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Ask Dr. Sears: Traveling While Pregnant

Q. I'm 33 weeks pregnant. Is it safe to travel by airplane on a cross-country trip?

A. Unless your obstetrician advises otherwise, it's generally safe to fly long distance at this stage of pregnancy. Keep in mind that some airlines prohibit air travel in the last four weeks of pregnancy and, if you look obviously near term, may require a note from your health-care provider stating your estimated due date (restrictions vary from carrier to carrier, contact the individual airlines for details). Even if your airline does not require a note, it's still a good idea to bring one along.

Since the larger airplanes used for coast-to-coast travel have pressurized cabins to compensate for the lower levels of oxygen at high altitudes, cross-country travel is theoretically safer than short, small-aircraft commuter flights. These usually fly at low altitudes and are therefore not pressurized.

Spending a short time in an unpressurized cabin is unlikely to harm your baby (a baby's oxygen level in the womb is already lower than mother's), but it can—very rarely—reduce the oxygen level in your own blood, causing you to feel lightheaded. Oxygen levels can fluctuate even in a pressurized cabin, so you may feel lightheaded in either setting. If you experience lightheadedness or are disoriented, ask the flight attendants for some oxygen.

Traveling while pregnant is not an easy task. Try these tips for making your trip safer and more comfortable:

  • Seek help. Don't carry heavy luggage yourself. Ask an attendant to help, or use a pushcart. Don't stretch or reach into overhead compartments for your heavy luggage. If you need to walk a long way from the ticket counter to the gate, request a wheelchair or ask for a ride in one of the golf-cart-type vehicles that many airports now offer for travelers needing assistance.
  • Seat yourself for comfort. Request a seat as far forward on the aircraft as possible. Not only does the air circulation seem to be better in front, it's also easier to get on and off the plane. Most mothers prefer an aisle seat, which makes it easier to get to the bathroom. A bulkhead seat has the most legroom, but the armrests are often stationary and may prevent you from stretching out should the adjacent seat be vacant. Exit rows also have more legroom, but pregnant women are not allowed to sit in these rows because your ability to assist people in an emergency is obviously compromised. If you are traveling with a companion, request a window and aisle seat, and ask that the middle seat be left vacant if the flight is not full. This will give you some extra space.
  • Position yourself for comfort. Cushion your growing body with extra pillows. To lessen the swelling of your legs and feet, elevate your feet by using your carry-on bag as a footrest. You may even want to take along a roomier pair of shoes or some slippers to put on in case your feet swell.
  • Walk down the aisle. Taking frequent strolls up and down the aisle can lessen the swelling of your legs and feet.
  • Drink up. The low humidity of the air inside the plane's cabin dries out the mucus membranes of your mouth and nose, and contributes to dehydration. Drink lots of non-alcoholic, caffeine-free fluids before, during, and after the flight. Since the sinuses and nasal membranes are more sensitive to humidity changes while you're pregnant, try a "steam clean" during the long flight by inhaling the steam from a cup of hot water or caffeine-free tea. You can also take along a tiny squirt bottle of saline nasal spray (available at pharmacies) and spritz a few sprays into your nose several times during the flight.
  • Enjoy comfortable cuisine. Because the airline meal is unlikely to be of sufficient quantity (and is even less likely to be friendly to your queasy stomach), it's best to pack your own already-tested munchies. If you prefer to eat what they provide, call ahead to request a vegetarian meal, which is likely to be less greasy and more settling to your stomach. Avoid gassy foods, since low cabin pressure can cause intestinal gas to expand and contribute to bloating. Also, it's a good idea to take along tiny bags of your favorite snacks to nibble on throughout the flight.
  • Keep your air clean. Obviously, avoid traveling on a smoking flight. While smoking is no longer permitted by most major U.S. airlines on domestic flights, some foreign routes and carriers still allow it.

Since a pregnant woman often brings out the best manners in travelers, especially flight attendants, expect to be treated like a queen when you travel. You deserve it!

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