa was certainly negligent and deserves to be punished, she still has children of her own who wouldn’t want to see her executed. Executing Ms. Villa will not bring back that precious baby, even if I can understand why people are angry enough to suggest it.

I feel sorry for today’s parents. It’s hard to know whom to trust. I know it was like that when I was a youngster too, but it seems like nowadays, there’s the shroud of anxiety that comes with everything involving childcare. People are always looking to parents to see if they’re doing parenting “right”. I’m sure Abigail’s parents are absolutely devastated by this… Abigail would have turned one last week and, if you search on Facebook, you can find a post that was shared last year, just as she was born. Who could have known that just months later, that sweet baby would be dead due to a babysitter’s decision to give her a “harmless” over-the-counter drug?

My heart goes out to Abigail’s family. I hope they get the justice they seek, but I also hope for Ms. Villa’s children’s sake, that the justice is tempered with mercy.