Flying for Two: Tips on Flying While Pregnant

Air travel is perfectly safe for moms-to-be who hydrate, exercise and stick to short flights.

I’m not one of those mothers who loved being pregnant. Sure, the end result is pretty awesome, but the whole “8-pound-human-laying-on-my-lungs” part?

Not so much.

Not to mention all the doctors. Oy, the doctors! I was sitting in my obstetrician’s office when I wrote this, waiting for the vampire, er, lovely woman from the lab to take 100 vials of my precious life’s blood. Why do they need so much of it? Why, I ask!

Good times, people, good times.

Traveling with an extra human inside your body isn’t exactly a cakewalk, either. When I moved a few years ago to the Midwest from the East Coast (and no, I’m still not over it), I promised my family and myself that I’d visit them in New York as often as possible.

And last year, I did. I traveled solo through O’Hare International Airport seven or eight times, my then 2-year-old in tow. It wasn’t easy, but at least I could stash the kid in her stroller and make a run for it when our connections were tight.

When I was pregnant with my son? With an extra mumble-mumble pounds around my middle?

Let’s just say I was officially grounded. Which wasn’t easy—especially since my biggest pregnancy craving was bagels. Do you know how hard it is to get a decent bagel in the Midwest?

(I kid, I kid.)

Pregnant Precautions for Air Travel

I may not be one of them, but there are plenty of brave souls out there willing to board an airplane while gestating. However, being pregnant is a medical condition. While in most cases those nine months go off without a hitch, there are some precautions all pregnant women should take into account before they print that boarding pass.

Dr. Jennifer Ahn is an associate professor of maternal fetal medicine at the University of Illinois College of Medicine in Chicago, and she says that, for the most part, air travel is safe for those of us who are knocked up. Just make sure you plan to stay home beginning at month eight.

“The American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology guidelines usually state that women should not travel after 36 weeks,” Ahn says, “mainly because the changes in air pressure (on a plane) could send you into labor.”

Get Up, Stand Up

Ahn adds that pregnant women are generally at a higher risk for blood clots during long-term travel, and that you need to make a concerted effort to get out of your seat and keep your blood pumping.

Dr. Riva Rahl concurs with Ahn. A staff physician at the Cooper Clinic, a preventative medicine center in Dallas, Texas, Rahl says that hormonal changes in pregnancy increase your odds of developing deep vein thrombosis (DVT).

“Stasis is a risk factor for DVT, so getting up and moving around will lessen the risk,” Rahl says. “Some women choose to wear compression stockings to avoid swelling in the legs, particularly more problematic when flying.”

Ah, support hose. Pregnancy is just so sexy, no?

Take a walk around the plane, Rahl adds, or at least try to move your legs around while you’re seated. I do some simple leg exercises every time I fly, just to be on the safe side. I contract and relax my calf, thigh and gluteus (heh heh) muscles 10 minutes for every hour I’m in the air.

Then I tell myself that I can eat that extra chocolate chip cookie. After all, I’m exercising, right?

Shut up.

Some pregnant women are at an even higher risk for clotting based on their genetics, Ahn says, and she advises all mothers-to-be to consult with their doctors before they fly, especially if their medical history puts them in the high-risk category. You can even be at risk for clotting for several weeks after the baby is born.

Prevent Dehydration While Flying

Pregnant women are also more prone to dehydration, Rahl says, because their plasma volume increases dramatically. Turns out that making a person from scratch requires an awful lot of blood.

“Blood volume increases significantly while pregnant, so women will need to drink more to compensate for dehydration,” Rahl says. “If women are in a middle seat in coach, it would probably be less comfortable than if they were not pregnant. They may have to urinate more frequently. This could be a problem with all the delays and not being able to leave your seat!”

To avoid dehydration—which can also trigger pre-term labor—be sure to drink plenty of fluids, preferably water. Of course, passengers are no longer permitted to bring bottles of water or other drinks through security, so make sure you stop once inside the gate area and buy something to wet your whistle.

(Editor’s note: For international flights into the United States, check with the gate agent first to make sure it’s OK to bring liquids purchased after having gone through security onto the flight. It was fine on a recent flight from London, but water bottles and other liquids were confiscated at the gates in Beijing and Buenos Aires.)

Avoiding caffeinated beverages can also help prevent dehydration. Stick to water or juice and you should be just fine.

Speaking of dehydration, Rahl advises that women stick to shorter flights when they are with child. The longer the flight, the more opportunity for something to go wrong.

Stick to Short Flights

Ahn agrees that overseas flights should be limited, and she advises her patients not to travel abroad after hitting the 32-week mark. If you absolutely must make one last pre-baby trip to Paris, she says, make sure to bring a copy of your medical records with you.

“If you have complications (while you are abroad), it is much harder to get adequate care,” she cautions.

And what happens if you do go into labor while you’re 32,000 feet up? During a short domestic hop, the pilots may be able to make an emergency landing. But when you’re flying over the Atlantic Ocean, Rahl says, you’re out of luck.

“If there is a complication you are not able to quickly land the plane and access emergency medical care,” she says. 

Safe First Trimester Travel and Beyond

Now that I’ve scared your maternity pants off, take a deep breath. Both Rahl and Ahn agree that pregnancy isn’t a handicap, and you don’t have to cancel that romantic beach babymoon you’ve got planned.

Flying during your first trimester is perfectly safe, says Ahn, despite the rumor that it can trigger miscarriage. You are most vulnerable to miscarriage during those first 12 weeks, but 99 percent of incidents are due to genetic defects in the fetus.

You may, however, be extremely uncomfortable. Most women who experience morning sickness (totally a misnomer, by the way, you can barf at any time of day, trust me) do so during their first six to 16 weeks.

“The American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology says the second trimester is the best time to fly,” Rahl says. “You are not nauseated and you are less tired.”

Less tired, that is, if you are a first-time mom. Take it from me, that 3-year-old will suck every last molecule of energy right out of your body. Not that I don’t love my kid. I really, really do.

I just love her a lot more when we’re not in an airport. 

Themes: Family Travel