Something Special in the Air

This summer, there were two reported stories of babies born mid-flight on an airplane. One was on an international flight while the other was a domestic U.S. flight from Fort Lauderdale to Dallas. In both instances, the pregnant mothers were close to term and had uncomplicated pregnancies. Additionally, both women went into labor and delivered quickly once the flight took off.  While I have never delivered a baby on an airplane, each time I fly I admit that I scan my fellow passengers and always zero in on any woman who is visibly pregnant. I am seeing more and more pregnant women on planes lately. I feel like it’s only a matter of time before my services and skills may be needed on a plane. A significant number of women continue to work, commute, and travel for both work and pleasure while pregnant. Frequent questions I get asked, then, include “Is it safe for me to fly?” and “At what point do I have to stop flying?”

Airline travel is extremely safe for all passengers, including pregnant women. The issue with flying surrounds the mechanisms that allow air travel to occur, specifically the way the planes are pressurized so they can stay airborne for extended periods of time. Remember, the baby is floating inside the uterus within its amniotic sac and fluid. The pressurized plane, then, minimizes the normal pressure gradients that exist thanks to gravity; fluids do not move freely from one compartment to another. People notice this when they need to chew gum to “pop” their ears, become too gassy on a plane, or have swelling to their hands, feet and ankles. The uterus, then, becomes crampy or irritable and can possibly contract with regularity.

Photo by Ashim D’Silva

Your Flight Plan

For uncomplicated pregnancies, I advise women that they can travel up to their 36th week. However, I go over a “Flight Plan” with them to keep them safe while travelling.

  • Book an aisle seat- it’s less confining and it’s easier to get up, stretch, or walk from one end of the plane to the other several times during the flight
  • Speak to your flight attendants- let them know you’re pregnant. Flight Attendants are charged with keeping all the passengers on the plane safe. I have never met a flight attendant who has not gone out of their way to accommodate a passenger’s special needs. They can keep bringing you water or may stop frequently to check how you’re feeling. Plus, in an emergency, they will be aware that you may have limitations with movement and can plan ahead for the unexpected before the plane ever takes off.
  • Drink plenty of water- it’s very easy to dehydrate on a flight. The extra water will help decrease any uterine irritability, plus it will give you the urge to get up regularly and use the bathroom
  • Do leg exercises while seated- pregnant women have a stronger propensity to clot due to the hormones of pregnancy that is increased when flying in a pressurized airplane. Flexing and extending the lower leg muscles several times an hour, plus rotating the ankles several times in each direction, helps contract the muscles that surround the blood vessels to prevent pooling of blood in the lower legs. Even better: walking or stretching if permissible several times during the flight up and down the plane. Ask your practitioner if wearing compression stockings or panty hose would benefit you for the flight.
  • Seat belt use throughout the flight- air travel can be bumpy so seat belts keep you secure in your seat. Make sure the lap belt is underneath your abdomen, not across it.
  • Wear loose, non-constricting clothes for comfort and to minimize unnecessary compression of the arms, legs, or abdomen.
  • Avoid gas-producing foods before the flight. Flying can cause excess gas that can lead to cramping and discomfort
  • Have a back-up plan. I help women locate the nearest hospitals that have an Obstetric service in the areas where they are traveling. This is an important consideration: not every hospital delivers babies, and in some remote areas within the U.S. and internationally the nearest obstetrician or midwife could be miles- or hours- away. Women should have the addresses and phone numbers of several hospitals or clinics on them while traveling. Additionally, request a copy of your prenatal records to carry with you in the event you need them.
  • Consider travel insurance. Depending on your credit card or frequent flyer plan you might not need this, but often flights are booked weeks in advance and the cost to cancel are high. Having insurance may give you back some of the money you spent in the event your pregnancy grounds you.

It is important to note that many airlines have travel restrictions for pregnant women. Check with your carrier and inquire what their rules are. It might also be helpful to consider alternate modes of travel such as a car or a train.  

Share Your Experience

What are some of your travel tips? What do you do to prepare for a trip, and what do you do on a flight? Leave a reply below to share your tips!

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