Safety of Air Travel During Pregnancy

Pregnant woman getting ready to fly

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Pregnancy was once seen as something that sent women to their homes once their bellies began to protrude (hence the term "confinement"). It was not considered appropriate for pregnant people to be seen in public.

Nowadays pregnancy rarely changes schedules, with the exception of high-risk pregnancies or other complications. People usually can continue their normal lives for the duration of the pregnancy, with minor exceptions (like knowing where all the bathrooms are!). Travel is no exception.

Travel is becoming more prevalent as families move further and further apart. Traveling for holidays, or as the last trip to see the family before the baby comes, or as a last romantic vacation, is not unusual. This includes out of the country travel and often air travel.

The Science on Pregnancy and Air Travel

For ethical reasons, there are not many studies on air travel and miscarriage rates. One 2015 study showed a slight increase in first-trimester miscarriage for flight attendants, but this was often associated with high physical job demands and disruptions to their sleep cycles.

In-flight radiation is also a slight risk for flight attendants. An estimated 2% of flight attendants are exposed to a solar particle event during their pregnancies, although the amount of radiation varies by length of time in the air, the routes flown, and so on. However, the risk to the average flier is negligible. The average 10-hour flight only exposes fliers to 0.05 mSv of radiation, or 1/1000th of the limit set by the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists.

Precautions for Air Travel During Pregnancy

Flying is fairly safe while pregnant, even for flight attendants, with some minor adjustments. There are, however, some issues to bear in mind if you are pregnant and considering multiple, frequent, or very long flights:

  • Air travel is extremely dehydrating. You'll need to drink a lot of water while in the air.
  • Air travel requires that you sit still for long periods. If you're likely to experience cramps or other pregnancy-associated issues, you may be quite uncomfortable.
  • Airplanes are not equipped to handle in-air birth or pregnancy-related complications. Even if your airline permits travel, you may simply be smarter to stay on the ground if you're close to giving birth or are experiencing any pregnancy-related issues.

There are some precautions that a pregnant traveler should consider:

  • Talk to your practitioner before flying. If you are more than 36 weeks pregnant, many airlines will not let you fly for fear that you'll deliver on board.
  • Try to do the majority of your traveling in the second trimester. Not only will you be more comfortable, but in general the risks of miscarriage and preterm labor are lower.
  • Avoid excessive flying. Although there are no hard and fast numbers, one study found that flight attendants with higher miscarriage rates flew on average 74 hours per month.
  • Make comfort arrangements. Try to get seats with more legroom, plan to walk in the aisles, anticipate bathroom breaks, and bring water.
  • Avoid travel to countries that would require immunizations that you don't already have or are that are not considered safe for pregnancy. Talk to your practitioner for more info on immunizations during pregnancy, as some immunizations are considered appropriate while pregnant.
  • Because pregnant people are more vulnerable to COVID-19, you may wish to avoid unnecessary travel, particularly to high-risk areas.

So remember, flying is not contraindicated in an uncomplicated pregnancy, but use your common sense and speak to your practitioner about your travel plans.

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