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By AOPA's Aviation Services Department November 2000
While there is plenty of information available for flying safely on an airline during pregnancy, flying in a general aviation aircraft is an entirely different subject. There are many concerns and questions about pregnant women flying in general aviation aircraft but the greatest safety issues seem to be what the effects hypoxia and inflight cosmic radiation would have on the fetus. Although hypoxia and in-flight cosmic radiation are important issues, they present no greater danger to pregnant women than they do for anyone else. Hypoxia has been shown to have little to no effect on the fetus and defects attributed to in-flight cosmic radiation are minimal and associated mostly with higher altitude flight. So does this mean it's safe? Under most circumstances ... yes. Does that mean you should hop right in the plane and fly across the country ... no. As with anything one does during pregnancy there are things you need to know and precautions that need to be taken before getting in the plane.
The first thing that needs to be done before any plans for a trip are made is to schedule a doctor's appointment. You should have an ultrasound to rule out placental problems and talk with your doctor to make sure that your pregnancy is classified as "low risk" (if your pregnancy is "high risk" then discuss with your doctor what your options are). Once these things are done, you can be assured that your chances of any complications during flight are minimal.
Once the doctor has determined that mother and baby are in good health then you can begin planning for your trip. The first thing to consider is when the best time to travel will be. Most doctors and the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) agree that the best time for flying is during the second trimester or the 4th through the 6th months. The main reason for this is that flight will be more comfortable than during the 1st and 3rd trimesters. By the 2nd trimester your body has had time to adjust to being pregnant. The initial fatigue of the lst trimester has tapered off some, leaving you with more energy and morning sickness is usually no longer a problem. Also, during the 2nd trimester you are still small enough that comfort won't be as big of an issue as it would be during the 3rd trimester. Also the risk of preterm labor during the 3rd trimester is greater than during the 2nd. Keep in mind however that this risk is not increased because of flight. Labor is simply unpredictable and flying too close to your due date could result in your baby being born somewhere other than where you planned. Once you and your doctor have determined when the best time is for you to fly, there are a few things that can be done to make the flight as comfortable and safe as possible.
When planning a trip it is necessary to schedule as many stops as possible even if this means increasing the length of the trip. Flying in a small aircraft does not offer the luxury of bathrooms and walking space that airlines do. You must keep in mind that pregnancy greatly increases how often you need to use the bathroom. Therefore, it is important to schedule as many bathroom stops as possible, not only for comfort but also to decrease the risk of a bladder infection. Another important reason to schedule frequent stops is to allow time for walking and a small amount of exercise. Sitting anywhere for long periods of time can make your feet and ankles swell and cause your legs to cramp. Walking and stretching regularly will keep your blood circulating which will help to keep this from happening. Exercise will also help you to avoid cramps and back pain as well as lower your risk for blood clots. When you are sitting in the aircraft you can do some simple stretches that will also help. Begin by moving your foot first forward then backward to stretch out your leg and your calf, then rotate your ankles and wiggle your toes to help keep the blood flowing.
So it's safe for you to fly. You've been to the doctor, you've got your medical records with you (just in case), you've scheduled bathroom stops... is there anything that can be done to make the actual flight more comfortable?
One of the biggest problems pregnant women have when flying is motion sickness. Even if you've flown everyday for the past 20 years and never gotten sick, pregnancy changes everything so you'd better be prepared. There are a few things that can be done to help prevent motion sickness. There are plenty of over-the-counter drugs available to help with motion sickness but they may not be safe to take during pregnancy. Be sure to talk to your doctor before taking anything. There are also herbal remedies available such as peppermint tea and ginger tea. Another idea that has worked for some people is a wristband designed to help with motion sickness by applying pressure to an acupressure point. It is also a good idea to bring some light snacks with you such as crackers, juice, and water to help with nausea.
A few other suggestions to make the flight more comfortable are to make sure you wear loose-fitting clothing and slip on shoes in case your feet swell. You may also want to bring some pillows for the flight.
In general, flight in small aircraft is as safe for pregnant women as it is for any other passenger (although maybe not as comfortable) but you must come to this conclusion based on your individual circumstances. Discuss your plans with your doctor before making any decisions and listen to your body.
AOPA thanks our members for their continued support in protecting the freedom to fly.