Most pregnant women who want to travel this holiday season should not fear that flying will cause complications or bring on motherhood a little sooner than expected.
According to new recommendations from the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology, healthy women with low-risk pregnancies can safely fly up until their 36th week, or one month prior to their due date.
Women who should not fly at any time during their pregnancy are those at risk for complications or pre-term delivery, including women with poorly controlled diabetes, pregnancy-induced high blood pressure, or sickle cell disease — which can be worsened by high altitude.
Can Flying Induce Early Labor?
Despite the experts' assurances, some women remain wary of flying during pregnancy.
Bonita Heilman went into labor in her 34th week, four hours after a flight from Minneapolis to Chicago to attend the wedding of a college roommate.
This was her first pregnancy, and according to Heilman, she had been considered low risk. "My doctor recommended that I not go," she says. "But she wrote me a note to tell the airline what week I was in."
Northwest Airlines, for example, currently requires a note from a physician if a woman seeks to fly within one month of the due date. At the time Heilman flew, 34 weeks was the cutoff.
Her daughter Katie, now 4, was delivered 400 miles from home by Caesarean section.
"They don't really know if flying was the cause of the early delivery," says Heilman. "They said that it was one of the bigger indicators because it was so early and it was very coincidental. They don't ever really know."
Heilman, now the mother of two and currently expecting a third child, says she won't board a plane until after the birth. "I will never fly again when I am pregnant. I won't take that chance."
Expecting Safe Flights
Most experts say it is unlikely that flying will cause pre-term delivery.
"I don't think that there is any evidence to suggest that flying can cause women to go into labor," says Dr. John Repke, chairman of the department of obstetrics and gynecology at the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha. "There is a lot of myth and mystery that surrounds pregnancy still, and it is very difficult to sort out what the details in any individual case may be."
The new guidelines point out that while flying is safe for most pregnant women, there is some need for caution.
"There are things to be concerned about, but they tend to be the same things that all travelers have to be concerned about," says Dr. Carol Archie, associate professor of obstetrics and gynecology at the UCLA School of Medicine.
Prolonged sitting on long flights can cause dangerous blood clots, which Archie says pregnant women are at a slightly higher risk of developing than the general public.
"Flying is also very dehydrating," adds Archie. "And when you get dehydrated in pregnancy you tend to start having contractions." But Archie points out that these contractions do not necessarily indicate labor.
To prevent these concerns from becoming serious problems, experts recommend expectant mothers stay well hydrated and get up and walk around the airplane when it is safe to do so. And they say pregnant women should take into account that there are often longer waits at the airport due to heightened security in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks. It's important to drink plenty of water before boarding the plane, they say.
As always, patients should discuss their travel plans and concerns with their obstetricians. "There are always going to be some extraordinary circumstances where these guidelines may have to be abridged," says Repke. "But those will be handled on a case-by-case basis by provider, by patient, and maybe by the transportation service."